This article was first published on May 18, 2021 on the Harvard Business Review website.
Product differentiation and timeliness create the foundation for sales success (Zoom’s takeoff is a visible example). But today, customer buying processes are in flux. As buyer preferences for digital, virtual, and in-person interaction evolve, sales organizations must adapt. Success requires combining the power of salespeople with digital assets that arm, supplement, and sometimes replace salespeople. Large organizations can rise to the occasion by leveraging their scale. Midsized organizations can punch above their weight by countering with speed and flexibility, while supplementing their own capabilities with outsourced digital resources. For sales organizations of all sizes, four related challenges are involved:
- Scaling digital and virtual sales capabilities
- Customizing selling to customer needs, knowledge, and preferences
- Adapting the sales organization as markets evolve
- Using data and tools to support sales force decisions and processes
Sales organizations are boosting the use of digital and virtual sales channels to meet the needs of increasingly digitally-fluent buyers.
Growth in digital and virtual selling levels the playing field for sales organizations of all sizes. Thanks to a plethora of outsourced tools, it is easier to scale virtual sales capacity (versus field capacity), and easier yet to scale digital capacity. Technology trends once favored large organizations that could invest in IT infrastructure and support staff. Infrastructure, software, and platform as a service (IaaS, SaaS, PaaS) have changed the game. Companies are ramping up digital marketing efforts, for example, using social media, email marketing platforms, and websites. Virtual communication tools (e.g., Zoom and Loom) have become ubiquitous for enabling interactions between customers and salespeople. And to tie it all together, cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) systems, such as Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics, integrate classic CRM features (e.g., pipeline management, interaction tracking) with team collaboration tools (e.g., messaging and video calling), productivity features (e.g., email integration, expense management, quotes/proposals), analytics (sales reports, forecasting, AI), and more. And broader marketing automation solutions, such as Adobe, help to bring the marketing and sales teams together in streamlining the customer buying journey.
The ability to use all these systems in a pay-as-you-go model allows midsized sales organizations to more easily deploy and scale digital and virtual selling capabilities. While larger companies often use their resources to integrate multiple “best of breed” tools, midsized organizations will want to choose just a few solutions from the thousands available. A disciplined approach and guidance from an internal or external expert can help.
In addition, with digital and virtual sales channels, geographic barriers are removed, opening new markets to smaller players.
As customer knowledge and self-sufficiency grow, buyers want sales content and channels to be customized to their evolving information needs. And, they expect interactions to be synchronized as they move between websites, call centers, field salespeople, and more.
Larger companies with broad product lines and specialized sales and marketing teams, struggle to provide the coordinated buying experience that customers demand and respond to. For example, a large pharmaceutical company had more than a dozen ways to share information with healthcare providers in just one therapeutic area. The company had field sales reps, inside sales reps, reimbursement specialists, medical science liaisons, patient support reps, and key account managers. In addition, there were several marketing roles that managed the content shared via these personal channels, along with roles for managing digital channel content (e.g., emails, websites, social media). To complicate matters further, the company’s support functions (e.g., technology, analytics, marketing operations, sales operations) operated as their own separate fiefdoms. Coordinating across all these separate teams and functions was a herculean task.
Midsized organizations have an advantage. With flatter structures and fewer silos, it is much easier to get customers the information they need in a well-orchestrated way. And as growing midsized organizations create more specialized functions, having fewer existing silos to work across makes it easier to build a networked organizational structure that facilitates cooperation.
A new customer may value in-person sales meetings to work through product and pricing complexities. Later, that same customer may prefer using digital and virtual channels for repeat purchases. As technology, customer needs, and digital fluency evolve, sales organizations must rethink sales roles and channels. The line between inside and field sales is blurring, as field salespeople do more digital and virtual selling and inside salespeople handle more complex sales. New sales roles are emerging, for example, in high-tech where consumption-based offerings (e.g. cloud services) use customer success managers (CSMs) to help customers realize value. Sales channel strategies are also evolving. Some companies are reducing their reliance on channel partners while others are increasing the role of partners in meeting customer needs. Any sales force size and structure in place today will likely need to change in a year, if not sooner.
The difficulties of restructuring sales and marketing teams and processes grow with organizational scale and complexity. Role changes, upsizing, downsizing, and customer relationship disruptions all play into the challenges. Not surprisingly, it can take large sales organizations 2-4 months to reconfigure legacy systems (e.g., sales reporting, incentive compensation). Midsized sales organizations must address these challenges too. But with fewer people and simpler reporting structures, they can adapt sales roles and channels in days (and sometimes in real time), not months.
Waves of digital innovation (e.g., the internet, mobility, big data, cloud computing, and now AI) continuously bring new opportunities beyond the reshaping of sales channels and structures (challenges #1-3). Sales organizations are using digital to improve talent management, and almost every decision and process that supports the sales organization.
LinkedIn (for experienced hires) and Handshake (for college campus recruiting) have helped many midsized companies hire sales talent with the same ease as big companies. Companies of all sizes are deploying digital systems for tracking recruits, training, managing performance, coaching, providing feedback (e.g., dashboards and reporting), and administering incentive compensation. The key to success for midsized organizations is to have the discipline to choose a handful of high-impact solutions that work together.
By combining agility with the added power of outsourced digital resources, midsized sales organization have a great opportunity to punch above their weight.