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The Secret to Making It In The Digital Sales World: The Human Touch

Successful B2B sales teams strike the human-digital balance customers want in three core areas: speed, transparency, and expertise.

The CEO of a large industrial company recently posed a question:

“My face-to-face sales force thinks everything should be analogue. For years, they’ve successfully driven consultative sales relationships based on face-to-face conversations, and they think they should carry on. Meanwhile, my e-commerce business unit thinks we should convert everything to digital because that’s where the growth is. Who’s right?”

The short answer is, “Both.” The realities on the ground, however, make it hard for sales leaders to understand what they actually need to do, especially when different parts of the organization have a vested interest in pushing different sides of the human-vs.-digital debate.

There’s no doubt that digital is rocket fuel for sales organizations. B2B sales leaders using digital effectively enjoy five times the growth of their peers who are not at the cutting edge of digital adoption. But a recent McKinsey survey of B2B customers highlighted a more nuanced reality. What customers most desire is great digital interactions and the human touch.

The implication is that B2B sales companies have to use technology to power and optimize both digital and human interactions. Companies that add the human touch to digital sales consistently outperform their peers. They achieve five times more revenue, eight times more operating profit, and, for public companies, twice the return to shareholders. That data holds true over a four- to five-year period.

Many sales organizations, however, have trouble putting this human-digital program into practice. The truth is that there are no tried-and-true methods. Companies need to create the human-digital blend that is most appropriate for their business and their customers. This should not be a random process of trial and error testing. What is needed is a systematic way to evaluate the optimal human-digital balance (see sidebar, “Sales channels have evolved”).

It’s not who, it’s when

The majority of B2B customers want both human and digital interactions on their buying journey, according to a recent McKinsey survey. Their specific preference at any given time is primarily correlated with the stage of the buying journey.

Sales channels have evolved

Twenty years ago—let’s call it the monochannel era—B2B sellers typically had one channel for all their customers. It might have been a face-to-face sales force or a call centre, or they might have sold solely through resellers or distributors. As businesses grew and connectivity increased, these companies might have added a new channel; customers would have been clearly assigned to one or the other based on their segmentation.

Then the internet changed everything. Multiple channels were available to customers in any segment. Monochannel became multichannel, and now we have omnichannel—a “multitouch” world. Today’s customers, regardless of segment, expect to engage with companies using the channel of their choice at any given moment in time and at all the different stages of the buying process (Exhibit 1).

Source: McKinsey
Source: McKinsey

When customers are researching a new product or a service, for example, two-thirds of those who lean more towards digital still want human interaction. As customers move into the evaluation and active-consideration stages, digital tools that provide information, such as a comparison tool or online configurator, come into their own, especially when combined with a highly skilled sales force.

After the purchase, when discussions are about renewal, cross-selling, and upselling, the tables are turned completely, and 85 percent of those who lean overall towards human interaction now prefer digital. Yet most B2B companies still reward reps more for spending time keeping customers loyal and repurchasing than for uncovering new customer needs or driving demand, which is exactly where customers say they want face-to-face expertise. The key message for sellers is that context matters more than customer type and much more than industry. Companies that are digital from start to finish today could see even higher growth if they reintroduce the human touch to the start of the buying journey. Conversely, if companies are firmly holding customers’ hands via key-account managers or value-added resellers, they should be aware that customers are saying loudly and clearly that they don’t value that close personal attention after the sale (Exhibit 2).

Source: McKinsey

What do customers want?

Customers want a great digital experience and a great human experience. Be careful, though. We asked customers “What annoys you most?” and gave them a large number of possible answers, including price. A third said “Too much contact”—by far the single biggest answer.

The trick is to understand where human interaction is most wanted and invest there—be it in expertise available via a web chat, ensuring a speedy response to customer-service queries, or simply having a person pick up the phone when a potential customer rings.

Companies also need to invest in digital, but those investments should focus on two places. First, where digital is most valued by customers: enabling speedy purchases and repurchases, delivering online tools for customer service, or offering real-time pricing with product configurators. Second,
where digital can enable humans to do a better job of interacting with customers when the human touch is required.

Since many B2B customers still want human interaction at some stage of their customer journey, sellers need to offer multiple routes to market with both human and digital resources available at all stages at varying degrees of intensity. The challenge is ensuring seamless transitions and handoffs from one stage to the next so that customers are neither repeating themselves nor frustrated at delays.

The implications for employees are substantial. Sales reps need to focus their efforts on expertise, on being more consultative, and on responding quickly. Compensation structures may well have to change, too. If reps become less important at the point of purchase, then the commission model will need to evolve.

From our research and experience, three traits have emerged that should be core ingredients of every company’s optimal human-digital blend: speed, transparency, and expertise.

This blog is an excerpt from the report posted by McKinsey & Company.

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