Three Ways to Empower Your Sales Reps in a Digital World

By Jennifer Stanley

You could forgive the sales rep for feeling a little anxious these days. Artificial intelligence, digital advances, and radical new business models have all promised to fundamentally change the job of the sales rep or even eliminate certain tasks altogether.

But, when it comes to digital, the most recent work and research we’ve done with top digital players and sales organizations reveals that the B2B sales rep remains, in fact, highly relevant to customers.

85 Percent of Buyers Prefer Digital Channels – Except for New Purchases

What’s changed is when and how that relevance occurs as a result of the digital revolution.

This year, McKinsey surveyed 1,200 buyers across the U.S. and Europe, and almost 85 percent of buyers prefer “digital-only” channels for actions like repurchasing the same or similar offers. But, it’s almost the reverse when considering a new product or service. At that point, 75 percent of buyers prefer to engage directly with sales reps. And when they use digital channels to connect, their expectations are high when it comes to speed and accuracy of response.

This shift has profound implications for what companies should do with their digital assets to drive growth and increase the relevance of individual sales reps. Specifically, we see three steps companies can take to better enable their sales force in a digital world.

1. Raise the organization’s digital quotient. Companies that invest in a targeted set of digital capabilities can improve their financial performance – and not just by a percentage point or two. In fact, the B2B companies that master these areas are generating 8 percent more shareholder returns and a revenue growth rate 5x the rest of the field. These digital capabilities include tools, insights, and processes geared especially for sales reps. Since customers place a premium on getting new product insights directly from salespeople, putting “customer-ready” digital content (such as interactive product demos, tailored surveys that can be viewed on tablets, etc.) in the hands of reps anywhere, anytime is now a must-do, not a nice-to-have.

2. Provide customers with more self-serve tools. It sounds counter-intuitive to say that customers will need sales reps more when they can access information on their own via digital channels. But here’s the truth: Customers are hungry to self-discover information about suppliers but still want human connections.

Our 2016 study showed that buyers consistently preferred self-serve, digital access to information and comparison engines. But we also found that customers inevitably hit a wall researching on their own and need detailed answers. When that happens, their preferred method of connection remains well-informed salespeople.

By that point in the customer’s journey, the conversations tend to be more substantive and closer to an actual purchase. This makes the use of self-serve tools ultimately a better use of both the customer’s and sales rep’s time.

3. Help reps move fast, simply. Encourage sales reps to make more use of the simplest digital tools. Embracing a digital workflow can free up more of their time to focus on revenue-generating activities. For example, many CRM applications have mechanisms to standardize or automate common email language, proposal templates or – in the spirit of self-serve – allow customers to schedule meetings directly into sales reps’ calendars.

The digital experience is not, as many suggest, a wholesale replacement for professional sales forces. The leaders won’t be the companies that figure out how to replace sales reps with digital; they’ll be the ones that figure out how to use digital to boost their sales reps.

To hear more about how digital is changing customer needs – and about its impact on today’s sales forces – hear Jennifer Stanley speak at the Sales 2.0 Conference in Philadelphia on November 14.

Jennifer Stanley is expert partner (marketing and sales practice) at McKinsey & Company. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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