B2B selling in a COVID-19 economy - digital acceleration changed the status quo. Can ROI selling help?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 28, 2020
B2B sales teams ran into the mack truck of the pandemic economy. Amidst the adversity, lessons on the digital future of B2B sales are emerging. But how do you sell when budgets are frozen? Bring on an ROI selling discussion with Mediafly.


The spread of COVID-19 shook up the enterprise software economy. But what about B2B selling? On the surface, it seems obvious: B2B selling goes digital. But that's an extremely simplistic narrative.

In my IT spending piece, I covered where companies are spending on tech - and where they are not. But if we assume all you need to do is redirect your sales team to hot products, fire up Zoom and sell some cloud, that's not going to get it done.

Or: let's direct prospects to our app store and disintermediate the sales team entirely. That's not how it's playing out either. Why? Because B2B selling already changed - buyers are savvier, used to doing their own online legwork. They want an industry partner, not a dog and pony show with invites to the baseball game. COVID-19 put a roman candle inside stale B2B sales approaches - approaches that can't simply be digitized. They must also be transformed from within.

Tom Pisello's book, Evolved Selling: Optimizing Sales Enablement in the Age of Frugalnomics, came out prior to the pandemic. But the description teaser still jumps out:

Today’s B2B buyer is challenged with a more complex buying journey, with more stakeholders, lengthening decision cycles, and no decisions.

No decisions - yes, that sounds familiar. What happens when you add COVID-19 to that mix? Yes, even fewer decisions. Granted, urgent purchases like remote teamwork tools happened quickly. Everything else went on hold. Then, some B2B teams learned how to sell in this environment. But has selling forever changed?

Voila - check this pitch from Mediafly's PR team:

Carson Conant, CEO and founder of Mediafly, feels that as a sales organization in a pandemic era battling budget cuts, reduced staff and shift schedules, value-based, ROI selling is the answer to maintaining existing businesses and fostering continued growth.

Yes, I responded - but: it's kind of obvious that "ROI selling" is the only kind of viable selling right now. So what does that actually mean? Soon I was on the phone with Conant, and the aforementioned Tom Pisello, who also happens to be Mediafly's Chief Evangelist. What changes has Pisello's team seen? Yes, as expected, the sales environment has become completely digital and remote - at least for now.

The end of the B2B sales rep? "Things aren't going back."

But will this stick after the pandemic fades? Pisello thinks the answer is yes. He cited fresh data from Mary Shea of Forrester Research:

I had the pleasure to talk to about a week ago. Shea just sent me some new research from Forrester, and it indicates that 80% of B2B will now be digital and remote.

Yep, as in forever.

What she's saying is that long term, this is a permanent change. We don't think things are going to go back to business as usual. We think that people will not be taking in-person meetings the way they had before... They've become efficient, doing their meetings remote, and they're not seeing a lot of value in meeting in person.

That begs the question:

You know, you pay these account executives quite a bit of money. They are now no different than an inside salesperson. And you certainly don't pay that person the same amount of money.

One of the main characteristics of the pandemic economy: accelerating digital change already in play. Pisello thinks that's exactly what's going on here:

We're right at the end of the B2B sales rep, which is another Forrester prediction... They said by 2020, one in five B2B sellers would be doing different jobs. This could potentially accelerate that.

Change isn't optional:

So if you are a B2B seller, and you want to be effective in being remote and digital, and you want to not be an inside seller, you've got to change your game quite a bit.

B2B digital sales - it's not about typing in a credit card

Hold up - we better define "B2B digital sales" first.

Even if the bulk of the B2B research and evaluation process goes digital, B2B purchases are complex decisions with multiple stakeholders. Digital or not, vendors must still have human - and content - finesse, to provide the intuitive mix of self-service info and product advisory today's buyer's need. We can try to reduce the buyer friction, but a B2B digital purchase is nothing like an Amazon Prime shopping spree. Pisello responded to my rant:

There is a lot more digital activity from each buyer. And yes, the buying committee, they are doing quite a bit of research on their own, and that absolutely is digital as well during this time. So that's what I think Mary means by the digital aspect is that the digital activity has accelerated; a lot of people are doing a lot more research before they need a sales rep.

B2B buying is still not a linear process.

Buyers are going to the web; they're doing some research; they're meeting with a seller, and then they're going and doing additional research - and meeting with the seller again.

I still think a lot of the purchases will come through a formal proposal, a purchase order, and it won't be completed digitally, but more of the journey certainly is being done digital, without sales involved.

Talk digital buying all you want - you better know how to engage a large buying team:

When Gartner looked at how many people are involved in a typical enterprise purchase now, right, the numbers are staggering. It's 14 to 23 people. Now, not all of those are directly involved, right? But there's more stakeholders than ever;  we're not talking about three or four or five. We're talking teams of people that are making these decisions.

The COVID-19 economy has imposed even more cost discipline:

Moreover, post-COVID, B2B buyers have been forced to put off purchases due to COVID-induced budget freezes. We're seeing COVID committees arrive within organizations to specifically evaluate purchases, and put the kibosh on them if they don't meet certain criteria.

Can ROI selling open locked budgets?

Which brings us to the kicker question: how should B2B sales (and marketing) teams respond?

We're finding that a lot of sellers are not arming their champions within the organizations the necessary information to make sure that A, the project is aligned to a priority that company has to solve and B, that there's a solid financial business case focused on outcomes that a COVID committee or a frugal executive or frugal financial buyer would sign off on to justify the purchase.

That rules out the "sexy technology sell" that has fueled premature purchases and elaborate POCs of blockchain, AI and the like. Business impact is the sell now. If next-gen tech helps, fine, but the hype train is gasping for steam.

What about situations where buyers are pushing back on costs, or even citing budget freezes. But you know that your product could actually save them money, such as identifying supply chain waste? Pisello advocates two approaches here.

1. The cost of doing nothing. If your solution can pay for itself quickly, you might be able to cut through the fog of stasis. As Pisello says, inaction is common right now:

Think about a buyer today. The first is that they're frozen in place. Fear amplifies. Fear in the social sphere, fear in the economic sphere, fear from all the change they're dealing with through the crisis. It's emotional; it can overwhelm individuals.

How does a salesperson address that?

 A good salesperson knows they're selling into a fear environment. They figure out ways to make what they're selling less complex. ("Well, we can get this implemented in just a couple of weeks.")  They make it less risky, e.g. "We'll implement this for you."

Perhaps you can take it further, and put your money where your outcome is:

As in: "We'll put skin in the game, and you don't have to pay us until you've actually saved the money that we've promised you."

Pisello concedes that not every sales team can do that. The point is: demonstrate a cost-effective deployment, so that the change cost isn't enormous for the organization.

2. Sell the risk of the status quo. That status quo has a price tag of its own. Pisello:

You basically get the company to recognize that if they stay where they're at, even though there is a perceived high cost and risk of change, and maybe a higher one, because of the time we're in, the cost of sticking with the status quo is still so much higher than that perceived risk and perceived cost, that you call it a no-brainer.

Well, perhaps not a no-brainer, but the point is: if you can convince the seller that their current situation is untenable, change follows. Pisello says these two ROI selling principles come back to neuroscience: "Selling the pain rather than the game is an important neuroscience motivator at these times."

Pisello believes if you understand that buyers are amplifying fear, complexity, and risk, and if you know how to sell into that, you have an edge few others in the market have right now. 

My take

That gives us a view of B2B selling in pandemic times, and how sales teams can respond. But there is more to say. B2B sales and marketing are confronted with a massive change, beyond adjusting sales tactics. I'm of the belief that marketers must become information providers and community builders, whereas enterprise salespeople must become expert advisors with industry chops.

What does Pisello think of that? And what is the role of content in a self-service sales cycle? And how does Mediafly intend to solve these problems? Those questions are worth a follow-on piece.

This piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on reaching the informed B2B buyer.

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