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B2B Buying Has Changed Forever: Sales Needs To Catch Up

  • Written by Craig Riley & Tom Cosgrove, Gartner
  • Published in Demanding Views

1friendsB2B buying is undergoing its most significant change in a generation. Emboldened by easy access to information, modern consumers are opting to avoid sales reps and turning to digital channels for a self-guided buying journey. Today, 43% of B2B buyers say they would prefer a “rep-free” buying experience if given the option.

For those who do want to work with sales rep, their interaction preferences are changing — they typically prefer digital interactions versus in-person. While many attribute these changes to the Covid-19 disruption, it is important to recognize these changes were accelerated by the global pandemic, not caused by it. B2B selling was not built around this rapid shift to digital buying and virtual selling, and it’s unequipped to handle it. Buyers may think they want to go at it alone, but those who prefer a “rep-free” buying experience scored 23% higher in “purchase regret.” Sellers, on the other hand, reported feeling less confident in this “virtual-first” sales environment. Only 20% of B2B sellers said they are as effective at selling virtually as they are in-person — this situation is not sustainable, and many Chief Sales Officers (CSOs) are scrambling to catch up.

Analyzing The Shift In B2B Selling

Over the past 18 months, Gartner spoke with CSOs around the world to learn how they’re preparing for the future. We’ve increasingly heard acceptance that virtual selling will be a permanent sales channel going forward, and digital buying will likely accelerate in the coming years. This realization led most sales leaders to take actions such as mapping their customers’ digital buying journey, investing in virtual selling capabilities and forming closer bonds with executive leaders in marketing to take a more active role in digital channels.

But many are asking, “What comes next?” Or, more importantly, “What must CSOs do now if they want to differentiate themselves from the competition and drive market leading growth going forward?”

After looking at data from thousands of B2B buyers and sellers and working with some of the most innovative and progressive sales leaders around the world, we’ve identified three things CSOs must do meet the needs of today’s B2B buyers.

Create Confidence-Boosting & Immersive Digital Experiences

The future of B2B sales won’t be a handoff from digital to human as customers move between channels, but rather a complementary symbiosis between the two. In this world, sellers become a much-needed guide through the digital landscape, helping the customer understand the differences and nuance often lost in digital buying at critical, intelligently coordinated junctures that ultimately lead to better purchase decisions.

Hire & Develop Flexible Sellers

CSOs must create a sales force that can move seamlessly between in-person and digital engagements. This means most CSOs will have to hire, develop and enable sellers with the skill and will to provide the robust, rep-mediated digital experiences that buyers value and require to make high-quality purchases.

Create An AI-Augmented Sales Function To Drive Better Decisions.

Effective use of technology can help sales teams succeed in a digital buying and virtual selling environment. With the right technologies in place, CSOs and sellers can make better decisions, allowing them to respond faster to uncertain and changing market conditions. Unfortunately, this is an area where CSOs can’t just buy their way to success: Creating an AI-augmented sales function requires more than just investing in the latest solution.

Realizing the advantages of sales technology starts with identifying and addressing foundational data quality and literacy issues, and ensuring robust data governance policies are in place. Then, CSOs must carefully prioritize their AI investments, balancing the technology’s feasibility and business value against their own organizational use cases.

Combined, these steps will help CSOs reinvent B2B selling to better align with modern buying realities. This will assist with differentiating their organization in today's digital buyer and virtual selling environment--and it's also the key to unlocking market leading revenue growth.

Craig Riley is the Chief of Research and a Director Analyst with Gartner for Sales Leaders. As an analyst, Riley works with sales leaders from large and mid-size organizations and helps them prepare for the future of sales. His research focuses on how changing buying dynamics are causing sales leaders to rethink their GTM strategy with an emphasis on the rise of virtual selling, multi-channel engagements and a consolidation of the sales, marketing and service functions.

Tom Cosgrove is a Senior Director, Analyst within Gartner's Sales Research practice, based in Fort Collins, Colo. In this role, Cosgrove works closely with Chief Sales/Commercial Officers and their teams across a variety of industries, geographies and subject matters related to indirect channel management and GTM strategies.