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Four key sales challenges for B2B brands in 2018

7th Feb 2018
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The survival of the global economy depends on keeping products moving through the supply chain. Unless products move seamlessly from manufacturer to supplier to retailer and – eventually – the end-user, people won’t be able to buy the products they want or need. In short, without an efficient supply chain, there is no sales process.

Businesses within the supply chain – primarily manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers – must work hard at forging relationships and selling to one another. These businesses can’t afford to fall out – or to fall behind on industry trends. And yet, the importance of these relationships is often overlooked.

With the new year comes a new set of B2B sales challenges. My company, sales-i, decided to investigate the challenges facing the supply chain in 2018. To do this, we surveyed 233 industry executives across the manufacturing, distribution and wholesale sectors – here are four of the key findings. 

  1. Customer loyalty and retention are essential

This is not a new challenge, per se – nor is it specific to any one kind of business. And yet retaining customers and building loyalty is a perpetual issue for most companies. It is arguably more of a challenge in the B2B environment, since B2B sales cycles are typically longer and more complex than B2C sales cycles. What’s more, businesses, especially those in niche industries, simply experience fewer qualified opportunities.

Our survey revealed that 59% of businesses view winning and retaining new customers as their biggest challenge in 2018. Up and cross-selling to existing customers is a struggle for 38% of companies. One solution to these challenges is for salespeople to focus on more proactive selling – instead of just reacting to the opportunities that appear naturally.

This proactive approach to selling applies to both acquiring new customers and encouraging repeat purchases with existing customers. To do this successfully, salespeople need to fully harness the data-driven insights offered by their CRM, BI, ERP and other software systems. This will enable them to analyse past buying patterns and anticipate future needs. Personalisation, after all, is the key to developing long-term customer loyalty.

  1. Critical skills shortages must be addressed

Our research shows that 65% of companies will make hiring salespeople their recruitment priority this year. B2B companies tend to struggle more to find top salespeople than their B2C peers – especially if they operate in niche or complex industries.

The more specific the sector, the smaller the pool of sales opportunities – and, correspondingly, the smaller the number of experienced salespeople. Any identified opportunities need to be cultivated beyond simply closing the deal – with a view to retaining the customer in the long term. This is why hiring talented salespeople are so important.

If businesses can use technology to streamline inefficient processes and support ‘gut instinct’ with real data (in effect, allowing salespeople to focus on what they do best) they will be more likely to attract talented candidates.

  1. Digital technology and e-commerce are on the rise

The future of the supply chain is inextricably linked to digital innovation. New business technologies are crucial in shaping the sales process and 61% of businesses agree that there are big opportunities within automation and the rise of smart factories. Only 5% believe these innovations are a threat to the way they work. The real impact of digital technology remains to be seen, but the potential alone has created much interest and excitement.

E-commerce, another exciting trend gaining attention, is primarily associated with B2C – but is starting to make waves in the B2B world too. In fact, we are seeing more and more B2B companies adding an online sales channel to their arsenal. Only 18% of businesses see it as a threat, while 70% view it as an opportunity. The rest are yet to make up their minds.

Understanding e-commerce is important as giant online retailers like Amazon are increasingly able to sell more niche products, such as car parts or building supplies. Specialist B2B businesses are no longer the sole ‘owners’ of their sectors, and need to up their game in order to stay competitive and relevant. This explains why 84% of our B2B respondents say they will implement data-driven software and e-commerce systems this year to boost their sales and marketing efforts.

  1. Economic pressure and commoditisation will increase competition

The performance of the global economy is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an important factor for nearly all (98%) companies. Its fluctuations and shifts, pressures and opportunities are mirrored in how many manufacturers, wholesalers and distributors perform. This relationship is forcing businesses to respond to economic pressures, and the increasing commoditisation of key markets by thinking differently about how they sell.

This can sometimes lead to bad habits - like discounting - in order to register quick wins. Fortunately, 65% of businesses see discounting as having a negative impact on their industry.  To stand out from the competition without resorting to tired, reputation-damaging tactics like discounting, businesses need to re-evaluate their value propositions. Loyalty programmes and customised product packages, geared to meet an exact customer’s needs, are viable solutions that have enabled companies to both differentiate and stay relevant.  

Digital innovation is something of a double-edged sword. It enables businesses to do better – but it also increases the competition. By harnessing the right business technologies that use data to deliver lucrative insights, B2B salespeople can build stronger relationships within the supply chain, and serve their customers with a proactive and personal approach.

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