Scarcely a week goes by that we don’t see business publication headlines about digital transformation. Organizations understand the imperative to leverage technology and their data to elevate the customer experience and grow their bottom line—and the need to improve their game against competitors. While many business-to-business (B2B) sellers are taking a good run at digital transformation, with some laudable successes, most struggle to realize more than nominal gains even as they make significant investments.
Why? For many companies, the disconnect stems from an inability to deliver a personalized experience across traditional and increasingly digital channels. B2B sellers often know at a high level what they want to achieve but come up short in translating that goal into an operational plan with the defined capabilities and systems they need. Companies may purchase customer data platforms, content management systems and automation platforms. They may buy account-based marketing tools and artificial intelligence (AI)-based decision engines. But few companies know how to stitch their people, systems and strategies into an integrated ecosystem that can deliver what customers need and expect from their business relationships. They’re unable to break down functional area silos and create dynamic sales and marketing processes with orchestrated workflows.
Buyers today are increasingly comfortable using digital channels throughout the sales funnel, even for big-ticket purchases. Sellers are responding with greater investments in their digital capabilities, including technology and operations, AI, data and content.
FIGURE 1: A simplified framework shows how digitalization is changing B2B buyer and seller journeys
Building this framework is where most companies struggle, and it’s the most important one to get right. Our research has identified eight capabilities and two B2B seller personas that can help guide B2B sellers in their efforts to deliver on the promise of digitally driven B2B buyer experiences. The approach is not one-size-fits-all with predefined starting and ending points. Rather it’s meant to be dynamic, adapting in real time to how an organization operates and responds to what customers say they want.
8 go-to-market capabilities that set the stage for what’s next
So how should B2B organizations evolve their go-to-market approach and infuse these new trends and preferences into their operating models? At ZS, we’ve identified eight key digitalization capabilities that organizations must master:
- Activation. Operate and optimize the range of promotional channels needed to engage prospects and ready-to-buy customers.
- Analytics. Generate customer preferences and insights that can be used for customer optimization.
- Customer strategy. Proactively design customer experiences based on the overarching business goal and individual customer preferences and insights.
- Content. Use customer content preference and business strategy objectives to inform the development of new, modular content.
- Digital and sales operations. Design tactical omnichannel campaigns and develop reports and ad hoc analyses to measure performance.
- Omnichannel data. Ensure customer data is captured, checked for quality and integrated into the marketing and sales tech stacks.
- Orchestration. Use AI/decision-engine technology to optimize next-best action recommendations for the customer, across marketing, sales and media channels.
- Organizational transformation. Design new business processes and roles to ensure omnichannel capabilities are optimized.
In this approach, B2B sellers typically target small and midsize businesses (SMB) that aren’t supported by traditional sales teams. From the top of the purchase funnel to the bottom, marketing-led solutions design the customer experience to be delivered through digital channels and contact centers, with minimal or no field sales involvement. They require investments in digital content, marketing technology, data capture and integration systems, AI-based decision engines and comprehensive pre-deployment planning. Just as companies can’t operate in a new way with old capabilities, they can’t buy new capabilities and operate in the old way.
The key to success in a marketing-led approach is to map out the B2B buyer journey and the specific experiences to deliver at critical stages on the path to a sale. Accounting for variations also is critical. A buyer might stop engaging midway through the process, for example, or want direct engagement after watching an informational video. Yet another buyer might want to explore multiple product or service configuration options and understand the cost and delivery implications. This phase is critical to what happens next, and B2B sellers must ensure they understand buyer segments well enough to anticipate, account for and appropriately address their behaviors as they move through the funnel. Sellers leverage digital channels, with minimal human involvement, to convert prospects into customers. Furthermore, when sales reps are involved, they should leverage these same digital channels to nurture, retain and grow share of wallet with these buyers over time.
Fully automating their SMB customer journeys is helping one of the world’s largest travel and hospitality companies target hundreds of thousands of accounts that were previously out of bounds, given the large account volume, the high cost to cover each account and low revenue per account. This automation allows the company to pursue, contract with, fulfill and nurture hundreds of thousands of SMBs with close to zero human involvement and capture significant top-line revenue growth.
This approach typically is geared toward larger customers with products or services that have higher values, longer sales cycles and sometimes higher switching costs. In this approach, salespeople control how digital assets and capabilities are used with their customers and in-market prospects. As B2B buyers become increasingly comfortable with (and in many cases, prefer) digital content and engagement, this approach helps significantly increase contact frequency, efficiency and effectiveness with customers. Maintaining customer engagement no longer depends solely on face-to-face interactions. Everything from driving up-funnel product awareness, education and credibility-building to downstream sales calls and negotiations to post-sale product adoption and value extraction can be done virtually. Sales teams continue to use their customer knowledge to quarterback and personalize the buyer experience but can leverage digital capabilities such as AI-based next-best action recommendations and sophisticated customized offer development software.
Enabling the sales force, whether with new hires or training, is critical for success. Many B2B sellers have long-tenured sales reps who have been successful without using digital tools and often are skeptical about—or can feel threatened by—new technology. Educating them on the new capabilities and including them in the design and development of digital assets can help significantly with sales team adoption and the overall effectiveness of digital assets. Reps must believe and see the value in how these tools can equip them with more useful and relevant information and help them close more deals to drive revenue growth. This point can’t be emphasized enough: Sales-led digitalization is about elevating the sales role, not eliminating it or replacing professional judgment with a widget.
Success also is highly dependent on strengthening the sales-marketing link or breaking the silos often found between them. Ties previously could be tenuous at best as marketing provided sales with collateral but little else. These days, marketing plays a more prominent role as the developer and manager of the corporate digital ecosystem and creating requirements for digital channels, content, data and analytics. Marketing should also be incentivized alongside and consistent with the sales organization to foster true collaboration.
A global powerhouse in the financial services industry is putting this approach into practice to serve a pool of prospects that exceeds its sales team’s capacity. Sales reps are additionally constrained by their firsthand knowledge of the buyers they support. In the future, sales reps will receive information about their prospects’ digital activities so they understand who at their accounts is engaging with what content and when. Not only will this approach help sales teams prioritize accounts, but it also will help them have more meaningful face-to-face discussions.
Setting the stage for go-to-market success
Just as no two B2B sellers are alike, sales success occurs across a spectrum—not along a continuum with a prescribed path. While the personas for sales- and marketing-led organizations differ, they rely on enabling many of the same capabilities. This shared framework allows B2B sellers to integrate flexible and dynamic processes in their sales and marketing teams and adopt these personas in part or in whole to capitalize on emerging opportunities. A B2B supplier, for example, may lead with a sales-led approach for the top end of its customer base but adopt a marketing-led approach for the SMB segment. We expect to see more fluidity as digital technology enables greater customer reach and B2B sellers remove silos and become more fluent in adopting build-it-once-apply-it-multiple-times scenarios. In future articles , we’ll explore critical aspects of the eight capabilities these organizations need to deliver a digitally enabled, personalized buyer journey regardless of the seller persona, geography or market segment.
FIGURE 2: A maturity map helps B2B sellers gauge their progress to become more digital to support B2B buyers
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