Is traditional B2B sales obsolete?

By Anders Björklund

Is traditional B2B sales obsolete?

The most progressive commercial B2B departments reconfigure their operations to address today's deep misalignment between how suppliers try to sell and buyers want to buy.

So is the future of B2B sales and marketing here? Is there an end to traditional B2B sales and marketing? Can we now welcome a modern world supporting the new B2B buying?

Most B2B sales and marketing organisations function serially or linearly. Traditional digital marketing engages potential customers early in their buyer journey, qualifying their interests and fitting them for sales rep engagement through digital content, automation and lead nurturing.

Once those qualified leads have been designated marketing or sales qualified, individual sales reps are supposed to take over, pursuing those leads through in-person, outreach or virtual interactions. 

Finally, in the middle is the handover, where marketing passes the qualified leads to sales, and online customer interaction gives way to in-person customer interaction.

Even in more advanced ABM approaches, those linear physics remain predominantly unchallenged—first, the marketing department, then the sales department. 

And, more accurately, first using scaled digital engagement and interactions, followed by targeted sales rep interactions. And the decades-long pursuit of sales and marketing integration has centred on progressing deals along that journey as seamlessly as possible, aiming to eliminate friction and align data, metrics, incentives and reporting to ensure the handoff from digital marketing to human selling is as efficient as possible.

The rise of digital B2B buying

The main challenge with the described way of working is that B2B buying has evolved dramatically to a far more digitally dominant buying and purchasing behaviour, rendering much of the traditional commercial model outdated and almost obsolete.

In a Gartner pre-pandemic survey of 750 B2B customer stakeholders involved in complex solutions purchases, customers reported spending 17% of their total buying time interacting directly with supplier sales teams.

Instead, much of their buying and purchase activity comprised learning independently online (27%), learning independently offline (18%), and building consensus across a range of internal stakeholders (22%) and external stakeholders (11%).


Nevertheless, as small as it is, 17% of purchase activity allocated to virtual and in-person supplier interaction represents all suppliers, not each supplier. 

So, assume three suppliers are competing for the same opportunity. In that case, customers divide that time equally across all three, leaving any given sales team with a small window of opportunity to interact directly with that customer — perhaps five to six per cent of the total buying time, if they are fortunate!

The small window of direct interaction for many sales managers represents the most significant challenge their sales reps and teams face today. So, it's frustrating that they lack access — and therefore lack the traditional opportunity — to materially impact purchase deliberations and bend customer preference toward their company's unique offering. But, that is not very meaningful to spend time on; the modern B2B buying journey leaves supplier sales teams minimal space for traditional selling. 

Multi-touchpoint buying

Today's B2B buyers rely heavily on digital data and information to support the progress of their entire buying journey. For example, in survey after survey, B2B buyers engaged in the complex purchase report using digital — particularly supplier's websites — with the nearly equal frequency as the supplier's sales reps to gather the input and information necessary to complete a range of buying jobs, e.g., identifying problems, exploring solutions, building requirements, selecting suppliers. Ultimately, customers have become agnostic regarding where they find the information necessary to advance purchase deliberations.

In this sense, for sales managers seeking to regain customer access, customers rarely want access to sellers. Customers sought out sales conversations not for the sake of the discussion itself but as a practical means to acquire the information needed to complete a specific set of buying jobs. 

Now that most of that information is available online, sales reps are no longer the main channel to the customers but one possible channel. And customers are leaving many sales reps struggling to provide unique value to merit the additional time and effort of person-to-person interactions.

Despite individual sellers' struggle to remain relevant, organisational leaders will find an essential lesson for future commercial success: To help B2B buyers buy isn't a sales challenge; it's an information and accessibility challenge. 

The companies that best provide customers with the information they most urgently seek, specifically through the channels they most clearly prefer, are better positioned to drive success in a rapidly evolving commercial landscape.

A sales rep-free experience

B2B buyers strongly prefer a purchase experience free of sales rep interactions. Both practical experience and data-driven evidence indicate a potentially dramatic generational shift in customer engagement preferences across the coming years.

Some commercial managers argue that many complex solutions require a certain level of collaborative customisation, necessitating human interaction, effectively rendering sales reps "essential workers" in B2B buying. 

Yet, most people would equally agree that the current B2B buying experiences are nowhere near robust, nuanced, or advanced enough to support customers that prefer to buy entirely independently.

Still, because today's customers can't buy complex solutions without sales rep involvement doesn't mean they wouldn't prefer to do so if possible. 

In that sense, what's most dramatic is how suppliers and customers are increasingly out of sync regarding how they'd prefer to interact. As a result, suppliers don't sell the way many customers prefer to buy. And this preference gap exposes suppliers to the risk of a competitor bridging that gap in new and simplified forms.

Your new commercial engine

Shifting buying behaviours affects your organisational structure.

While once an accurate proxy for the underlying buying behaviour was meant to approximate, the commercial serial engine is hopelessly outdated and out of sync — with how B2B buyers buy today. In the modern B2B buying journey, there is no handoff from digital to in-person or from marketing to sales.

As I see it, B2B buyers are channel-agnostic in behaviour and digitally dominant in preference.

As a result, some customers may seek sales rep input early in a deal to explore available solutions and then return to digital to build their requirements. 

Later on, as their additional stakeholders become involved, they may revisit — possibly even rethink — their initial problem altogether, leading them to re-evaluate or reconsider desired solutions, both with and without sales rep involvement.

Simply aligning sales to marketing ensures a seamless deal progresses, and the buying process represents a woefully unsatisfactory solution to a radically new buying reality.

Instead, the importance of knowing your customers and providing them with the information they need when they need it is greater than ever.

The alternative is to rebuild your organisation and way of working from the ground up.

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Anders Björklund
Founder, CEO & Strategist since 2001. Anders provides thoughts and reflections about how to think about onlinification and digitalisation in B2B.
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