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 analog. 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.1 But a recent FORFIRM 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.

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 FORFIRM survey.2 Their specific preference at any given time is primarily correlated with the stage of the buying journey.

  • 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 center, 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 .

The evolution of the sales approach to customers

Phase 1: Mono-channel (pre-internet)


Phase 2: Multiple channels (pre-internet)

Segment 1  Segment 2 Segment 3
Inside sort-right--v1 Face-to-face sort-right--v1 Key account management (KAM)
Phase 3: Multi-channel (internet)        
Segment 1   Segment 2   Segment 3
    Face-to-face   Specialist
Reseller   Partner   Sponsors
Web sales

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.

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.

The need for speed

Slow turnaround times are frustrating, and slow means more than 24 hours, even for B2B customers. Companies need to think about having 24-hour expertise available on call, with super experts, who can answer customer questions in real time, sitting with the sales or customer-service team. Digitally enabled tools can help enormously, for example by connecting customers with experts via a web chat.

Even when customers are doing extensive online research, there usually comes a point when they want a question answered quickly. This could be online, through the company website’s FAQs or product pages, or through contact with a real person. Yet most B2B companies have yet to perfect their online content to answer all questions, and even fewer have reconfigured their traditional inside sales channels or web-chat tools to deliver highly technical expertise on demand.

Once customers are set on making a purchase, they want to do it fast. One-click purchases or shortcuts for repeat orders (even for large capital purchases) can speed up the process tremendously. If customers are on a company’s website but have to buy from a distributor, they need to be able to reach the appropriate page on the distributor’s website quickly and smoothly. If there are changes to the RFP, customers expect an almost instantaneous turnaround or, better still, an online space where buyer and seller can solve the problems in real time. Customers we spoke to complained a lot about being unable to make a quick change, whether they were buying in person or digitally.

Finally, speed is vital in repurchase and post-purchase troubleshooting. Four times as many B2B buyers would buy directly from suppliers’ websites if that option were available (and fast). They are especially keen on it for repeat purchases.

For postpurchase needs, speed can come from something as simple as having better FAQs, or from a well-run forum where customers can solve one another’s problems online. Increasingly, it means using chat bots, which can often answer a lot of customers’ queries, or at least ensure they are directed to the best place or person as quickly as possible.

One B2B retailer changed how it offers online support by crowdsourcing improvements to its FAQs and offering a small reward as an incentive to engage. It also interviewed customer-facing staff to prioritize customers’ pain points. It then updated the FAQs based on this feedback and cross- referenced the answers with the service calls that had the highest-rated resolutions to ensure the content was correct. Finally, and perhaps most simply of all, the company moved the FAQs to a more prominent place on its e-commerce site.

These relatively inexpensive and straightforward changes reduced the volume of calls and messages to its customer care center by a staggering 90 percent, since customers could now quickly find the answers to their problems. This success allowed the retailer to shift support capacity to work with the key- account teams on strategic accounts.

Transparency matters

Customers want transparency. They want to know at a glance the difference between what they have today and what they could have tomorrow, and they want to know what the total cost is. Digital tools make product comparison and price transparency easy and can be used both by customers directly and by sales reps working with clients, blending the digital and human. For example, in more transactional situations or for general comparison and evaluation, customers want to be able to look online for pricing or use configurators to generate pricing for comparisons. In more complex or consultative situations, face-to-face or inside sales reps might access online configurators or pricing tools in collaboration with a customer.

The importance of transparency extends to resellers. Our research shows that customers still judge companies on pricing transparency at their resellers. If the reseller lacks a good product-comparison engine, a good configurator, easy-to-understand pricing, or easy-to-build quotations, then in the customer’s mind it’s the same as if the company was managing the sales process itself. One option is to let customers use your site to do their comparisons; the other is to find out where customers struggle on the reseller’s site and invest in helping the reseller overcome the problem.

Whatever the specific situation, it is critical to control as much of the process as you can, and to influence what you cannot directly control. One software company realized it wasn’t converting small- and medium-sized business customers from consideration to purchase. Its one-size-fits-all approach to product recommendations meant that SMB customers saw the same offers as enterprise-level customers and thus had no clarity on which elements might be priced differently if applied to them. So they took their business elsewhere. It was time for a change.

The company set up a “trial and buy” website specifically geared to small- and medium- size businesses. It asked customers to fill in a brief form to assess their needs and made offers based on their answers, with clear pricing for each package and a clear explanation of how each package was different. This approach helped the company open up a whole new segment. Within three months, 90 percent of SMB buyers were first-time customers. Those customers whose needs were seemingly too complex for an off-the-shelf package were routed to a team of inside sales experts who were able either to direct them to the right standard package or to configure a solution to meet their needs. This ability to “triage” customers into those who need more human help versus those who can be well served with digital tools can significantly improve customer experience and conversion.

Digital to support your experts

Today’s account managers needs to be experts, and digital tools can help them provide their expertise to their customers. The human conversation facilitates and drives the customization, while the digital tools bring the quick visualization and specifications— including pricing tradeoffs—into sharp relief. Neither works without the other.

A senior account manager at an audiovisual company was sitting down with a customer’s team. On her tablet was a product configurator, and during a three-hour meeting, she was able to use the live configurator to redesign the product in line with the customer’s evolving requirements. The pricing updated in real time, the ancillary products and services that would complement the new system were included, and everyone around the table could talk about what they were seeing on the tablet. Such an exchange might have taken two to three weeks just a few years ago.

At a medical-products company, sales reps brought their expertise to surgeons, helped by a complex configurator and visualization tool. They were able to help the surgeons pick precisely the right product for particular patient segments (based on demographics and diagnosis) and show them a video game that demonstrated connecting the device to the patient. This experience boosted surgeon satisfaction with the company by 10 percent, and sales by 12 percent. Moreover, the surgeons rated the reps’ expertise as 30 percent better than that of a control group armed with just brochures and PowerPoint.

The hat trick

Successfully bringing speed, transparency and expertise into the digital/human blend delights customers and grows sales. Recent moves by Grainger, are a classic example of a response to all three customer needs simultaneously.

Grainger is one of the world’s largest providers of maintenance and repair supplies and was one of the first companies in its sector to seize upon digital as a tool for achieving both customer intimacy and growth. As far back as 1991, when they provided an e-catalog on CD-ROM, Grainger has been at the forefront of embracing digital alongside its core “human” branches and sales reps. Fast-forward to today, when 69 percent of Grainger orders originate via a digitally enabled channel (such as website,TakeStock, and EDI). But sales and service representatives, along with local branches, remain integral to the customer experience.

As their ecosystem evolves, Grainger continues to innovate, launching two businesses that are fully online only. Monotaro, serving SMBs in the Japan market, and Zoro Tools, serving SMBs in the United States, are both single-channel online stores. Both offer only products that are meaningful for this segment, which meant whittling down tens of thousands of SKUs, simplifying the assortment available, and increasing the speed at which customers find what they need. Pricing is transparent, and the purchase process is fast: simply click to buy.

The benefits for Grainger have been significant. Both Monotaro and Zoro have experienced double- digit growth as the result of a speedy, transparent, and informative process (22 percent and 18 percent respectively, 2017 over 2016). Simultaneously, customers continue to engage in analog experiences, with 32 percent picking up orders either at a branch or via an onsite locker system.3 The human touch and experience remain very relevant.

Perhaps the single biggest lesson from this research is the benefit of asking customers what they want. We asked them, “What’s the one thing a salesperson could do that you would really appreciate in terms of how you interact?” Their answer: “Ask me.”

Is it time to ask your customers whether the monthly meetings you have with them are valuable? Would they prefer a quick text or email rather than a phone call? Are they aware of the product wiki you have online? Get the customer involved to find out when to use digital tools and when they want the human touch.

When B2B buyers want to go digital and when they don’t

It was long held that B2B customers would shun digital channels, explaining why many suppliers have been slow to make significant investments in them. Wisdom had it that the products and services purchased were just too complex. New research puts that claim to rest, but it also makes clear that B2B suppliers cannot choose between a great sales force and great digital assets and capabilities. To drive growth, they need both. The research further suggests that companies should see their initial digital investments as the glue that holds together a powerful multichannel sales strategy.

The findings

We surveyed more than 1,000 buyers in four countries in a range of industries to identify their preferences when dealing with suppliers. The responses showed that industry sector is not a factor in buyers’ decisions to turn to a digital channel rather than a traditional one when deciding what to buy. What determines the channel of choice is whether or not the buyer is making a first-time purchase.

Only a small proportion of B2B buyers need inperson support when making a simple repeat purchase.
When buyers find it helpful to speak with someone,1 % of respondents


Never—always prefer digital   4      
Same product or service as before   15    
Previously purchased product or service but with different specifications   52  
Completely new product or service   76

When it comes to actually making a purchase, 46 percent of buyers say they would be willing to buy from a supplier’s website if the option were available and the service efficient. That compares with just 10 percent who make an online B2B purchase today.

The importance of an efficient service relates to the second finding: the way the experiences of B2B buyers in the online consumer world has influenced their expectations. Be they online or off, B2B buyers want an immediate response. They want ease of use (the ability to find the information they need effortlessly). And they want that information to be both accurate and highly relevant to their particular needs, wherever they are on the customer decision journey.

Noteworthy too is how often they are dissatisfied with suppliers’ current level of digital and offline performance: some 46 percent of survey respondents said it was difficult to compare products online accurately. They are frustrated that they cannot complete a repeat order easily. And they grumble about the time it takes to get a response when seeking help.

Indeed, slow response times are by far the biggest frustration for buyers, bigger even than pricing issues. Some 30 percent of buyers of industrial technology, for example, said they preferred to buy from distributors because manufacturers’ sales representatives took too long to get back to them. That is not to say that all distributors outperform suppliers, but it illustrates how a slow response risks lost sales. After the sale, the four most commonly identified pain points that would prompt a buyer to con- sider an alternative supplier all relate to suppliers’ lack of responsiveness.

A slow response time is buyers’ biggest complaint.
What frustrates buyers most, % of respondents


Slow response time 40
Pricing issues 19  
Poor technical or product knowledge 14    
Lack of face-to-face or phone interaction 13      
Lack of online capabilities 7        
Poor comparison capabilities 7        

The implications

The survey findings suggest the need for two different sets of digital investments.

Customer-facing investments

The first set targets those who are comfortable or even prefer being online, keeping them satisfied and loyal, speeding up the sale, and encouraging them to spend more.

For instance, comparison engines will help ensure that buyers consider suppliers’ products and services in initial searches and give them easy access to information. Click-to-chat support on company websites will offer buyers the assistance they expect around the clock. And automatic email reminders will drive repeat purchases. (Half of all B2B buyers rely on sellers to remind them when to reorder, according to our survey, but many sellers disappoint.)


A slow response risks losing customers to competitors
Why, after making a purchase, buyers might look for a different supplier, % of respondents1


Can’t get quick answer to troubleshooting question 42
Reorders are not timely 32  
Sales representative only follows up when asked 31    
Customer-service representative unavailable when needed 27      
Sales representative is in touch too frequently by phone or in person 10        
Sales representative is too often in touch digitally 6          

B2B buyers rely on sellers to remind them when to reorder, according to our survey, but many sellers disappoint.)

Some companies provide direct online sales, perhaps with an automated next-product- to-buy engine based on customer-transaction data. An advanced-materials and- machinery company we know tripled market revenue growth in this way. Direct sales are not an option for all, yet even those suppliers that sell indirectly will have to work with distribution partners to facilitate online purchases if growth is their goal.

Whatever the functionality, it will have to meet expectations for speed set in the B2C world. “There’s no sense having an e-chat function that I have to wait in a 15-minute queue to use,” one buyer told us. “I want it now, or I’m logging out and going elsewhere.”

Sales-force investments

The overwhelming majority of buyers told us they still want the prompt attention and expertise of a salesperson when making decisions about first-time purchases. Investments in digital assets will indirectly help the sales force meet those needs, freeing them up from dealing with routine inquiries (when customers don’t want to talk to them anyway). Instead, they can devote time to helping customers with more complex buying needs, as well as seeking out new customers. However, a second set of digital investments will help the sales force directly.

Relatively simple customer-relationship-management tools can track customers’ previous questions and help anticipate needs. Virtual product demonstrations on a browser or tablet (when visiting a buyer) will assist in a sale. Customer-segmentation and value-proposition engines help sales representatives build tailored offers in the field that quantify the value for the customer. And as in the online world, advanced analytics can prompt buy recommendations. They can even feed sales representatives with real-time information on how to price an offer based on an analysis of deals other salespeople in the company have closed.

This is just the start. Suppliers’ digital strategies will have to change in line with evolving customer preferences. But it makes sense for them to cut their teeth in the digital world with investments that reflect customers’ current preferences and expectations.

What sales executives need to get right for digital success

“We’ve got to go digital.” Every sales leader has heard some variation of that statement. But what is digital, actually? And of all the digital things to do out there, what matters most for driving sales growth?

To help answer this question, we conducted a survey of more than 1,000 US and European sales executives, as well as interviewing dozens of sales executives and doing research for the book Sales Growth: Five Proven Strategies from the World’s Sales Leaders. In our first article from this data set, we looked at the five areas where sales leaders outperform their peers.

For this article, we looked at how sales leaders drive performance organizationally. Our analysis revealed that fast-growing companies1 successfully connect seemingly opposite approaches:

◾ Front to back: They create a dynamic experience for customers, and use digital tools and data to power operations. It’s common for companies to overemphasize one or the other, but the greatest success lies in a marriage of both.

◾ Top to bottom: Successful sales organizations also overhaul the way things are done, from sales leadership all the way through frontline sales reps.

While this structure might sound like a “do everything” approach, its value is in providing a simple way to think through the connections needed throughout the organization to get the most from digital capabilities, from automating processes to delivering experiences across all channels to using analytics to enable the sales force.

Of course, this is all much easier said than done. In our survey, a majority of sales executives said that their companies are increasing their investments in digital sales tools and capabilities for the near term. Yet less than 40 percent believe they are even moderately effective at it, and a mere 17 percent rate their capabilities as “outstanding.”

There are, however, companies that are excelling—driving higher revenues from their digital channels and using digital technologies to power sales. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Front to back

Front end: The customer experience

Determine what your customer needs. Every effective digital strategy begins and ends with understanding what customers are thinking along every step of their decision journey and working religiously to meet those expectations. That means understanding what their unmet needs are and how they use the web, from searching sites to browsing on apps. At Grainger, which sells over one million industrial and commercial products, customers often don’t know exactly what they’re looking for. “We spend a huge amount of time understanding how we manage the tension of exact search versus a search that returns an unmanageable 200 products,” says Debra Oler, vice president for Grainger’s US industrial-supply business.

As part of the digital customer experience, companies should allow the option of an all-digital experience, e.g. provide instant price quotes online as opposed to requiring contact with a sales rep. One electronics company, for instance, built tools that let customers compile customized orders of differently configured products and then immediately see the impact of any changes on the price, even after the order is placed. The tools also allow customers to see how the manufacture of their order is progressing.

Go mobile. Since most customers are likely to be devoted owners of smartphones, all digital content should be optimized for mobile devices, including order entry, purchasing, and order history. This is especially crucial for companies with large numbers of customers on the move. Grainger, for instance, developed an app whereby technicians, who may be responsible for maintenance on dozens of hotels or other commercial properties, can quickly live-chat with a Grainger product expert to get answers to repair or parts questions. Technicians can also use their phones to take a picture of an unfamiliar part and send it to the company for identification and then purchase. As a result of these and other features, the portion of Grainger’s e-commerce traffic coming from mobile devices is 15 percent and rapidly growing.

Continuously test to optimize offerings. Thanks to the ultralow cost of e-commerce and the highly trackable nature of digital interactions, companies can and should adopt a spirit of discovery toward their digital offerings. Relentless testing of different site formats, promotions, and configurations can maximize visitor numbers, transactions, and revenue. One leading multibillion-dollar global e-commerce site launched more than 100 new marketing campaigns within six months of its launch, using a rapid test- and-learn pilot approach—and Amazon, the oft-cited leader in all things digital, employs a large team of PhDs to constantly analyze the layout of the site, using advanced testing techniques to evaluate multiple versions of it at any given time and find which permutations generate the most sales.

Back end: Sales operations and insights

Our survey reveals that many fast-growing companies use digital tools and analytics to empower salespeople to work more effectively and more efficiently. Some 43 percent of fast-growing companies say they are successful in using digital tools and capabilities to support their sales organizations, versus just 30 percent of slow growers.2 When using analytics to make decisions, the disparity is even greater: 53 percent of fast growers rate themselves as effective, compared with 37 percent of slow growers.

Get in front of the best sales opportunities. When we asked sales execs to identify which specific factors were the most important for driving sales growth, their top choice was the ability to identify the right customers and opportunities. Analytics and tools for lead qualification and scoring are crucial. They can evaluate the likelihood that a lead coming from a particular type of customer or particular channel—say, a website email, referral from a conference, or inquiry at a retail store—will result in a sale, letting sales reps prioritize their time and efforts. In the same way, sales leadership can use analytics to make ongoing deployment decisions about which reps should go to which accounts in which markets, and how much quota to assign. One large IT company used FORFIRM's sales-coverage planning software, Rep Planner, to reposition and ultimately reduce the numbers of its sales reps, yielding a 5 to 7 percent improvement in sales productivity.

Analytics should also focus on identifying customer trends and patterns that provide next- product-to-buy or related-purchase recommendations tailored to each customer, thereby delivering a great customer experience. For instance, one Fortune 500 market leader in business outsourcing found that its customers who had bought a particular product, had a growth rate above a certain threshold, and had expanded internationally within the previous 12 months were disproportionately likely to buy another particular product. Analytics can also be used to flag when a customer might be ready for an upgrade or renewal.

Integrate with channel partners. The best sales organizations have extended their own digital systems and data to connect with resellers and marketplaces, sharing, for instance, prospecting lists and support for managing sales-rep performance. Cisco became a leader in this practice after it realized it was getting a lot of the same complaints from resellers: the deal-registration process was a headache, and deal reviews and approvals were slow. Channel partners complained they were losing deals as a result. Now, when a partner’s rep registers a deal on Cisco’s portal, she can see immediately if her contact person is available to approve the deal on the spot. If not, a voicemail gets converted to text and delivered to the Cisco manager, who can quickly accept, decline, or transmit to the next approver via mobile phone.

Optimize pricing. Survey respondents told us that optimal pricing for deals and products is the sales function with the highest impact on sales productivity. Digital tools offer unprecedented ability to compare current deals with a wide array of past data on similar sales and circumstances. Such dynamic deal scoring and discounting controls can help identify the highest possible price that will result in a sale.

Top to Bottom

Getting your organization ready

2. Too often, “going digital” means loosely stringing together pockets of digital activity instead of developing and implementing a coherent and unified digital strategy. The result is that customers are left hanging, either unable to get what they need or receiving incongruent communication. The best-performing companies couple top-down leadership with bottom-up change management to truly transform the way the organization works over the long term.

Top down: The biggest determinant of the outcome of any digital sales transformation is leadership commitment, clarity of strategic vision, and authority to run the show. Our survey showed that clear and consistent communication from sales leadership is more important in motivating an organization than, for instance, the level of resources expended.

Leadership must also work to bridge the divide between the marketing, sales, and IT departments. Digital transformations are cross-functional in nature, but these three functions often operate in silos. Our survey showed a significant disconnect in how the IT and marketing organizations evaluate their effectiveness, compared with the perception of their effectiveness in the sales force. One way to enhance collaboration is through an empowered sales-operations team that straddles sales, marketing, and IT. Successful sales-operations teams are able to work effectively across organizational boundaries to drive both front-end and back-end digital innovations in sales, for example, by working with marketing to improve the digital customer experience on the website, or working with IT to upgrade customer-relationship management and customer data.

Bottom up: Pairing back-end analytics and digital expertise with the right people out on the front lines is a crucial way to ensure that digital strategies pay off. This means having digitally literate sales reps who can integrate the information and insights gleaned from new tools and analytics into the way they sell. To make that happen, fast growers in our survey spend significantly more time and money on sales-force training than slow growers do. Given today’s shifting sales dynamics and norms, the best managers spend the time to mentor high-performing salespeople and support them in building new skills.

The best companies are also willing to adopt an experimental approach, continuously testing tools, analytics and features to make sure they are in line with how their sales teams sell and with what customers want. Companies can no longer afford to spend two years laboring away in isolation to achieve perfection.

While developing digital capabilities is essential to driving sales growth for B2B companies, capturing their full value potential depends on how well businesses can integrate people and technology across the organization.

Boosting your sales ROI: How digital and analytics can drive new levels of performance and growth

Few business leaders would dispute the fact that sales teams must evolve. They are already investing billions of dollars in sales technology and training in response to automation and artificial intelligence, which are making ever deeper inroads into the sales function.

The trouble is that these investments aren’t paying off. We speak with many sales leaders who are frustrated with the lack of clarity on the ROI of their investments and surprised when their new “shiny toys” (such as a new lead-generating tool) fail to deliver meaningful performance improvement.

The truth is that driving sales growth today requires fundamentally different ways of working as well as outstanding execution across large, decentralized sales teams and channel partners. While many sales leaders accept this reality in principle, they don’t put sufficient energy or focus into driving that level of change. Advances in digital and analytics, however, mean that sales leaders can now drive and scale meaningful changes that pay off today and tomorrow.

Companies that get this right typically see 5 to 10 percent revenue growth with the same or improved margins. And they see many of those benefits quickly, often within a few months. In addition, their longer-term health, as measured by better customer and employee satisfaction, improves.

The four ways digital and analytics drive successful change

Digital and analytics can radically accelerate and improve the chances of delivering successful change. But undisciplined investment can be counterproductive and expensive. In our experience working with companies that have successfully boosted the ROI of their sales investments, these four actions make a meaningful difference:

Provide insights that sales reps need

A wealth of sales insights are discoverable today through advanced analytics, but they often don’t translate into sustainable revenue for a few reasons: the front line does not trust the data, the insights are overly complex, or reps simply feel that their own experience and expertise are being ignored. Successful change programs rely on a deep understanding of the needs of the salespeople and a willingness to work back from there to deliver insights that actually help reps sell better. The best sales organizations use data to understand the effect of all the steps in sales, from what matters most in driving a sales opportunity forward to where reps struggle or miss opportunities. They then package those insights and send them to sales reps. Actively involving sales reps in the process greatly increases the chances of providing relevant and easy-to-use solutions.

Car manufacturers offer an excellent example of how to manage frontline needs. Their dealer networks are often quite autonomous (stocking and product-configuration decisions are made by individual dealers). This means, for example, that having 2,000 dealers in a given market equates to 2,000 separate decisions on what stock to take. Traditionally, there has been little attempt to use data from the entire dealer network to optimize those decisions. As part of a shift to optimize and upgrade the stock at its dealerships, one manufacturer aggregated data on specific car configurations (engine type, trim, color, etc.) purchased across the network. It then calculated the optimum mix of stock based on a combination of profitability and customer appeal, which could be updated in real time as sales were made.

The insights were played back to each dealer, to speed up the process and make them better informed, with specific recommendations on which cars to order. What was fascinating was the degree of uptake of the new system. The adoption rate within nine months was 80 percent, a striking contrast to a previous effort where the adoption rate was below 10 percent. Cars spent far less time in the showroom before being bought, heterogeneity of vehicles increased (which helped with residual values), and the contribution margin grew by more than 10 percent.

What changed? The first time around, the company had been clear on what the outcome needed to be, but it hadn’t taken the individual dealers’ perspective into account. The dealers resisted what felt like a top-down idea imposed on them, because they didn’t really understand the benefits, and implementation was difficult. This time, the digital tools that delivered the insights were built hand-in-hand with the dealers from the outset, to understand what functionality and information was most helpful for them. The manufacturer also used an agile approach to development, refining the tool quickly based on real dealer feedback. The dealers were engaged in the process, understood what the company was trying to achieve, and recognized it would make their lives easier. As uptake was so high, the impact for the company was also high.

When done well, this approach can also empower the sales force. As part of a sales transformation focusing on pricing and growth, a chemicals company used analytical tools that gave the field sales force transparency on the overall business, which encouraged and enabled them to create their own strategies and implementation plans. They could create their own projects on the platform, which of course could be tracked by managers, and the impact was impressive: within just a few weeks of implementation, churn was down and pricing was up, and within a year, it contributed an additional $50 million to EBITDA. The magic was the combination of getting insights to the front line in a simple, easy-to-digest way while allowing reps the freedom to explore some of the underlying input, which let them develop their own ideas.

Use digital to enable what matters for each sales rep

We often find companies that have excellent operational discipline but fail to apply a similar rigor to sales. They seem to linger under the misunderstanding that sales is all about relationships or that sales teams are motivated solely by incentives.

The core elements in enabling effective sales operations are focusing reps’ time and attention on the handful of metrics that disproportionately matter. Those often include the size of the pipeline and conversion rate, and incentives that are consistent with the company’s overall vision for its transformation, rather than those based on out-of-date ideas or on criteria beyond the sales rep’s control. Embedding weekly routines and daily expectations of activities reinforces the ultimate goal of driving sales growth. Crucially, then, sales leaders need to focus on digital and analytics capabilities that deliver on these needs.

A technology company had limited data on sales, margins, and products sold at the rep level, and no performance-management systems. When it attempted a large transformation that involved capturing new growth, realigning coverage to match opportunities, building frontline capabilities, and redesigning compensation structures, results were slow to arrive and quarterly-target pressure did not let up.

The company realized it needed to use analytics and an automated report system to create dashboards personalized for each salesperson and highlight the opportunities they needed to follow-up on.

Reps now see their top opportunities on a daily basis, which helps them prioritize their actions. The techniques were also used to help sales support staff drive the most efficient selling process. Pricing specialists were flagged on where the hottest opportunities were and also on opportunities to cross-sell with their customers.

Importantly, from a performance-management perspective, the dashboard also introduced transparency. Managers all the way to the C-suite could now identify the best-performing reps and what opportunities they had closed, and where reps needed coaching. It worked both ways. Reps could also flag where they needed help, all the way to the C-suite, which ensured that priority opportunities got the right level of attention.

The combination of reporting, enablement, and coaching delivered an enormous impact very quickly: a $55 million uptick in revenues for that quarter using “quick and dirty” tools effectively rather than making enormous investments. The trick was making the information available at the individual level.

Using digital tools is necessary to scale solutions across the sales organization. That includes creating tailored dashboards for all sales personnel as well as decisioning tools to help reps in the field make better decisions. These don’t need to be overly complex; even quick and dirty solutions can deliver profitable results without waiting for more sophisticated IT investment and development.

One software company turned to digital to crack a recurring problem: the sales force was so fragmented and dispersed that it was hard to know whom to call for help. There were more than two dozen sales roles within the function, from account managers to software architects, and the company realized that the right people were seldomly working on the right deals. It developed a digital tool to embed within the CRM system that could give sales reps the precise names of the right people to call for any particular deal—there could be as many as ten at any one time based on their specific experiences. This tool also scrapes email and calendar data to understand what patterns of sales-staff interaction are most highly correlated with strong performance: How often do they interact, at what stage of the deal, and which specific combinations of people work well in which situations? Ultimately, the company has recognized the power of collaboration and is using data and analytics to change the behavior of thousands of sales reps, guiding them to better outcomes.

Use data to prioritize and personalize capability building

Best-in-class sales organizations place an enormous emphasis on building frontline capabilities during a transformation; this applies to their own sales force and channel partners. They recognize that otherwise there is no hope of any new tool or new approach delivering results. But they don’t stop there. These sales leaders use analytics to get very specific on what skills to teach and to whom in order to reengineer the very DNA of the sales organization.

By using analytics to identify the traits and skills of top performers, it becomes clear where everyone’s gaps are. Then digital tools can be deployed alongside more traditional learning mechanisms to effectively roll out coaching to large and widely distributed sales forces.

The technology company above understood that building frontline skills was the key to a successful and sustainable transformation. But with so many new skills needed, they struggled with prioritizing them. Sales leaders turned to analytics. Our analysis (based on our Sales DNA database on sales rep performance) revealed that although pipeline management was an important skill, it was also one that the organization was already quite good at. The data also showed that top performers were much better at understanding the customer needs and quantifying the value proposition being delivered.

Once the company knew which skills to prioritize, it used multiple formats to deliver the training. First, the company reinforced key concepts through e-learning modules that then were applied in daily routines. These modules included interactive elements and videos from experts on subjects such as how to tailor a value proposition, which reps could then practice on the job.

Second, frontline sales staff had to record their own value-proposition delivery, or elevator pitch, using a digital platform that allowed managers to observe sellers and their behaviors. These mini-testimonials were then benchmarked by assessors and the top performers’ pitches were disseminated to highlight best practices. Managers did their own assessment of the videos but were also flagged on where there were important gaps so that they could provide coaching. The new approach delivered a 5 percent quarter-on- quarter sales increase for those reps whose skills demonstrably improved.

There are times when digital tools have to take a backseat to more traditional training methods. At the chemical company mentioned earlier, much of the training was done using the new data-driven tool, but a huge amount of work had to be done by the sales managers in weekly one-on-one meetings. Managers need to devote significant time and attention to teaching reps about the business and imparting critical-thinking skills so reps can understand what the data are showing and tailor it appropriately.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Sales leaders need to set out bold vision based on where the opportunities for growth lie, but then they need to make that personal for each seller and manager. Advanced analytics can help set granular targets and personalize those targets to each individual region, manager, and seller.

Some of the digital tools that B2C companies use to personalize the customer journey and change consumer behavior can be used very effectively to communicate changes to each individual in the sales organization. Specific tools that work well include shared dashboards, visualizations of activity across the team, “gamification” to bolster competition, and online forums where people can easily speak to one another.

Leading companies also make sure they demonstrate progress, using analytics to communicate real-time insights and share early wins. More sophisticated tools can even show individual contributions toward the common goal, which can be very motivating. Overall, this sort of communication makes the change feel more urgent and real, which in turn creates momentum.

A large technology company uses an incredibly data-rich scorecard fed by data from across the sales organization. It tracks up to 50 metrics, which are updated daily and fed into leadership meetings on a weekly basis so managers can see what’s working and what’s not and adjust course accordingly, feeding insights back to the front lines for rapid realignment where necessary.

Digital tools and analytics insights, if correctly applied, offer a powerful way to accelerate and amplify a sales organization’s capacity to grow. However, let’s be clear: the tool should not drive the solution. Each company should have a view of the new behavior it wants to reinforce and design a practical, integrated approach to leverage digital and analytics.

Measuring B2B’s digital gap

The need to invest operations and processes with digital capabilities touches every company and industry. B2B companies, however, face added challenges. Their customers increasingly gravitate toward digital tools to research and buy products after all, they use Amazon at home just like everyone else does. Yet B2B buying and selling is often more complex. There are more decision makers and influencers involved in final purchasing decisions, often higher price points, an array of products and specifications, and many competing sales channels, both traditional and digital. B2B customers can also have different needs at different stages of the customer decision journey, requiring a balanced approach across channels that includes, at times, digital-only interactions.

To get a better portrait of the digital readiness of B2B companies to respond to this changing landscape, we mined our database of Digital Quotient (DQ) assessments. Over the past three years, we have built a perspective on the most important digital characteristics needed to improve financial performance. 1 We have found that strong scores across management dimensions of strategy, culture, organization, and capabilities correlate strongly with higher margins and shareholder returns. For the first time, we compared the DQ of B2B companies with those of B2C players to get a benchmark of B2B’s digital strength.

Breaking it down

We looked at B2B versus B2C Digital Quotient scores across the four dimensions and also peered into the survey data for details on underlying practices for each dimension.

Strategy: attention deficit. B2B companies are behind B2C companies in how they use digital tools and data to set strategy. They often treat overall strategy and digital strategy differently. Only 10 percent see digital as one of their top three investment priorities, about half the average for B2C companies. As a result, digital strategies are often fragmented rather than adopted coherently and fluidly across the enterprise. Revealingly, fewer than 24 percent of executives understand how their industries are being disrupted by digital. And in the critical customer-facing area of mobile, only 6 percent of B2B companies have a mobile strategy, compared with 30 percent of B2C companies.

Organization: beyond legacy structures. Most B2B players haven’t taken concrete steps to mobilize the organization around digital tools and data. The average DQ score for organizational maturity was 27 (versus 35 for B2C companies), in the range of laggard companies across our global sample, signaling a struggle to push digital initiatives. Only one in four companies said their leadership communicates digital strategy clearly, and most said there is confusion about digital roles as well as ownership of digital initiatives. One reason for the fuzziness: we found efforts to define metrics associated with the effectiveness of digital initiatives were below the levels of B2C companies.

Capabilities: skills deficit. With lower levels of strategic focus and organizational discipline, it’s not surprising that B2B companies are behind those in the B2C sector in digital capabilities. They aren’t using social media or digital-content creation as effectively in their outreach to customers. They are also behind in their use of data and advanced analytics. That shows up in their inability to offer satisfying experiences to customers across channels.

  • This failure is especially acute when customers voice a preference for digital interactions. The data-analytics gap also shows up in B2B companies’ ability to automate decisions. B2C companies were able to automate, and thus better optimize, customer interactions across purchasing journeys, as well as automate their marketing decisions. B2B companies have applied digital automation largely to internal processes rather than to those that are customer facing.

    Culture: a firm base. On average, across cultural DQ measures, B2B companies aren’t far behind their average B2C counterparts in core areas such as trust and internal and external agility. Deep-seated cultural barriers, in other words, shouldn’t hold back B2B digitization. There’s a big gap between leaders and laggards, though, and some pain points that stand out. We found that fewer than 15 percent of companies had adopted test-and-learn approaches to new digital business initiatives, and for a third of B2B companies, it takes more than a year to bring a new digital idea to implementation. Many fewer B2C companies require that much delivery time.

    As the “consumerization” of B2B proceeds, pressure will grow on leaders to accelerate their digitization efforts. Doing so should help boost effectiveness across the board, and it holds particular promise for companies seeking to raise their omni channel game by putting better tools in the hands of sales teams and striking the right balance between new and traditional channels. Our research suggests that as senior leaders elevate digital as a strategic priority, they can look to B2C companies and industries for inspiration.