The Path of Least Resistance
Buyers are changing quickly. Accustomed to the ease of ordering online and with taps on their phone, buyers continue to reward the most convenient options. Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, predicts a future of instant access: “You are going to have instant, on-demand access to anyone and anything: Whether it’s a piece of information, whether it’s an asset, whether it’s a person that you need to be able to collaborate with.”
For B2B vendors, a lot of information sought by buyers is only available from sales reps. Unfortunately, sales reps are not the preferred channel. Buyers avoid reps until the last minute. Forrester research shows that 75% of B2B buyers find websites more convenient that sales reps. 93% would rather buy online than from a salesperson.
Buyers are taking self-service as far as they can. CEB put a number on it — suggesting that buyers complete 57% of the purchase process before engaging with the vendor’s sales team. Forrester’s Andy Hoar notes, “While B2B buyers overwhelmingly prefer to research, and increasingly buy, products and services via a self-service website, B2B sellers still force buyers to interact with their salespeople as part of the purchase process.” Is it hyperbole when Andy predicts the loss of 1 million sales jobs by 2020? The answer will depend on whether companies choose to compete with, or embrace, fast-changing technology.
Just like water and electricity, buyers follow the path of least resistance. It isn’t something they think about. They just do.
Web search and social networks are currently the path of least resistance. In their report “The 2016 B2B Buyer’s Survey Report”, Demand Gen Report asked buyers to list the top resources for learning about a vendor’s solution. The top 3 were web search (68%), vendor websites (54%), and peers & colleagues (49%). One had to go further down the list to see that only 20% mentioned sales reps (comparable to the response for trade shows!)
We believe that sales reps can again become the buyer’s preference. Sales reps have information that doesn’t fit easily on a website, and many products are not conducive to e-commerce. Though e-commerce might work well for retail and distribution, it can’t address the complexity in industries like technology, enterprise software, healthcare, manufacturing, professional services, and financial services. Whenever products are complex or customized, sales reps have a valuable role to contribute. The key is to give buyers faster access to a rep’s knowledge.
We are inspired by Amazon.com, which has continually raised the bar for convenience in purchasing. However, for many B2B industries, the answer is not simply e-commerce. E-commerce cannot hope to capture the knowledge and experience of a good sales team. Instead, the Amazon-inspired solution for B2B is to give sales teams an online digital presence. This might be accessible from the traditional marketing website, but it is surely distinct. The goal is to make everyone on the sales team as accessible as Amazon.com.
The Digital Rep
When buyers engage with a vendor’s sales reps, their expectations are high. Speed is critical to winning deals. In the Demand Gen Report, 70% of B2B buyers cited “timeliness of a vendor’s response” as a reason for picking a vendor. Yet, on their own, reps cannot be accessible 24/7. Even during business hours, a rep must divide his time between clients.
The only way to serve buyer expectations now is to digitize reps. Buyers need a way to access their sales reps online, with their smartphone, at any time of day. Just as a consumer visits Amazon to research a purchase, corporate decision-makers can visit their digital rep online, getting instant access to guidance and content.
A digital rep is more than a website. A chat-like interface makes it possible to assist reps with artificial intelligence (AI) and automation. In many ways, then, this digital rep can outperform the traditional rep. When buyers use a digital site to interact with their sales rep, AI algorithms can interpret requests and make recommendations, both to the sales rep and the buyer. Just as Amazon and Netflix learn about consumers over time, a digital rep learns what answer will best help each buyer. A digital site for reps also makes it easy to control access to sensitive content, such as pricing and competitive comparisons, sharing it with just those who need it.
Every day, YesPath is advancing the digital sales experience. We join the ranks of exciting AI-powered tools that are saving time for knowledge workers and providing faster access to information. Companies like X.ai offer a virtual assistant (either “Amy” or “Andrew”) for scheduling meetings over email. Another company, Conversica, is sending emails on behalf of sales reps, using AI to interpret and sort replies. It’s obvious that these chatbot technologies will only improve on their ability to assist and empower sales teams.
This is a pivotal time in B2B. The internet has been a story of disruption and disintermediation. But not everyone has to be displaced. For every Yellow Cab, there is an Uber that found a better way to serve customers. The digital reps will be ones giving buyers the access they expect. Digital reps will outserve and outsell their competitors. And just as it was with cloud-based CRM, the early adopters will be the ones who reap the rewards.