The future of B2B sales is hybrid

| Article

Key takeaways

  • Hybrid selling—initially an adaptation to the pandemic—is expected to be the most dominant sales strategy by 2024 due to shifts in customer preferences and remote-first engagement.
  • Hybrid sales drive up to 50 percent more revenue by enabling broader, deeper customer engagement and unlocking a more diverse talent pool than more traditional models.
  • Winning B2B organizations are shifting to a more hybrid sales force by implementing four actions that support success.

Today’s B2B customers are very clear about what they want from suppliers: more channels, more convenience, and a more personalized experience. They want the right mix of in-person interactions, remote contact via phone or video, and e-commerce self-service across the purchasing journey. Adjusting to this new dynamic requires B2B organizations to shift from “traditional” and “inside” sales to “hybrid” in order to move with the customer.

In our research on over 2,500 sales organizations, ten-plus years of interviews with sales executives, and our B2B Pulse data, it is clear why more than 90 percent of enterprises plan to sustain the changes made to their sales force structure over the past year to enable hybrid. Customers want to be served in this manner, and sellers want flexibility in how they work. To achieve these goals and optimize sales ROI, B2B sales organizations will need to continue their shift to a hybrid, remote-first model and embrace four proven success factors.

While the move to a more hybrid, digitally enabled model of selling was already on the rise pre-pandemic, our latest B2B Pulse survey shows that hybrid is expected to be the most dominant sales strategy by 2024.1 In a ten-channel world, buyers and sellers not only intend to continue engaging remotely; two-thirds prefer it to in-person interactions at many purchasing stages.

The omnipresence of omnichannel

Hybrid selling orchestrates the customer journey across multiple touchpoints and is, therefore, a critical capability in the omnichannel ecosystem. More than just a remote call center with salespeople working out of their home offices, hybrid selling is a flexible, scalable—and frequently more profitable—way to reach buyers. It utilizes a combination of channels, including remote and e-commerce, to serve customers where they prefer to buy. Because of its omnichannel nature, it enables broader and deeper real-time customer engagement.

On the seller side, as of December 2021, more than 90 percent of B2B sales organizations viewed today’s B2B omnichannel reality as equally or more effective in reaching and serving customers than it was before COVID-19. This percentage has steadily increased from 54 percent since the beginning of the pandemic (Exhibit 1).

Companies are nearly unanimous that their current sales model is more effective than their pre-pandemic model.

Similarly, B2B buyers are increasingly comfortable turning to digital and online channels to meet their purchasing needs. In fact, B2B buyers use up to and sometimes more than ten channels, including online and digital, as part of any given purchase, which is double the number of channels five years ago, and up from seven channels only two years ago (Exhibit 2).

B2B decision makers are using more channels than ever before to interact with suppliers.

While buyers have clearly been willing and able to engage in an ever-expanding omnichannel ecosystem, sales organizations have often not kept pace, wondering whether or how much buyers would actually spend in a fully remote or fully hybrid model. The answer is many buyers are willing to spend big on a single transaction using a remote or self-service model. Seventy-one percent of buyers are willing to spend more than $50,000 in a single transaction, and 27 percent would spend $500,000 or more.

Many buyers even prefer these channels. When asked what they wanted most from their sales rep, one executive told us, “Please stop asking to meet with me in person. I’m busy enough as it is.” Other executives tell us they like the fast and easy access to their suppliers’ product and subject-matter experts that remote engagement allows. As one executive commented, “I no longer have to wait three months for a date when everyone can travel to the same spot at the same time. I can speak with experts more often and on shorter notice.” The long tail of COVID-19 continues to make the logistics of meeting in person challenging. Since the start of the pandemic, companies have publicly announced office-space reductions of 20 to 50 percent and have indefinitely extended full- or part-time work-from-home arrangements for their employees, making remote meetings easier and more practical for buyers in many instances.

Sales teams are also growing more comfortable with a remote-first model. While some teams are eager to dust off their travel gear, many are in no hurry to resume road-warrior lifestyles. Digital engagement works just as well, they feel, largely due to better technology connectivity.

Greater reach, greater growth

The most compelling reason why remote sales is here to stay is that it works. Remote sales reps can reach four times as many accounts in the same amount of time and generate up to 50 percent more revenue. Even partial shifts can generate significant performance benefits. B2B buyers apparently agree. In 2021, more than two-thirds opted for remote human interactions or digital self-service across the sales process, underscoring the need for sellers to offer in-person, remote, and digital self-serve interactions in equal measure if they want to meet buyers’ expectations (Exhibit 3).

The rule of thirds has become entrenched: B2B buyers have settled into using an evenly divided mix of sales channels.

Four ways to supercharge hybrid sales

Teams that outperform invest in systemic changes to improve remote sellers’ ability to sense and respond to customer needs by focusing on agility, customer insights, capabilities, and technology. Prioritizing the following four areas can enable other sales organizations to join the ranks of the outperformers.

1. Agility: Go remote where possible and where customers prefer it—but don’t abandon in-person sales completely

Hybrid sales structures expand upon the pre-pandemic version of inside sales, creating an agile organization in which the majority of selling is conducted virtually and resources are deployed dynamically in response to customer opportunities. In-person engagement doesn’t go away entirely, but it is reserved for specific accounts and moments that matter, such as very large customers with complex needs, or for important opportunities, like buying a new product or solution, where buyers have signaled their preference for face-to-face engagement.

Forty percent of customers using a new supplier prefer to buy only if they’ve met the sales rep in person. An opportunity for in-person engagement when customers prefer it is an interaction option that most sales organizations need to provide.

Remote sales structures enable greater planning flexibility for managers as well. Instead of reviewing account coverage once a year, as is typical, outperforming B2Bs update account priorities and realign resources as frequently as once a month. Flexible planning and teaming structures are also better adapted to companies that primarily sell solutions, because they make it easier for sellers to partner with specialists from across the business in designing best-fit offerings for customers. Many outperformers, for example, create dedicated marketing and engineering teams that can help sellers work across product lines, translate technical specifications, and design bespoke offerings.

Finally, part of embracing agility also means knowing how and how frequently in-person interactions should occur and aligning expectations accordingly with sales teams. For example, buyers state that they expect a balance of traditional (in-person), remote (video conference or phone), and self-service (e-commerce) interaction throughout the entire purchasing journey in equal measure—the “rule of thirds.” Striking the right balance across channels requires organizations to listen and respond differently.

One Fortune 500 financial-services company embraced agility to adapt to changing customer expectations and achieve 20 percent more customer meetings. At the start of the pandemic, the organization faced a drop in client engagement outside of traditional face-to-face meetings, and sales teams’ confidence in remote-selling skill sets was self-reported low. The organization turned to its customers to understand how they wanted to be engaged and found that over 90 percent had not been asked about engagement preferences since the start of the pandemic.

The company decided to act quickly. Cross-functional agile teams were deployed against key problems, including determining the right balance of remote and in-person sales engagement to meet evolving client needs and what new skills were required to win in a remote-first selling environment. Taking a customer-backed view of the sales funnel yielded a new approach and confirmed that customers preferred remote interactions for over 50 percent of sales activities.

In parallel, other teams took a test-and-learn approach to determine what skills, content, capabilities, and technology were required to execute an omnichannel combined sales and marketing strategy. The results made for a competitive advantage: a more satisfied customer base, a more productive sales force, and a more diverse sales talent pool unconstrained by physical location.

2. Insights: Harness customer and seller insights end-to-end

The need for sales representatives to log accurate and detailed information into customer-relationship management (CRM) systems does not disappear in a hybrid setting, but the efforts yield a higher return. When qualitative and manual inputs are combined with data from digital customer interactions, a richer, more timely set of actionable insights emerges. In a traditional, in-person-based sales model, many sales teams struggle to collect and analyze insights from the sales process. Qualitative information is especially challenging to collect, since it depends on individual representatives taking clear notes, faithfully logging calls and meetings, and recalling conversations accurately. In a hybrid world, gathering information and generating actionable insights becomes somewhat easier, since digital and automated interactions can be automatically recorded and analyzed. Automated analytics can track customer interactions over digital channels, generate specific recommendations, and make knowledge sharing less frictional. Digital enablement and tooling systems also allow representatives to log notes more quickly, through transcription of phone or video conversations, for instance.

During the sales process, emails, phone calls, and chats can be recorded and integrated into the CRM, creating a large data pool for activity analytics at the lead and opportunity level. That information can help sellers determine which buyers to prioritize and the most productive ways to spend their time, ultimately shaping go-to-market decisions, including segmentation, engagement channels, and content strategy.

For example, at the top of the funnel, data around buyer expressions of interest can give sellers important signals, such as how long a customer lingers on a particular web page, what reports or videos customers access, and what materials they’re bypassing altogether. One technology organization was able to launch campaigns three times faster by using behavioral insights and A/B testing to determine which marketing collateral was most informative and which enablement material was most helpful in driving representative productivity. This allowed their sales team to prioritize the “warmest” leads and increased quarterly lead-to-opportunity conversion rate by about 10 percent.

Another organization was looking to drive growth in its B2B business specifically, having identified the sales development rep (SDR) role as the overall bottleneck in lead-to-opportunity conversion. They restructured the team to specialize roles, improve omnichannel sequences (digital and human touches), and route leads to different channels based on a newly implemented lead-scoring system. This led to a twofold increase in the SDR lead-to-appointment conversion rate and a fivefold increase in the appointment-to-opportunity conversion rate.

Linking product-purchase data across product silos is another example of how to deliver sales impact from customer-behavior analytics. For example, an e-learning company deployed a machine-learning algorithm to predict, based on historical purchase patterns and product usage, which customers in their install base would be most likely to buy another product in the organization’s portfolio. The exercise identified a 5 percent uplift in total revenue.

The new B2B growth equation

The new B2B growth equation

3. Technology: Optimize tech for a remote-first environment

The pandemic has given rise to increasing use of a vast number of excellent technology tools that sales teams can deploy to their advantage—while also delighting customers across all stages of the funnel. However, the menu of choices can be overwhelming, and sales organizations run the risk of overcomplicating their IT environment if they allow next-generation bells and whistles to distract from core needs.

Outperforming sales organizations apply several strategies to support thoughtful adoption of new technology. They start by addressing critical pain points within their core sales processes. Most sales organizations know where their biggest productivity barriers are. At several sales organizations, for instance, remote sellers had to log into four different applications to get needed customer insights: one to find out who were the key influencers within the buyer’s organization, a second to explore the organization’s purchasing history, a third to access next-product-to-buy recommendations, and a fourth to view the strategic plan for the account. The issue was resolved with the creation of an integrated seller dashboard with a single sign-on. That relatively simple fix made a huge difference in seller productivity, allowing reps to spend 10 to 15 percent less time chasing down information and more time in front of customers.

Tech-optimizing organizations also look for opportunities to optimize remote customer interactions. At one B2B company, front-line sellers easily worked with customers over video, but the conversations lacked the dynamism of in-person interactions. Investing in virtual whiteboards helped fill that void, allowing sellers and decision makers to engage in richer dialogue and arrive at better solutions.

Another B2B company created a decision tree to help employees choose the right form of interaction depending on the situation (information sharing, decision making, collaboration, status update, relationship building). The result was a 30 percent reduction in internal meeting time and a more dynamic rhythm of communication for those who felt “Zoom fatigued.”

Finally, outperformers evaluate where not to invest in technology and where to optimize existing technology. Some organizations may benefit from optimizing their current platforms by reconfiguring dashboards, reorganizing enablement portals, or enhancing integrations between existing systems.

4. Talent: Cultivate next-gen sales capabilities and attract more diverse talent by becoming a learning organization

As sales structures have evolved, so have traditional sales roles, such as field sales and inside sales, with many settling into a hybrid approach. A hybrid seller has the same set of responsibilities as a traditional field-based representative, but hybrid sellers use videoconferences, online chats, and the support of e-commerce to close deals, spending at least half their time working remotely, while field sellers spend most of their time in person with customers or traveling for customer meetings. Hybrid roles also allow for more diverse and inclusive organizations, according to a recent Forbes article, by removing barriers for talented people who were excluded from job opportunities in the past because they were unable to travel daily to an office, including primary caregivers, people with disabilities, and people facing economic housing limitations.2

Many companies are taking advantage of this opportunity, actively focusing on growing new sales roles and building the talent that fills them. In 2021, 60 percent of companies increased hybrid sales teams, and 62 percent added to their digital sales teams. These changes outpaced growth in more traditional sales roles, where increases also occurred, but at a slower rate. Companies say they expect these trends to continue into 2022 and beyond (Exhibit 4).

Hybrid and digital are the fastest-growing sales teams.

With the rapid evolution in sales-team composition, organizations will need to ramp up hiring, training, and capability building to ensure they are not only bringing in new hybrid sellers but also equipping their existing field and inside sales representatives to transition to hybrid roles. One sales organization transitioned its structure to focus on sales pods—groups of representatives focused on a series of specific accounts or territories. This allowed pods to think together strategically about their territories and to create opportunities for mentorship and coaching for newer members. Another organization that committed to increasing its hybrid sales force focused on expanding hiring criteria to include new geographies and a more diverse set of talent profiles to appeal to potential hires who would have been less drawn to a field-sales position in the past.

Apprenticeship and mentoring have traditionally been in-person activities, so when COVID-19 rendered sellers housebound, these activities fell off dramatically. Experiential learning also became more complicated, since representatives could no longer ask impromptu questions of their more experienced colleagues. In addition, remote-selling models introduced new cultural dynamics, such as the need for more intentional networking across digital channels, as seeing fewer people in person on a day-to-day basis has reduced the opportunity to foster new relationships.

These challenges make it incumbent upon sales organizations to reinvigorate how they train new and existing employees. Our research shows that outperforming sales teams are more likely to have made four changes in their learning models.

What outperformers are doing

In a remote-first world, strategic advantage will go to the B2Bs that are quickest to take the following four actions.

1. Change the model

They adapt training formats to virtual environments by shortening sessions, breaking long modules into series, and developing clear learning road maps for individual roles and, in some cases, for individual representatives. Gone are the days of all-day video conferences, which are exhausting for employees and yield lower levels of information retention. Splitting content over several days or weeks and combining self-paced learning with synchronous learning with peers can help employees stay engaged and progress faster.

2. Implement holistic learning journeys

Top sales organizations broaden the scope of learning topics to include remote-specific skills, such as sales conversations on video, virtual negotiations, CRM utilization, and training on digital-pricing and product-recommendation tools.

3. Coach more—and more often

Sales leaders create structured mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities for new and existing sales reps. They make mentorship a requirement for all managers and senior sales reps. They assign coaches to each sales rep and incentivize regular one-on-one sessions, such as virtual “ride alongs,” where the mentee can listen in on sales calls, and “virtual coffee chats” for informal catch-ups. Targeted approaches like these help sales reps ramp up more quickly, develop a strong peer network, and feel more connected to the wider organization.

4. Imbed hybrid roles fully

Successful organizations treat hybrid selling as a new capability that is here to stay and requires a set of new skills. Individuals who are organized, digitally fluent, comfortable presenting on camera, and able to make data-driven decisions are often well suited to a hybrid sales environment. Moreover, since voluntary turnover is increasing in the talent market—40 percent of employees surveyed said that they are at least somewhat likely to quit in the next three to six months—rewriting job descriptions to emphasize these capabilities can attract talent from non-traditional sources with more compelling value propositions.

The pandemic has forced most organizations to experiment and restructure on the fly. Now is the time to think about what changes they want to retain permanently to create more compelling customer and employee value propositions. Where open questions remain, there is opportunity to conduct agile experimentation to see what works and what could be scaled for the benefit of employees and customers. In a remote-first world, strategic advantage will go to the B2Bs that are quickest to take action.