Transforming the B2B Sales Function

How Sales Teams Win with Digital Commerce

November 12, 2021. 13.5 MIN READ
Companies have been talking about putting the customer first for decades, and today’s business buyers are putting themselves first.
Technology has fundamentally changed what people expect from companies. If they can’t research, browse, and transact business wherever and whenever they want, better options are only a keystroke away.
B2B organizations are moving fast to keep up. In fact, 77% of sales leaders say their company’s digital transformation has accelerated since 2019.¹ This is even more important during a pandemic, when sales reps and buyers can't as easily meet face to face.
A Salesforce Research report shows that this challenging trend has hardened into a new reality for B2B companies. The majority (72%) of B2B buyers surveyed expect a similar experience on a B2B site as they get on a consumer website.² And successful business leaders are stepping up — almost all leaders at high-performing companies say that customer engagement is an absolutely essential part of their values.³
 
72% of business buyers say they expect a similar experience on a B2B site as they get on a consumer website.
This is hard data showing that business customers have come to expect a commerce experience that is every bit as intuitive as what they get in the retail world. It also demonstrates that because business relationships are often more complicated than retail relationships, expectations can be even higher. This guide examines how these developments are reshaping the relationship between sales organizations and customers. It also explores how the best-performing companies are turning this moment of transition into a major opportunity by marrying data, analytics, and cloud-based commerce tools to create a digitally enabled customer experience that is a distinct competitive advantage.
This is B2B commerce, accelerated.
 
 

The Connected Customer Goes to Work

Consumers today are conditioned to expect a new level of instantaneous, personalized, friction-free service. And business buyers see no need to compromise as they bring an increasing amount of their business buying online — 82% of B2B buyers expected to buy more online in 2021.³
What do personalized experiences look like? Three-quarters of business buyers surveyed said they expect vendors to have connected processes like seamless handoffs between departments.¹ Rather than having to explain to service what they already told to sales, they expect contextualized engagement based on earlier interactions.
High-performing organizations are making changes to keep up with these expectations. In fact, 57% of organizations report that their customer service teams are now more directly involved in commerce experiences than ever before. And for high performers, customer service agents are even more likely (73%) to be involved in the commerce experience.³
 
High-performing organizations are 73% more likely to have customer service involved in commerce.
At every stage of the customer journey, business buyers — especially younger ones — have come to expect an array of digital tools and features from the companies they work with. With millennials serving as most B2B buyers today, mobile apps, product comparison tools, personalized recommendations, real-time messaging, fast and intelligent search, and proactive service are all becoming table stakes for B2B vendors hoping to retain customers.
 
72% of B2B buyers today are millennials.⁴
Moreover, buyers said they want to be able to move easily between different channels — in-person, mobile, online, phone, social, text — depending on their needs. They want the flexibility of being able to start a transaction on mobile in the morning and finish it later in the day on a desktop, with the opportunity to work with sales reps who can order on their behalf.
Over the last few years, companies have made strides in meeting these needs, but they still have a lot of work to do. Many B2B companies fall short, as they still depend on clunky commerce solutions built on top of legacy enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems designed to run back-office operations and optimize workflows — not manage customer touchpoints or build a 360-degree view of the customer.
Salesforce B2B Commerce is a good example of flexibility. Because it’s based in the cloud, it lets companies develop commerce capabilities rapidly and incrementally. Teams can roll out solutions inexpensively and in a few weeks, in a cycle of deploy, test, and adjust, constantly innovating as customer needs evolve.
Since it’s built on the Salesforce Customer 360 Platform, Salesforce B2B Commerce is also endlessly configurable. Its capabilities mesh seamlessly with CRM data to create a single view of the customer, which lets companies stay connected at every touchpoint by linking commerce to marketing, sales, and service. That means customer data is available to anyone in the company at any time on any device or platform, with no integration required.
Callout: Since the deployment of its new site, Ovation Medical has seen 65% of sales come through B2B Commerce, and its repeat order processing time has been cut in half. As a result, the productivity of sales reps has doubled.

Customers Demand Personalized, Intelligent Service

Perhaps the most challenging new reality in the B2B arena is that customers want their vendors to offer different kinds of service to meet their needs at different times. Customers demand highly intuitive self-service options that make routine interactions easier, and many are willing to complete entire purchases through a digital self-service platform. In fact, 70% of B2B decision makers say they are open to making new, fully self-serve or remote purchases in excess of $50,000, and 27% would spend more than $500,000.⁵
 
70% of B2B decision makers say they are open to making new, fully self-serve or remote purchases in excess of $50,000, and 27% would spend more than $500,000.
But expectations go beyond self-service platforms. Buyers also want companies to leverage technology to provide the kind of smart, proactive, bespoke service that can help them run their own businesses more effectively. B2B companies are training and using their sales teams accordingly.
Sixty-three percent of B2B companies see salespeople as trusted advisors to their customers rather than order takers, and 59% have retrained salespeople to shift efforts to marketing or other departments within the company.³ As technology removes data entry and other administrative tasks from sales teams’ stacked schedules, reps are tasked with more strategic, complex mandates. Sales reps have become much more than order takers, as they now have more time to devote to learning about the business climate, their industries, products, and customers. Despite some fears, self-service and remote B2B purchases aren’t displacing human talent in sales — they are actually helping companies retain better talent and making it easier to recruit.
Experienced salespeople know this. They’ve often worked with the best sales technology available, and they don’t want to go back to the days of spreadsheets. High-performing salespeople are drawn to companies that prioritize digital innovation. That means these companies can take their pick of the top sales talent whenever they need to add to their team.
 
63% of companies see salespeople as trusted advisors to their customers rather than order takers.³

Customers Call for Trust and Loyalty in a Data-Driven World

Customer trust and loyalty stem from companies’ understanding of their customers’ unique needs and the tailored solutions that address them. Trust, however, is becoming a precious commodity in digital commerce.
Customers have come to see real value in technologies like artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things that use data to revolutionize the products and the experiences companies offer.
 
Over 80% of sales reps reported an increased importance of building customer trust. ¹
Being worthy of trust boils down to using data responsibly. What’s critical for all customers — business or retail — is that companies deploy technologies like AI to provide real utility in a transparent way.
And sales reps are taking note. In fact, in response to current economic conditions, 83% of sales reps reported an increased importance of building trust before a sale, and 80% reported an increased importance of building trust after a sale.¹

Top Sales Teams Exceed Customer Expectations

So what can companies do to improve performance in the age of the connected customer? The data suggests that two things make a big difference. First, top-performing companies are responding to higher customer expectations by becoming more collaborative, data-driven, and insightful. Second, they are empowering teams with tools that make sales people smarter and the entire organization more responsive.
Companies with top sales teams (those with significant year-over-year revenue growth) are more likely to share three characteristics. They:
  • Use a single view of the customer to collaborate
  • Deploy self-service and automation to free up time for selling
  • Trade intuition for data-driven insights

Top sales teams use a single view of the customer to collaborate.

As we’ve seen, business buyers are gravitating to vendors that understand them and provide consistent, personalized experiences across the customer journey. The most effective B2B sales organizations deliver by using a 360-degree view of the customer to collaborate with other departments as never before.
This means that no matter how customers choose to engage with the company, the interaction will be contextual and meaningful. Business buyers end up feeling that they are dealing with a single, knowledgeable vendor — not a collection of siloed departments — saving time and energy for everyone involved.
A robust commerce platform like Salesforce B2B Commerce can be transformative. By collecting commerce and CRM data in a single customer record, Salesforce enables everybody in the company to see the customer’s history; the status of outstanding orders from online, in-person, and any other channel; service issues; and notes from the salesperson or service engineer — all in real time. Arming sales reps with mobile access to that data gives them the ability to connect with customers on the go, putting vital information at their fingertips in customer-facing situations.

Top sales teams deploy self-service and automation to free up time for selling.

Sales is a unique role, requiring expert people skills and a wealth of organizational knowledge. But customers’ elevated expectations require salespeople to find time in the sales process for non-selling activities. High performers are more likely to give customers the self-service, mobile, and automated options they prefer for many routine interactions like ordering and product research, relieving reps of the “order-taking” burden that gets in the way of solving bigger issues.
Automation frees up reps to research customer needs and come up with solutions that lead to a sale. With digital self-service tools taking on the brunt of straightforward reordering and bottom-of-funnel transactions, salespeople can focus on what they do best — selling — rather than administrative tasks.
 
61% of B2B buyers prefer a self-service channel for reordering, an increase of 30% from 2016.⁶
Before the pandemic, face-to-face contact with customers was already waning. Now, not all companies plan on returning to fully in-person — only about 20% of B2B buyers say they hope to return to in-person sales, even in sectors where field sales models have traditionally dominated, such as pharma and medical products.
While high-performing sales teams are increasing the time they devote to selling, they are using this time to connect virtually. Both customers and salespeople can be more efficient using digital channels to communicate, making it less important to meet in person.
 
Orders placed via an ecommerce solution increased by 44% between January and August 2020.³

Top sales teams trade intuition for data-driven insights.

The best sales teams distinguish themselves by making every minute more productive. While high performers still rely on experience and intuition to spot opportunity, they increasingly turn to data and analytics to both sharpen their own sales strategies and craft more personalized, insightful solutions for their customers. These insights let them constantly adapt and iterate on the customer experience to develop new products, services, and channels.
With this change, the most effective sales reps are using data to make their customer interactions more productive. Consider that high-performing sales teams are more likely than underperformers to use data to help prioritize leads.
Reps are becoming experts at things like calibrating the customer’s past relationship with the company, measuring estimated revenue, and predicting the potential for add-on business. With commerce, sales, and other data connected, companies can unlock recommendations for sales teams in providing next best actions. This means sales reps get recommendations to take action like offering a small discount or following up with buyers at the right time to maximize buyer satisfaction and sales.

What It All Means

Business buyers increasingly want the best of both worlds — a seamless self-service option and a trusted partner who can anticipate their needs. This elevates the critical role of an agile, responsive sales organization and transforms how sales reps must interact with customers. The connected customer, in other words, is changing the game for companies, both inside and out.
In the age of the customer, information is power. What’s critical is that companies — and especially sales teams — learn how to serve each customer across their entire customer journey, from the first touchpoint with marketing or lead generation to the last touchpoint with service.

Implementing Digital Commerce for Immediate Impact on the Customer

An effective commerce implementation has to begin with a clear ambition for how it can enhance the company’s strategy and improve the customer experience. But companies are too often tempted to include every feature imaginable, which creates interminable delays, massive budgets, and inevitably causes the effort to collapse under its own weight.
A solution that’s purpose-built on a cloud platform offers a clear alternative. Starting with a minimum viable product, the company can get in front of customers quickly, collect real-world data, and use it to sharpen the next rapid iteration. The advantage is that the company can begin generating ROI, score some quick wins, and arm itself with intelligence about what’s working and what’s not.
Flexibility and speed to market are especially critical at a time when sales reps and buyers aren’t meeting in person and companies want to get live quickly. For decision makers, this can be overwhelming. But the most effective implementations start with a key assumption — you don’t really know what your customers want. You have to ask. Too often, large B2B companies try to deploy every feature in the first round, taking on too much at once. This is a quick way to veer off course.
One of the key benefits of implementing a commerce platform in manageable stages is that customer feedback becomes part of doing business. The company can gather data and insights on the fly, using them to make better decisions. Creating tight feedback loops to gather and analyze sales data helps companies understand what’s working or not, so features can be tweaked, built up, or abandoned.
A smooth implementation also requires determining who has decision rights — IT, marketing, finance, and so on — and including those people from the very beginning of the project. Trade-offs between features, cost, and speed inevitably crop up in the planning process. It is critical that everyone contributes to these decisions, so a consensus emerges around the overall rationale for the project. Anything less than full alignment is a threat to success.

Conclusion

Business buyers aren’t waiting for change to come their way. They bring high expectations to work and are looking to their business vendors to treat them as well as B2C companies do.
For B2B companies, this is a call to action. Although the challenges of meeting complex customer expectations can be steep, the cost of waiting carries real risks — and they can be overcome. A critical starting place is to recognize that your customers will tell you what they need, and then tell you again and again in an endless feedback loop.
The only solutions worth investing in are those that enhance your ability to connect with customers in the ways that are most meaningful to them by offering speed to market, manageable costs, superior flexibility, and the ability to scale.

Next Steps

All journeys begin with a single step. With new insights on the relationship between sales teams and customers, you can explore the major opportunities to stand out from the competition with great digital customer experiences.
For more information on driving growth with easy, connected commerce built for B2B buyers, check out Salesforce B2B Commerce.
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