This article originally appeared on Forbes.com
There’s never been a better time to be a consumer than now.
With little more than a few clicks or taps, we can narrow down choices, get advice from trusted experts, and have items delivered directly to our doorsteps, often within the day.
If only things were that easy for business buyers.
Instead, B2B buyers often encounter traditional sales teams who put them through long and drawn-out qualification processes while subjecting them to a poorly constructed, misaligned sales pitch. And then the business buyer might wait weeks for a proposal.
It’s, frankly, a terrible experience.
Not for much longer, though. The same trends that have revolutionized the consumer experience are now transforming the process of buying and selling between businesses. Within a decade, traditional B2B selling methods will likely seem as outdated as renting a movie from Blockbuster does today.
Any sales force that fails to adapt to this shift risks being left behind as buyers gravitate to companies that know how to navigate this new environment.
The industry isn’t ready
Although the concept of “social selling”—using online relationship-building to sell—has become a buzzword in recent years, many executives still see the internet as an interesting sideline to tack on to their traditional sales methods.
That misses the reality of how customers want to do business these days.
Just like internet shoppers, today’s B2B buyers are more informed, more likely to research their options ahead of time, and less tolerant of shallow sales pitches. In fact, according to the Demand Gen Report, 47% of buyers view 3-5 pieces of content on a company’s website before even taking the first step to talk to a salesperson.
As this trend accelerates in the coming years, the distinction between selling and social selling will evaporate: everything will be social selling, and it will simply just be called selling.
To prepare for this new world, companies can’t just tinker around the edges; they need to invest in comprehensive strategies that recognize the internet as the main focus of their sales efforts and ensure their teams have the skills and knowledge to survive.
The first thing they need to understand and adapt to is the changing mindset of buyers. Today’s buyers are increasingly unresponsive to traditional sales methods like cold calling and hard sales pitches. They are more likely to take an active role in seeking out solutions and are often well on their way to making a decision by the time they get to a sales team.
Today’s salesperson needs to be truly engaged online every day, making thoughtful comments and sharing insightful articles that swell the ranks of followers. Not only do those followers represent potential prospects, the very act of sharing expertise will constantly remind contacts of the salesperson’s capability and knowledge.
For executives, the time is now to make sure their sales leaders are making this a priority. Here are three concrete steps that companies can take to adopt a digital sales strategy and survive and thrive in this transition:
Bring your sales efforts into the social sphere. There is no shortage of digital tools available to today’s sales forces. Use them. A good start is to overhaul your sales team’s use of LinkedIn, which is THE site for people to do business, build their personal brands and expand their networks. Salespeople should share insights, which can attract just the right prospective buyers. The easiest option is to hire an outside firm that will interview your staff and retool their profiles to attract customers and followers.
Provide digital development for your sales team. The digital and communication skills they need cannot be learned overnight. Think of them as you would medical professionals, with an expectation that they should always be up to speed with the latest developments in their field. Ask them every week what they have done to win more followers. Make sure your CMO is encouraging everyone to participate.
Be more comfortable with employees expressing themselves online. Push your teams to be out there demonstrating their deep knowledge in the industry. It doesn’t hurt to be a little provocative or attention grabbing. Sure, that comes with risks, but it is a price worth paying to create the digitally savvy, high-profile sales team you need. They need to be saying something worth sharing; this is not the time to be bland.
Make it worthwhile. Yes, there is a lot of noise on LinkedIn when it comes to thought leadership. It can be like watching five TED talks simultaneously, 24 hours a day. With that in mind, you must be careful with your strategy to ensure that you’re providing real value.
Your team needs to carefully develop and curate valuable content to show that they are worth interacting with. Make sure this doesn’t become a new “spray and pray” tactic. Your content has to matter. Don’t just post a few inspirational quotes; you have to bring a point of view that speaks to your buying audience. And remember that prospects won’t reach out to you because of one post. What are you doing to repeatedly produce content that builds your credibility over time?
Traditionally, companies have turned to marketing or subject matter experts for thought leadership. Now, it’s time for sales teams to fundamentally rethink their role and the way they present themselves. Sales teams need to move away from the role of pitchman to the role of thought leader.
The degree of upheaval and expense this entails will vary widely from company to company. Startups with more of a tech DNA will likely find it much easier and less costly than a multinational company that might be slower to embrace a digital strategy.
Either way, it’s crucial to start preparing for this transition now. Because extinction is coming for today’s B2B sales methods, whether we like it or not.
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