Future of B2B Sales: Building the right team and talent to drive growth in an uncertain environment

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Now more than ever, B2B organizations are focusing on their talent. They need to know what roles and attributes can contribute to—and sustain—high performance. Here’s how to assemble the right teams and equip them for success.

The reasons that organizations need to review sales roles are many, but three stand out as being the most important:

  • The future of sales is hybrid: Selling roles are evolving. Hybrid reps make up 50 percent or more of the sales force in financial services, energy and materials industries, and 45 percent or more in high-tech arenas and consumer sectors.
  • Inside sales is getting more muscular: High-powered analytics and digital enablers are revamping inside sales to expand reach and increase penetration of underserved markets by as much 10 percent. AI—while nascent—is top of mind as a next-generation sales tool for many organizations.
  • The race for excellence is becoming a sprint: The B2B sales organizations with the fastest rates of revenue growth are raising the bar in agility, insights, technology, and talent, forcing others to pick up the pace of performance transformation.

Over the past few years, B2B sales organizations have been in a race to meet altered buyer preferences in a challenging labor environment—pivoting reps from the field to at-home offices, enabling remote interactions, and finding out how to create customer intimacy in virtual settings. Many of these changes were made in the tumult of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as the short- and medium-term outlook continue to remain difficult to predict, leaders must lean into the talent and organizational practices that will give them an edge going forward.

However, teasing out what changes to roles and practices will have the biggest impact in sustaining sales excellence has been hard to do. That’s especially true with talent. For example, our research shows that while 85 percent of B2B organizations expect the hybrid sales role to predominate over the next three years, many are still working out what responsibilities, compensation, incentive structures, and target setting make the most sense for hybrid roles, and how best to align the rest of the organization to avoid dueling and overlapping teams.

To bring clarity to these questions, we’ve launched a series of articles. Our first, The big reframe, lays out the foundational capabilities that B2B sales organizations will need to attain top performance. In this article, we detail the talent touchstones that sales leaders need, codifying the roles and attributes that our analysis suggests can most contribute to above-average rates of revenue growth.

Three roles to invest in now

Sales development, business development, channel reps, and customer success roles have all evolved in recent years. Our research and client work suggest that three key positions will set top-performing sales organizations apart in the years ahead. Each of these roles will work across channels, but to different degrees, and each will add value to customers in particular ways.

Hybrid sales reps

Hybrid reps use digital enablement to toggle between face-to-face and remote engagement. As with the field rep and direct rep roles that they replace, hybrid sellers typically will continue to focus on mid-market and enterprise segments, but their work will become much more strategic. Where field and direct reps were traditionally product-focused sellers, hybrid reps will be solution sellers who work across their organization and co-create tailored offerings that suit their customers’ particular needs. They’ll also engage in acquisition work more than in the past, given the easy reach digital channels provide. These shifts will require reps to demonstrate deep business understanding, familiarity with value-based pricing, and negotiation expertise.

Hybrid reps are less likely to meet face-to-face, more likely to be adept at using multiple digital channels, and more likely to spend a greater portion of their time on new customer acquisition or lead generation.

We expect more organizations to add this role. Already hybrid reps make up 50 percent or more of the sales force in financial services and energy and materials industries, and 45 percent or more in high-tech arenas and consumer sectors (Exhibit 1).

The hybrid seller's role is the most common across almost all industries.

Inside sellers

These reps typically will cover smaller businesses and support hybrid teams, aided by tools and analytics that give them greatly expanded reach. For example, a medtech company built a new inside sales channel to better support rural customers who were previously cost prohibitive to serve. They identified a specific set of sales plays using business intelligence applications that prioritized which customers to reach out to with which products. Based on the pilot, the medtech believes this new inside sales model could help it increase penetration of underserved markets by 10 percent and improve ROI by three to five times within a 12-month period.

Digital sales reps

This relatively new role provides a human touch to customer engagement online and converts inbound requests linked to e-commerce. These sellers are typically not quota carrying and spend most of their time on digital channels such as web chat, mobile app chat, text, or email, with some time on the phone. They are incentivized to help buyers through the purchase process using the online signup flows that are available. In this sense, they are more journey orchestrators than they are sellers; the goal is to ensure the customer completes their journey in their digital channel of choice (Exhibit 2).

Respondents were asked to note in which activities sales reps in different roles participated.

Four pillars for outperformance

Having aligned the organization around these sales roles, B2B companies now need to help them deliver on their potential. Our research into the B2B companies with the fastest rates of revenue growth reveals a set of pillars that help to create the conditions for outperformance.

Agility reigns

Outperforming sales organizations guide reps on which formats to consider for different deal stages, letting “the highest and best use of a customer’s time” dictate the medium, format, and duration of interactions. A financial services firm now conducts nearly all of its book of business reviews over remote channels after they learned that screen sharing makes it much easier for customers to view materials in context and engage in richer two-way conversations. The firm’s hybrid sellers also use remote interactions to bring in experts from other parts of the bank, giving customers more frequent access to specialist advisors and deepening the relationship.

Another fast-growing sales organization adapted in-person interactions after observing that senior customer buyers expected these meetings to be shorter and more focused now that virtual channels proved effective in handling prep and follow up. The changes pleased buyers and made it easier for hybrid reps to secure the face-to-face time they needed. Sales leaders helped their reps adapt in kind.

This nimbleness will be key going forward. For example, our research found that two-thirds of buyers are happy to engage over remote-human interactions or digital self-service, but 40 percent prefer to meet a rep in person if they haven’t bought from that supplier before.

Insights at the ready

For hybrid reps to step into consultative roles and for inside sales to extend the company’s reach, organizations must put insights within easy reach. As one sales leader bluntly told us, “If you cannot tell a customer what you’re going to do to enhance their P&L, then you have no reason to exist as a salesperson.”

Our research confirms this. Two-thirds of B2B companies with the fastest rates of sales growth generate account-level intelligence compared to just about half of slower growers. They are also more likely to invest in specialized analytics that provide deal-level insights, surface issues related to a customer’s business and industry, and provide pricing and other guidance.

Sellers also need to use analytics to prioritize where they focus their time. As one chief commercial officer said, “The old days of having relationship management as a key enabler—that’s still there. But even more important is having people who are very digitally engaged and understand how to use digital tools. The salesperson’s ability to understand the data that we give them and use that to map their efforts and prioritize where they’re going is vital.”

Technology unleashed

Most sales organizations are still getting familiar with the technologies and analytics they’ve acquired over the past several years—figuring out how to use and integrate them and apply the insights generated. This is time to ratchet up that effort and move beyond the basics. The chief commercial officer at a nutrition company said, “Our salespeople already have iPads that give them quick access to our CRM system. Now we’re working on data visualization tools to make it even easier for them to see what orders are outstanding, view recent claims, and access feedback from our customer experience surveys.”

Knocking down internal barriers to information sharing is also critical. Here, too, organizations often have many of the needed systems in place—they just need to lean into the necessary pain of integration and automation. One tech leader explained, “The burden on a sales rep for non-customer-facing stuff can get out of whack if the company hasn’t invested in efficiency and automation tools so they can get their job done.” Fortunately, there are ways to reduce that pain and generate desired efficiency gains more quickly.

Lastly, AI is at an inflection point, as described in McKinsey’s global survey on AI. While we are still in the early stages for this technology, generative AI promises to disrupt the way B2B and B2C players think about customer experience, productivity, and growth; our research suggests that generative AI use cases will permeate all aspects of the B2B customer journey.

Talent enabled

Sales organizations need to revamp their hiring practices, repurpose training, and retool coaching and mentoring to support hybrid and remote reps. Leaders aren’t waiting around. For example, a financial services firm that wanted to move to a virtual-first distribution experience realized that it would need to bring on more technical creatives in marketing and more production talent for conferences to drive growth. They evolved their job descriptions to emphasize attributes more closely aligned with success in hybrid, inside, and digital sales, and they introduced screening criteria to test for virtual selling aptitude.

Other companies are rethinking sales education. In lieu of in-person training, companies that are generating faster rates of revenue growth are embracing remote training with on-demand formats that allow sellers to take courses at times that fit their schedules. They are also creating bespoke education specifically tailored to the needs of individual reps and their account opportunities, honing in on the particular capabilities they need to excel in their roles. As one chief revenue officer we spoke to explained, “The training on additional capabilities has been more or less relentless. And you need to be very repetitive in terms of those trainings. For example, we’ve done solution training multiple times every year, but every year people come and say, ‘When are we finally going to learn how to sell solutions?’ So you have to have that continuous learning.”

Top-performing sales organizations also look for ways to enable those who work remotely to acquire the mentorship and coaching they need to excel. Managers in these organizations have begun to pivot to a more adaptive coaching model in which they leverage available data sources to measure and analyze performance. As this chief revenue officer explained, “I have a strong conviction that you need more apprenticeships. One of the ways we do that is to have senior people with a dedicated set of accounts and have junior people shadow them in those accounts, but also have accounts of their own that they’ll deal with mostly virtually.” This sort of apprenticeship structure can allow newer reps to learn from the experts.

The future of sales starts now

Sales organizations understand better than most the value of being proactive. Rather than waiting for next quarter or next year, this is what leaders must start doing now:

  • Clarify the roles that different sellers play. Align on a common understanding of hybrid, inside, and digital sales. Show why you’re adopting these delineations and how they benefit customers and sellers. Engage teams in that process and find out what they think is working and isn’t.
  • Enable and celebrate wins at every level. Reward sellers who are “living the values” of the evolved organization beyond just attaining their quota. For example, recognize sellers who step up to mentor junior peers and take the uncomfortable step of using analytics (and not intuition) to guide the sales motion. That recognition should include relevant public acknowledgement and be backstopped by appropriate financial incentives.
  • Utilize what you have. Take a hard look at existing data, tools, and resources and challenge teams to identify new high-value opportunities from under-used functionality, applications, or use cases. This practice can help foster the scrappy, resourceful culture that hybrid sales organizations want and need.

In the hybrid, increasingly competitive world of sales, those B2B organizations that act proactively to get the right talent in the right roles will lead the way in revenue growth. Make it happen now.

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