Sales Relationships in the Digital Age

“Is it possible to create strong, enduring sales relationships in the digital age?”

I would argue that relationships are at the core of everything we do in business today as it was in the past, and relationships are an immensely critical part of any sales outcome. A relationship with anyone both in your personal or in your business life is about “building trust.” Trust is achieved in a relationship when you deliver against expectations consistently using dependable quality communications over time.

Without trust, no relationship forms and sales will not occur consistently

The Baseline

Since the late 1970’s, selling has been taught and executed as a contact sport, where face-to-face meetings with customers were at the heart of good sales practices. A successful salesperson learned to be good at reading customers by using techniques such as eye contact, listening skills, understanding body language, and learning about the subject’s personal life interests which where key ingredients of the selling method referred to as “relationship selling. “Couple that with the fact that most of the tools used to support the sale was analog based.

Technology used in sales such as PC’s or laptops were virtually nonexistent years ago and once, they became more available, they still had very limited use in sales as they did not come with the internet connection and sales applications such as email, messaging, and CRMs until well into the 1990’s. In the mid-late 1990’s cell phones were beginning to prove to be a valuable selling and customer service tool, but until the early 2000s they were expensive to buy and operate and there functionally were limited to simply calling, texting and maybe email.

Digital Coming of Age

Today, digital technology has changed the sales game and the pandemic accelerated the process. In the past few years, digital information and communications has taken a giant step forward and is becoming the common platform of influence for the buyer and a real opportunity for the seller to build a better relationship. Gone are the days of walking the halls and stopping by cubicles and offices to ask what the latest problems are and how they are trying to solve them.

Using digital technology has greatly improved among digitally challenged people and organizations (buyers), as it has become more embedded in every aspect of business. Buyers spend a lot of time performing research and interacting with different digital platforms to gain insights on what products might meet their needs as well as listening to reviews of influence that can sharpen their value assessment. Sellers on the other hand are using digital for sales enrichment, as many companies now use digital communications to engage customers in ever-richer experiences both digitally (websites, mobile apps, social media, etc.), and virtually (live video calls, etc.).

This is leading to even more use of digital communications and according to a recent Gartner study, “80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers will occur in digital channels by 2025.” Today’s buyers expect a more B2C like or personalized experience. Ultimately, it’s about meeting the buyer where they are in terms of channels and expectations.

Download Infographic (PDF) What buyers want from salespeople today (adapted from multiple sources, including Forbes, HBR)
New Customers – An important role with customer acquisition In complex situations, digital connections alone can’t match salespeople’s ability to bridge mutual knowledge gaps with new customers.

  • Salespeople can learn about customer needs and uncover latent needs.
  • Salespeople can orchestrate the shaping of the offering and highlight the sources of customer value. This is especially critical when solutions are not completely defined (e.g., services) or have uncertain dimensions (e.g., logistical requirements).
Existing Customers – Expansion Sales The role of salespeople as mutual-knowledge-gap closers.

  • Help customers realize value, especially when products or services are subscription-based (e.g., SaaS) or consumption-based (e.g., cloud services and consumables). Usage by customers is the key to renewal and growth, and usage depends on value.
Align Buying and Selling Organizations When a buying organization has multiple decision influencers, salespeople need to strive to build consensus. An under-appreciated role for salespeople is to also harmonize thinking within their own organization.

To be effective, your entire organization must be aligned on speaking in value to prospects and customers. All messaging must be on the actual financial and business outcomes that your technology or company can help customers solve. The days of feeds and speeds and feature-driven pitches are over. B2B sales are no longer product focused. With this faster shift to digital, the customer, their needs, and the measurable value you can deliver are essential.

Become an expert at Virtual Connection As simple seller-buyer engagements pivot decidedly to digital, customers continue to turn to salespeople for help with addressing complexity. Sellers are quickly learning that

effective virtual selling requires more than merely shifting what was once done in-person to a video or phone interaction.

  • Almost any sales activity can be done virtually.
  • Virtual selling can work for new customers and products, not just repeat sales.
  • Organize virtual product launches
  • Both buyers and sellers can assemble stakeholders and experts from multiple locations.
  • Meetings can be recorded.
  • Participants can quickly look up information and share it on the screen.
  • Digital and AI-driven prompts (for example, about what similar customers find useful) can guide discussions.
  • Recognize virtual doesn’t work for some hands-on activities, such as demonstrating physical aspects of products. And virtual is less effective with customers who don’t typically spend time at a computer.
The importance of Value Sales professionals have the time to personalize their approach and become better versed in value and the impact of your products on your buyers.

  • The ability to translate their technology or product into the buyer’s language, in non- technical terms, in the customer’s preferred channel, tailored to their unique business is everything.
  • Salespeople need to know how to translate that value into the specific needs of each person and department weighing in on the purchase decision, there is exponentially more impact.
  • Understand what value can do to transform and elevate sales conversations

These recent changes in the use of digital by buyers to support their buying journey is driving major change in the B2B sales process including:

  • When salespeople engage buyers
  • Who is involved in the buying decision?
  • What value can the salesperson offer the buyers that will build the trusted relationships needed to secure the deal.

As customers spend more time interacting through digital channels, salespeople need to focus their time on evolving high value sales activities for both new and existing customers that align buying and selling organizations around a mutually value solution. This has long been the essence of value-based selling and includes building basic worthy information like a real business case with validated assumptions not savings percentage vagaries, but real-world numbers, highlighting specific ways you plan to help them with your specific solution.

A successful sales relationship today requires that you prioritize the customer’s needs and refrain from pushing a solution at every stage of the buying process. A customer’s needs must be fully understood to properly position a solution later. Doing so can only happen by asking questions that delve deep into the customer’s underlying needs. Learning the customer’s needs also enables the sales professionals to incrementally bring value in the form of insights and information connecting directly to their buyers’ goals and challenges. This method establishes trust because the customer benefits from a sales approach that is not self-serving.

The long-term benefits of this approach are considerable because this style of selling seeks to develop the customer’s trust in the sales professional first then in the solution. And the sales process is educational for the customer because the sales professional is guiding them through the problem solving required to decide.

Value Selling Example

An example of value selling, I was recently involved in was where a prospect was looking for skilled marketing resources to help them produce a new set of marketing material to promote their services in their target market. Their digital exploration brought them to TechCXO for that skilled resource. We started by engaging in a series of discussions, where I discovered they had not thought through their needs, could not articulate their goals and they had lots of disagreement as to their biggest challenges they wanted the new marketing material help to solve. By implementing a value based selling approach, I discovered their needs and the issues they have been experiencing in relaying their value to their customers. This value-based approach allowed me to learn the issues and needs before I offered a solution. It also helped me put together a solution that addressed the concerns of everyone in the buying process and offer a real timeline and budget that would bring them the results they were looking for.

If I had not executed this approach, by listening and learning from them about their business first, I would have missed their underlying challenges and desired goals and the project would have ended up as a bad experience. Instead, the customer in happy that someone took the time to understand their needs, frame it in a way that they (not marketing people) could understand the solution and are now enjoying the fruits of the project with increased growth in both leads and revenue due to well positioned marketing communications and messaging.

With this shift to more digital-driven interactions by the buyers, it’s never been more important for salespeople to understand the power of value and their role in the digital age selling model (see table below). A salesperson’s ability to help customers translate their solutions into buyer terminology tailored to their unique business is everything a buyer wants from their sales relationship.

Tracy Hawkey
Tracy HawkeyPartner - Revenue Growth; Interim & Fractional CRO, CSO