Three core ingredients of the perfect human-digital blend for B2B sales

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Research has revealed three traits that should be the core ingredients of every company’s optimal human-digital blend: speed, transparency and expertise.

There’s no doubt that digital is rocket fuel for sales organisations. B2B sales leaders using digital effectively enjoy five times the growth of their peers who are not at the cutting edge of digital adoption.

But a recent McKinsey survey of B2B customers highlighted a more nuanced reality. What customers most desire is great digital interactions and the human touch.  Many sales organisations, however, have trouble putting this human-digital programme into practice.

What do customers want?

The trick is to understand where human interaction is most wanted and invest there - be it in expertise available via a web chat, ensuring a speedy response to customer-service queries, or simply having a person pick up the phone when a potential customer rings.

Companies also need to invest in digital, and those investments should focus on two places. First, where digital is most valued by customers: enabling speedy purchases and repurchases, delivering online tools for customer service, or offering real-time pricing with product configurators. Second, where digital can enable humans to do a better job of interacting with customers when the human touch is required.

The implications for employees are substantial. Sales reps need to focus their efforts on expertise, on being more consultative, and on responding quickly. Compensation structures may well have to change, too. If reps become less important at the point of purchase, then the commission model will need to evolve.

From our research and experience, three traits have emerged that should be core ingredients of every company’s optimal human-digital blend:

1. Speed

Slow turnaround times are frustrating, and slow means more than 24 hours, even for B2B customers. Companies need to think about having 24-hour expertise available on call, with super-experts, who can answer customer questions in real-time, sitting with the sales or customer-service team. Digitally-enabled tools can help enormously, for example by connecting customers with experts via a web chat.

Even when customers are doing extensive online research, there usually comes a point when they want a question answered quickly. This could be online, through the company website’s FAQs or product pages, or through contact with a real person. Yet most B2B companies have yet to perfect their online content to answer all questions, and even fewer have reconfigured their traditional inside sales channels or web-chat tools to deliver highly technical expertise on demand.

Slow turnaround times are frustrating, and slow means more than 24 hours, even for B2B customers.

Once customers are set on making a purchase, they want to do it fast. One-click purchases or shortcuts for repeat orders (even for large capital purchases) can speed up the process tremendously. If customers are on a company’s website but have to buy from a distributor, they need to be able to reach the appropriate page on the distributor’s website quickly and smoothly. If there are changes to the RFP, customers expect an almost instantaneous turnaround or, better still, an online space where buyer and seller can solve the problems in real time. Customers we spoke to complained a lot about being unable to make a quick change, whether they were buying in person or digitally.

Finally, speed is vital in repurchase and post-purchase troubleshooting. Four times as many B2B buyers would buy directly from suppliers’ websites if that option were available (and fast). They are especially keen on it for repeat purchases.

For post-purchase needs, speed can come from something as simple as having better FAQs, or from a well-run forum where customers can solve one another’s problems online. Increasingly, it means using chat bots, which can often answer a lot of customers’ queries, or at least ensure they are directed to the best place or person as quickly as possible.

2. Transparency

Customers want to know at a glance the difference between what they have today and what they could have tomorrow, and they want to know what the total cost is. Digital tools make product comparison and price transparency easy and can be used both by customers directly and by sales reps working with clients.

For example, in more transactional situations or for general comparison and evaluation, customers want to be able to look online for pricing or use configurators to generate pricing for comparisons. In more complex or consultative situations, face-to-face or inside sales reps might access online configurators or pricing tools in collaboration with a customer.

Customers want to know at a glance the difference between what they have today and what they could have tomorrow, and they want to know what the total cost is.

The importance of transparency extends to resellers. Our research shows that customers still judge companies on pricing transparency at their resellers. If the reseller lacks a good product-comparison engine, a good configurator, easy-to-understand pricing, or easy-to-build quotations, then in the customer’s mind it’s the same as if the company was managing the sales process itself. One option is to let customers use your site to do their comparisons; the other is to find out where customers struggle on the reseller’s site and invest in helping the reseller overcome the problem.

3. Expertise

Today’s account managers need to be experts, and digital tools can help. A face-to-face conversation with a customer can help identify key needs, for example, while digital tools bring quick visualisation and specifications - including pricing trade-offs - into sharp relief. Neither works without the other.

A senior account manager at an audio-visual company was sitting down with a customer’s team. On her tablet was a product configurator, and during a three-hour meeting, she was able to use the live configurator to redesign the product in line with the customer’s evolving requirements. The pricing updated in real time, the ancillary products and services that would complement the new system were included, and everyone around the table could talk about what they were seeing on the tablet. Such an exchange might have taken two to three weeks just a few years ago.

Perhaps the single biggest lesson from this research is the benefit of asking customers what they want. Is it time to ask your customers whether the monthly meetings you have with them are valuable? Would they prefer a quick text or email rather than a phone call? Are they aware of the product wiki you have online? Get the customer involved to find out when to use digital tools and when they want the human touch.

Driving market leadership in B2B sales requires this hat-trick of bringing speed, transparency and expertise into the digital/human blend – to satisfy customers, grow sales and improve performance for your business.

Michael Viertler is senior partner from McKinsey’s Marketing & Sales Practice.

The author would like to thank Christopher Angevine, Candace Lun Plotkin, and Jennifer Stanley from McKinsey & Company for their contributions to this article

 

About Michael Viertler

Michael Viertler

Michael is deeply involved with McKinsey’s sales and channel work and is a leader within the Marketing & Sales Practice in Europe. His work with industrial, high-tech, and automotive businesses spans a broad range of marketing and sales issues, including sales growth, multichannel management, pricing, and brand positioning.

Drawing on his deep understanding of marketing and sales, Michael advises clients on achieving above-market growth through comprehensive go-to-market transformations, introduction of digital channels, restructuring of sales organizations, design and implementation of systems for margin and revenue management, and the development and implementation of innovative pricing strategies.

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