In March 2020, businesses around the world were thrown head-first into the digital realm. What followed was a reactive scramble, especially for business-to-business (B2B) companies, who had previously focused on in-person interactions. That forced pivot has had one significant benefit: it has driven digital adoption at unprecedented rates and changed the B2B sales and marketing landscape in some very positive ways.
It goes without saying that the pandemic has been hard on many businesses, and we can't discount the brutal impact it has had on livelihoods and economies across the globe. But it has also shown us how much resilience and innovation we have in us. We’ve learned that we are able to adapt and thrive. And we’ve seen that by embracing digital, we can make it easier, faster and more cost-efficient to connect with customers – and get concrete, measurable results.
Based on a recent McKinsey study into B2B sales and our own experiences navigating the COVID-impacted market, we expect there are six key changes B2B sales and marketing leaders will see once the pandemic is over.
1. Customers will demand digital
COVID has forced us all to function in a much more digital realm, with video calls and ecommerce becoming the norm. And the thing is, we like it: according to the McKinsey study, 70-80% of buyers and sellers said they prefer digital, self-guided service and virtual interactions. Only 20% said they want to go back to in-person sales.
The reasons behind this trend aren't hard to guess: there’s no travel, scheduling is simpler, there’s no risk to anyone's health, and you can still have warm, human interaction. Buyers can easily educate themselves on their own time and their own terms.
“The appetite for digital is growing consistently across our client base of manufacturers and industrial companies,” says Lisa Shepherd, President of Mezzanine Growth. “On the buy side, site visits by salespeople are no longer ‘de rigeur,’ which is a huge time saver for sales reps. On the sell side, prospect visits to manufacturing facilities are being pushed to later in the sales process, which means they’re looking to provide more virtual site experiences. With digital, insight into operations and facilities can get to dozens of prospects with a single video, which delivers far broader impact for a much lower cost.”
2. People will be more comfortable making big-ticket purchases online
Ecommerce isn't just for the small stuff anymore. Large online buys and reorders are no longer the hurdle they once were, thanks to increased comfort with digital self-service. McKinsey reports that 70% of B2B decision-makers are comfortable with “end-to-end digital self-serve and remote human interactions for a new product or service category” over $50K, and 27% are good with $500K or more.
Customers are comfortable making purchases from existing vendors of both new and existing products. And increasingly, they will deal with new vendors when the company is credible and return policies are transparent and fair.
“There has been a dramatic move to B2B purchasing online,” says Lisa. “The trend started before the pandemic, when some B2B companies launched ecommerce platforms and were transitioning existing customers there for self-service. The pandemic accelerated that, and broadened acceptance of a completely self-serve process. Among our client base, purchases range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, and they’re entirely self-serve through ecommerce platforms.”
3. Sales leaders will increasingly embrace digital adoption
B2B leaders will move from doing things digitally because they must to doing it because they want to. COVID trial by fire turned them into converts by showing them just how effective digital sales and marketing can be.
Digital sales are a fixture for the future: 9 out of 10 decision-makers say digital practices started during COVID will remain standard practice. They now know that eschewing in-person interaction doesn't alienate customers or take out the human element, as they once feared. Instead, it helps companies meet customer needs better and reach more people faster, for less money. Digital interaction is a better option for prospecting, nurturing, closing, and maintaining relationships.
“Prior to the pandemic, a lot of B2B leaders invested in digital under a sort of ‘duress’,” says Lisa. “They were skeptical, but they saw competitors doing it, so they figured they needed to do it too. But now, B2B leaders have seen the dramatic impact of digital. Yes, they’re still cautious about investment levels and wonder which tactics, channels and tools are going to work for their market, but there’s so much more commitment to using digital in sales and marketing.”
4. Zoom isn’t going anywhere
Video conferencing and online chat are now the B2B industry’s go-to digital tools for interacting and closing. Salespeople overwhelmingly prefer video calls over phone conversations for everything from internal interactions to meetings with customers, prospects and vendors. 43% of all B2B revenue now comes from ecommerce and video conferencing, a 69% increase over April 2020.
“We moved all our client calls to Zoom last March, and we’ve only been to a single client site since,” says Lisa. “I’d say that’s also true for most of our clients as they interact with their customers. But we realized pretty quickly that we don’t need to use video all the time - it can be a real energy drain. So we only use video about half the time. Sometimes the discussions are better on audio only because it allows people to really think as opposed to worrying about what they look like on Zoom.”
5. There will be less in-person interaction, but trade shows and meetings aren’t dead
During COVID, traditional in-person sales calls, trade shows and events disappeared because digital interactions were the only option. And while companies do expect in-person meetings and events to resume by 2022, 47% of sellers say they're likely to be in-person less than half the time.
“It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as we’re hearing something different than what the McKinsey data indicates,” says Lisa. “Vendors and customers are keen to reconnect: we think there will be a burst of activity in trade shows late in 2021 and throughout 2022. We’re hearing this from our clients – leaders want their teams to get back to seeing customers, and budgets are being moved back to trade shows and conferences. So while we think there is a permanent shift towards digital, don’t call trade shows and events dead yet!”
6. Quality content will become even more essential to the buyer journey
As more and more of the buyer journey moves online, creating high-value educational content to empower self-serve will be more important than ever. Clear, easy-to-find blogs, white papers, landing pages, videos, webinars and social media content enable research, guide the buyer journey and establish the seller as a subject matter expert who can help them decide.
And don't forget: search engines love new, high-quality content. Companies looking to compete will prioritize content creation and regular content schedules.
“Content continues to be the most powerful element of digital marketing for B2B companies,” says Lisa. “Good content generates leads, enhances reputation and helps salespeople convert. And it pays dividends for the long haul: good content just gets more impactful over time. The sophisticated B2B companies have figured this out, and you can see it in what they produce and how they distribute their content.”
COVID-driven changes are here to stay
The pandemic’s impact has been keenly felt in every industry and every country, and the resulting rise in self-serve and virtual interactions has changed things in a big way for B2B companies. Today, it’s easier for customers to find information and order products and services – and faster and simpler for salespeople to sell. As a result, there’s a real sense of possibility in the air, and we can't wait to see what other changes and innovations the digital shift will bring.
Are you ready to take what you've learned over the last year and make your digital sales and marketing function operate even better? We can help. Give us a call to see what you could do to connect better with your audience online.
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