How Sales Can Build Better Digital Relationships with Prospects

There’s been one constant over the last year and a half: change. Change in the working environment, change in the tools companies are using, and change in how buyers seek information and make purchases.

Now more than ever, trust is important in the buying process as prospects continue to carefully consider purchases. But sellers have been challenged to build trust through relationships. They’ve lost many of the main methods they once relied on: trade shows, networking events, site visits, in-person meetings, conferences, etc.

ANNUITAS Research conducted interviews with sales leaders across industries to see how this change has impacted both sales strategy and day-to-day life. Our findings closely corresponded with what the market is seeing: 96% of B2B sales teams have shifted (in full or in part) to remote selling.

“I will be floored if we ever go back to 50% travel. We were seeing this even before COVID: customers had gotten less and less likely to approve travel budget. That was already getting tough in 2019. It will bounce back some, but I don’t think it will ever go back”.

— ANNUITAS Research interviewee

However, almost a full third of decision makers say the approach is less effective than what sellers had going pre-2020. No question about it: salespeople need to adapt (and quickly) to a digital-first approach that actually works.

In this breakdown, we share three concrete changes you can adopt within your own organization to build better digital relationships. (Before you ask: simply adding more Zoom meetings and video emails is not the way.)

#1: Hire and train more inside sales

With the sudden shift to remote work at the start of COVID-19, a significant portion of sales leaders were forced to adapt their team dynamic by transitioning their field reps to inside sales—or furloughing them all together.

It was a stop gap, not a long term solution. Now, sales leaders are reevaluating their strategy entirely to determine what has or hasn’t worked to create a go-to-market plan for the future of their business.

“At the beginning of COVID I said we should get rid of our field salespeople, turning everyone into inside sellers. Everyone was against it. Now we’re heading there. Our sellers aren’t out visiting customers—everyone is doing inside sales. We used to have 12 people acting as large account managers, with the rest focused on inside sales. Now we have 32 inside salespeople.”

– ANNUITAS interviewee

While the quick shuffle might have been temporary, its implications are not: in the past year, research has found that almost half of B2B buyers prefer remote human interactions when identifying and evaluating new suppliers. That number drops slightly to 42% for making orders—but the difference is absorbed by an increase in those who prefer digital self-service, not in-person interactions.

In fact, only 30% of B2B buyers prefer in-person interactions when evaluating new vendors (that number drops to 16% for renewals).

All signals point to this being a long-term shift in thinking, not a temporary response to the pandemic. In short, it’s time to double down on your inside sales team. But sales leaders shouldn’t go into this grudgingly; inside sales boasts plenty of benefits over field sales.

Inside sales provides:

Increased opportunity/lead cost efficiency. Inside sales reps have a lower price tag than field sellers and can cover more ground in a day. When utilized correctly, they have a huge impact on qualifying and converting leads, resulting in a lower opportunity cost.
Faster time to qualify. Between self-service information and quick calls between reps and prospects, inside sales helps you focus on the right leads without a long lead time.
Ease of scale. Inside sales can easily scale your outreach volume (either through automation or tightened lead qualification standards) relative to the number of qualified leads generated by demand marketing.
Adaptability to changing environments. While some companies may still prefer an in-person office, there’s no denying that inside sales is more adaptable to a work-from-anywhere, reluctant-to-travel reality.

There’s one more benefit to doubling down on inside sales: it’s turning sales into more of a science than an art.

Inside sales requires a special set of skills to sell effectively. These reps are building relationships, but they don’t typically rely on body language, atmosphere, peer pressure, or camaraderie. Instead, they rely on the data, research, and outreach tools available to them to solve a prospect’s challenge.

As you ramp up hiring, you must enable these sellers just as effectively as you once did for field sales—if not more. Get the right tools in their hands and they’ll be off to the races (metaphorically speaking).

Read More: Four Steps to Maximize the Impact of Inside Sales

#2: Start Selling Proof of Concepts

Few sales leaders are confident they can deliver against revenue goals (just 6% of Chief Sales Officers according to Gartner). Most say changing buyer preferences are directly impacting sales—whether that’s more conservative decision making, new preferences as a result of remote work or increased digital expectations.

Turn this challenge into an opportunity by offering proof of concept projects and solutions. With proof of concepts, you can build trust to speed up customer acquisition.

“Previously in pre-sales, you would spend a ton of money to land a big client. But we’ve stopped doing that. We used to have the scope of work process drag on forever, but now we’ve stopped trying to convince them. Most customers will approve a small spend at first to let us come in and prove our value; then we credit it towards implementation if they sign on”.

— ANNUITAS Research interviewee

Proof of concepts can ease risk-averse buyers into your solution and prove value faster with smaller scopes of work.

As buyers continue to adapt to changing markets, proof of concepts will help you continue to hit sales goals even when larger buying decisions are still up in the air. Instead of pushing for signatures on large-scale projects and services right off the bat, salespeople will be better off meeting potential customers where they are while simultaneously increasing customer lifetime value.

#3: Learn how to give buyers what they want, not what you think they need

Buyer behaviors are changing the way sales connects and builds trust with potential customers.

As B2B buyers spend less time with sales reps and more time online, sales teams need to be better armed with the right tools and buyer-centric sales enablement resources to help move the buyer along in the sales cycle.

To do this, sales teams need to learn how to translate online behaviors into meaningful conversations. Your teams should be able to assess a buyer’s journey and leverage that information when presenting solutions. You can achieve this level of meaning by assessing:

● Which content pieces has the lead engaged with?
● Are there any pieces that have been read more than once?
● Which content pieces have been forwarded to colleagues?
● Are multiple people from the same account looking at the same content or different content?

Use those insights for better, contextualized follow up conversations.

Read More: Translating Online Behavior Into Personalized Conversations

But there’s a bigger picture here, too: buyer behavior has changed and it may never go back to the way it used to be. This shakes out in a few different ways:

● You may no longer be selling to the same people. “Previously, my team was dealing with middle management. Now we’re going straight to the C-suite,” one ANNUITAS Research interviewee told us. At the very least, buying committees have expanded so you’ll undoubtedly be dealing with new decision makers. Take the time to understand what they care about.

● You may have to soothe fears about change. According to one ANNUITAS Research interviewee, “customers are very reluctant to make decisions now.” CFOs are getting involved in increasingly smaller deals, CIOs and IT leads may be more reluctant to launch a large scale digital transformation initiative, and plenty of functions are still focused on simply holding down the fort. Be ready for those conversations, and come alongside as a partner in the change we’re all facing.

Perhaps most importantly, you’re competing for a prospect’s time now more than ever. Any given sales rep has roughly 5% of a customer’s total purchase time, according to Gartner.

The rest of the buyer’s time is spent on independent research, meeting with their buying committee, and talking to others in the space about their solutions offline.

While you may no longer be able to meet face-to-face, the new gold standard is defined by digital relationships—guiding the buyer, not selling to the buyer. Sellers need to be ready to meet the buyer where they’re at: sometimes through self-service information, sometimes with a thoughtful and personalized follow up. They might not get a second chance to build a meaningful digital relationship.

To learn more about this topic read:
Translating Online Behavior into Meaningful Conversation
Four Steps to Maximize the Impact of Inside Sales

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