In this episode, ThinkLab interviews Julia McClatchy, an associate partner at McKinsey & Company, on how and why hybrid selling is becoming the dominant B2B sales role. We also share an excerpt from an episode of ThinkLab’s new podcast, MPowered, which gives practical advice on what design specifiers are looking for on brand websites.
Our first guest, Julia McClatchy, explores detailed research findings on how the B2B sale is evolving. She also shares four pieces of advice for brands trying to prioritize their investments and supercharge their hybrid selling strategy. Next, we share an excerpt of a recent episode of MPowered, ThinkLab’s new podcast, created in partnership with Material Bank. The clip discusses what designers need from a website at different points of their specifying journey.
In this episode:
[13:26] Julia details what outperforming hybrid sellers are doing to get ahead.
[16:00] “Let’s listen truly to what our customer preferences are. OK, they’re different than they used to be. Therefore, we have to change, too.”
[19:25] Julia explains why offering more personalization leads to more sales growth.
[23:40] A clip from MPowered discusses the website features that most appeal to designers when they’re seeking inspiration.
Connect with our interviewees on LinkedIn:
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Design Nerds Anonymous is a proud member of the SURROUND Podcast Network. Discover more shows from SURROUND at surroundpodcasts.com. This episode of Design Nerds Anonymous was produced and edited by SANDOW Design Group, with music from Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to the podcast production team: Hannah Viti, Wize Grazette, and Samantha Sager.
Amanda Schneider: [00:00:00] There’s a funny LinkedIn post that we often share with our clients. It says, “Imagine if B2C companies shared information like the average B2B website: Want to know the calories in this protein bar? Sign up for this webinar to find out. Want to know if it contains peanuts? Click here to talk to an expert.”
And while we chuckle at this, it’s a great example of why we need to find new balance between digital and human tools in this B2B world.
Trust is still at the core of all business interactions, but in this episode, we want to challenge that how trust is built today is markedly different in this increasingly hybrid era. Key to building trust will be transparency and sharing the right pieces of information and insights in the right way.
To kick off this episode, we want to explore a recent article from McKinsey. [00:01:00]
Julia McClatchy: The article is called “The Future of B2B Sales is Hybrid,” and the genesis of the article was a survey of 3,500 decision-makers across 12 different markets. We’ve actually interviewed or surveyed over 20,000 people since 2016. And this is to understand how needs and preferences have been shifting.
What we’re seeing is hybrid selling is the fastest growing sales role, and it’s going to be the most prominent one in the next couple of years. We have to flush this out and help organizations understand: What is hybrid selling? Why is it so important? Why is it that customers are asking for it? And what do you do to actually shift to a more hybrid model?
Amanda: The voice you just heard was from Julia McClatchy. She’s an associate partner at McKinsey & Company, and one of the key researchers exploring how hybrid selling has, is, and will evolve. In chapter one, Julia will take us through detailed findings on how the B2B [00:02:00] sale is evolving, including her top three findings from all of their research and practical advice as to how to respond. Then in chapter two, we’ll dive a bit deeper with some advice specifically for our product manufacturer partners, about what design specifiers are looking for.
Welcome to season four of Design Nerds Anonymous, the podcast that sparks curiosity at the intersection of business and design. I’m your host, Amanda Schneider, founder and president at ThinkLab, the research division of SANDOW Design Group.
So, let’s dive into chapter one. Our first interviewee and assistant to setting the stage is:
Julia: My name is Julia McClatchy. I’m an associate partner at McKinsey & Company, based out of Philadelphia. I help organizations with commercial topics. So, marketing and sales strategy, omnichannel strategy, future of work. I do a lot of my research in exactly what we’re going to be talking about [00:03:00] today, which is the evolution of buying preferences for B2B buyers and sellers, kind of, in the age of omnichannel.
Amanda: The article states that 90 percent of enterprises plan to sustain changes made to their salesforce structure to enable this hybrid selling over traditional selling. And as you said, it’s expected to be the most dominant sales strategy by 2024. So, what do you think are those new B2B customer demands that are going to remain prominent or the shifts that are going to happen?
Julia: Maybe the biggest headline is that the pandemic really accelerated the consumerization of B2B. And lots of sectors, lots of industries, lots of different pieces of research talked about that, but now it just — it’s here. And what that means, practically, is a few things in terms of shifts in B2B buyers: channel usage, their interaction preferences, and their buying behavior.
Amanda: So, let’s unpack these. First up, number one: [00:04:00] B2B decision-makers are using more channels than ever to interact with suppliers.
Julia: Channel usage is probably the most straightforward [change], which is just that B2B buyers are increasingly comfortable turning to digital and online channels to meet all of their purchasing needs but throughout the entire process, from when they’re doing research all the way through to reordering something.
We have seen in our latest research that B2B buyers are using up to 10 channels, including online and digital, which is double the number of channels five years ago. So that’s just — that’s a huge shift.
Amanda: Number two: The rule of thirds has become entrenched.
Julia: The second is interaction preference. So this is, this one was to me the most interesting piece, which is that buyers state that they now expect a balance of traditional (so, in person), remote (like videoconference or over the phone), and then self-serve (which is e-com). Those three different types of interaction, they expect them in [00:05:00] equal measure throughout the entire purchasing journey. That’s what we call kind of the rule of thirds: a third, a third, a third.
And this was fascinating for lots of reasons. It’s probably the biggest impetus for change for B2B sellers, because they then have to match those preferences.
Amanda: And the third relates to shifting buying habits and behavior, namely that clients are willing to spend more today, even in a self-serve format.
Julia: The third piece is buying habits. So, going back to that “a third, a third, a third,” the preference for self-serve sometimes falls into the research category, or just trying to find some answer to a question they have, but we’ve also seen it impact willingness to spend.
Seventy percent of buyers in our latest research were willing to spend more than $50,000 in a single transaction. Thirty-five percent of those were willing to spend up to $500,000 or more on a single transaction online. That 35 percent is up from, I think, 27 percent last year. So, we’ve just seen that [shoot] [00:06:00] up and up and up.
So, those three things — the number of channels, the interaction preferences, and then the buying behavior — those three alone are pretty big ones. But I think that’s forced B2B sales organizations to just really rethink their client-facing strategy.
Amanda: Ten is a lot more channels than before. So, do you have advice for those brands trying to prioritize those investments and where to focus?
Julia: In the article, we talk about four different things. The four things are all around agility, insights, technology, and talent.
Amanda: Number one, her first piece of advice to supercharge your hybrid selling strategy: Adopt agility. Go remote where possible and where customers prefer it, but don’t abandon in-person sales completely.
Julia: For me, agility is the key here, because what is at the core of all of this change is adopting a new, more agile approach to have your sales organization reflect [00:07:00] your buyer preferences. I would start, just from an advice standpoint, understanding when and how frequently your customers want in-person interactions. When should those occur, and then how can you align those expectations accordingly with sales teams?
When we were doing this research, we had some sort of hilarious responses from some of the in-person, kind of, follow-ups. Like “I, I wish my sales rep (or insert whatever, you know, what they’re called in a specific sector), I wish they would stop asking to meet me in person. Because I don’t want to meet them in person. I don’t see the value. I can meet them just as effectively online remotely, and by the way, I can do it a lot faster if I need a piece of information or I want to talk to them about something. I don’t want to wait.”
So, number one is understanding: What are your customer’s preferences? When do they want to meet? We know that there wasn’t variance among different sectors: 40 percent of customers will only buy the first time if they’ve met the sales rep in person. So, that’s a great opportunity for in-person [00:08:00] engagement when customers prefer it. But then how do you then say: OK, we know in-person’s important in some instances. How do we think about understanding when we should be engaging remotely over Zoom, over Teams, over, you know, Webex, whatever it is? And then, when should we be offering information, even conversations digitally, just based on preference?
So, I think the punchline here is bring more agility into your sales organization. And then that creates space for your sales organization, for the individuals, to make really thoughtful decisions about which channels to use, which moments really matter for the customers, and then that helps them understand where the customers are. There just is an immediate elimination of friction between expectation and reality.
Amanda: Number two, her second piece of advice is my personal favorite: Empower insights. Harness customer and seller insights end to [00:09:00] end.
Julia: The more insights that sellers have, the smarter they can be in determining which buyers to prioritize spending time with, how to spend their time, like, physically, where they should be. Should they be at home in the office? Should they be out traveling? And then, what content should they be deploying in between those interactions or for prospecting to drive the most engagement?
So, to get there, I would say that means taking a really hard look at how your organization thinks about collecting, aggregating, disseminating data. In traditional sales organizations, insights — just to make the term broad — were really dependent on the sales team’s ability to log accurate and detailed information into a CRM. And when you’re traveling, that’s really hard to do, and obviously it’s from your own perspective, so it’s not exactly objective. But using automated analytics can really help because you can track — if we were on a Zoom right now, we would be able to track how much time we spent [00:10:00] talking, how much time I spent presenting, what content I used. I could ask for your feedback on the content live.
And using automatic analytics to actually be able to take that information and put it into a CRM really helps generate more predictive behaviors and understandings of what it is that your customers are looking for. So, understanding how you can use digital and implement tooling, advanced analytics, to just quickly generate insights, capture them, aggregate them, and disseminate them.
Amanda: Number three, and perhaps expected advice: Embrace technology. Optimize your tech for a remote-first environment.
Julia: Let’s talk about two flavors of this. I’d say the first flavor — which isn’t mentioned as deeply in the article, but I think it’s important to hit home on — is the practical application of technology that you’re using as a sales organization to just drive greater engagement.
Do your sellers understand how to use any type of medium that your customers would want to use to engage with you? Do you [00:11:00] understand what the difference is between how to deliver information on a phone versus on a Zoom versus on a Webex versus on a Teams? Do you understand how to have the best lighting and background that you possibly can to show up professionally?
So, that’s like the basic side of it. And then the less basic side is: Can you have a more thoughtful adoption of new technologies that really address pain points within the sales process? What is it that’s holding your sales organization back from accessing insights today? Is it that they have to go into five different portals to, to figure out, “Oh, OK. I see purchasing history in one portal. I see web behavior in another portal. I can see ‘Insert any other sorts of insights you would want to learn’”? Is there a way to aggregate that and make it more easily accessible? Which is just a, it’s a more efficient way of optimizing technology around use cases versus thinking, “Oh my God, we have to have every technology under the sun.” It’s about defining really specific use cases around pain points that makes life easier for your sellers.
Amanda: And number four, [00:12:00] last but certainly not least, is expand talent. Cultivate next-gen sales capabilities, and attract more diverse talent by becoming a learning organization.
Julia: And then the last, tied with agility for my favorite, is talent. Hybrid sellers represent a more efficient and effective way to reach customers, and we know that top-performing sales organizations are growing their hybrid sales teams. On the benefit side of this, hybrid sellers allow for more diverse and inclusive organizations, which is a huge benefit. Because we’ve seen a lot of organizations get creative in where they look for talent because location doesn’t matter.
We talked a little bit about the moments that matter in terms of understanding: What are the moments that matter for your customers? OK, what are the moments that matter for your employees, in terms of helping them onboard and learn critical skills that they may have less experience in, helping them have connectivity with communities and/or their managers? So, I think this idea of talent is being a [00:13:00] huge unlock but also a really critical focus area for organizations, because I think it’s incumbent on organizations to think differently about how they onboard, train, and retain employees in a really thoughtful way that’s oriented around moments that matter.
Amanda: We ask Julia, as we look at talent, what is she observing from the true outperformers? What are they doing to get ahead?
Julia: When you look at all of our stats and see the number that have grown hybrid sales and the number that have actually increased client engagement and reach, etc., they are the ones that are treating hybrid selling as a capability that is here to stay.
And I hope that, more than two years in and through all of the data that we have published, it’s become clear that these needs and preferences have actually settled. We’re not seeing huge variances in terms of the need to engage across multiple channels. You know, it’s not all in person. It’s not all remote anymore. That was the beginning of the pandemic. Now it’s actually settled into this equal measure of [00:14:00] in person, remote, and digital.
So, when you think about those preferences and then you consider hybrid selling as a real capability that is actually now permanent and is a real unlock to be able to meet those changing expectations, that’s what most outperformers are doing. And that cascades, right? So, if you treat hybrid selling as a capability that’s here to stay, then you understand that it requires a new set of skills, a different approach to training, and an ability to attract and retain talent that is different than previously. But in a great way, because it’s typically more diverse, which adds creativity to any organization.
Amanda: The flip side of that is where some of our talent is struggling today. The era that many of our incredibly seasoned sales reps were hired in B2B sales was the era of relationships, this era of rep as the fount of knowledge. And I love everything you said about this buyer journey and really allowing you to customize it, because that’s where a lot of our industry-specific research is going. [00:15:00] But that is also a loss of control for the rep.
Your article states that companies are nearly unanimous that their current sales structure is more effective than their pre-pandemic model. But I would argue that some of those sellers are really struggling with that. So, what is your advice to those sellers that are feeling maybe this sense of a loss of control?
Julia: Fear of the unknown is a completely reasonable emotion to have right now, much less the fact that we’ve all been going through a pandemic.
If you read between all of the lines in the article, I hope that the takeaway is still that sellers are really at the tip of the spear of client or customer interaction. So, the idea isn’t to take them away from that point of ultimate control over the relationship. It’s to equip them with many more tools, many more insights, and much more support from the rest of the organization in how they can maximize the effectiveness of that relationship they have with customers.
And so, it’s not saying, “We’re taking everything away from you.” [00:16:00] It’s saying, “Let’s listen, truly, to what our customer preferences are. OK, they’re different than they used to be. Therefore, we have to change, too.” How do they differ across channel? How do they differ in terms of what content they want to digest? What does that mean for how we then need to go to market at different stages of the sales funnel? The organizations that have really been out ahead have made some real shifts to make that a reality. I realize it’s one thing to hear it, another thing to actually do it.
Amanda: And here’s some additional advice as to how to actually do it. First up: Shift to a team model.
Julia: The first is shifting the model of sales organizations, so thinking much more around teaming, as opposed to individuals as the driver of success. How can you stand up an agile sales pod, for example? Where you bring together cross-functional talent from inside the organization to support that salesperson who’s going out and having the conversations being deployed in person when it actually matters, but is actually thinking differently.
Amanda: Second: A/B [00:17:00] test content to support your sellers digitally. (And if you’re not familiar with that marketing term, A/B testing simply means testing two different options, A and B, to see which performs better.)
Julia: A/B testing content, constantly polling customers to understand how their needs and preferences have changed, tailoring content to fit the medium in which it’s being sent out to customers.
Amanda: But today, with tools like HubSpot, clients vote with their clicks. So just know it’s not necessarily a survey, but tracking what clients interact with and finding efficient ways to inform reps of those digital insights. And third: Upskill and coach for hybrid selling.
Julia: Include skills that sellers now need. How do you have engaging conversations on video? How do you do something like negotiate virtually? Negotiation is hard enough on its own; it actually is different remotely. How can we actually help [00:18:00] you understand what those new skills are and build them?
I think coaching is the most basic, but the most important thing that can happen. We know that increasing coaching drives better-performing sales organizations, and within a remote environment, coaching needs to be way more structured than it is. So, it needs to be weekly coaching, touch points, very clear goals. Maybe riding along, so to speak, remotely — which is way easier to do now than it used to be — to be able to give live feedback after customer conversations have occurred. So, I think it’s kind of changed the model. I think, shift the learning journeys to be much more holistic, and recognize that there are new skills required to be successful.
Amanda: I challenge that, in addition to the reps struggling, some organizations are struggling today with the level of transparency desired (and required) by today’s B2B clients, in terms of putting it all out there digitally.
Julia: I [00:19:00] think it links back to the first question we talked about around consumerization of B2B. Not surprisingly — although it’s a bit surprising how long it took —B2B customers are accustomed to higher levels of transparency, greater levels of personalization, and more channels, including mostly those that are digital, in their personal lives. So, of course, that’s going to extend into the way that they think about engaging in their work lives.
So, companies that have the most tailored one-to-one outreach were 1.7 times more likely to have gained share in the past year, relative to those who send out moderate levels of personalization, who weren’t really thinking about, “Hey, how can I give you maximum visibility into what might be most relevant for you from a product standpoint or who I am as a seller to build that emotional one-to-one connection?”
We also know this idea of using more channels to deploy information, send facts out, give pricing transparency — the more channels that are used, the more growth that we’ve [00:20:00] seen. So just north of 70 percent of companies that sell using seven or more channels grew their market share at a significantly faster rate than those who didn’t.
And so, if you just keep those two numbers in mind, more personalization equals more growth; more channels equals more growth. It’s very clear why being able to deliver information across all of these different channels, as opposed to having only some information available online, is a huge unlock for market share.
Amanda: As you think about challenging our audience — and as we’ve said, our audience is traditionally very analog, very touch and feel, very relationship driven — how would you challenge them to think differently and think bigger?
Julia: By listening. I think if I’ve learned one thing through all of this research, it’s that true, deep listening unlocks a lot of needs and preferences that have not come to the surface in B2B previously. And I think [00:21:00] exploring different ways to listen to your customer base, whether that’s through just talking to them, through surveys, through monitoring their digital engagement. Listening really matters now. And when you don’t listen, you see a real drop in loyalty, and it’s so simple, yet so many aren’t doing it. So that’s my challenge.
Amanda: So, hopefully, you’ll take on her challenge, listen, and use these insights to build trust in new ways with your B2B clients in today’s digitally transparent era. And, in the name of helping product-focused companies specifically, in chapter two, we’ll share a short clip from another new podcast created by ThinkLab that recently launched in partnership with Material Bank.
It’s called Mpowered, and you can find it wherever you get your podcasts. It’s a short-form podcast launching every Monday morning, truly focused on helping empower our beloved product reps. Each episode [00:22:00] is around five minutes and answers one key question.
Erica Waayenberg: I’m this week’s host, Erica Waayenberg, head of research and content at ThinkLab. We’ll be answering one key question each week. This week’s question: What do designers need from your website?
ThinkLab data shows that 95 percent of designers start their product discovery search online. As B2B buyers get increasingly used to self-serving, and seemingly unlimited access to information in their lives as consumers, they expect more from the B2B world digitally.
But don’t worry. This self-serve information-seeking doesn’t diminish the value of the rep. We know that a great rep often makes the difference between preference and distaste for a brand. However, your digital presence on your website and other platforms will likely make a difference on where designers and architects start.
So, here’s some advice on how to make your site perform. What designers are looking for on your website is fairly straightforward. They want to self-serve inspiration and information that allow for specification decisions to be made quickly and easily. Let’s take a moment to examine each of these elements with a bit more context.
Inspiration: When a designer or architect is coming to your website looking to be inspired, imagery and visualization tools are what they need most. What can you do? Build a robust and searchable gallery of high-res images they can pull for their boards. Bring attention-grabbing imagery that expands their view of application possibilities to the forefront with fresh hero images on your homepage. And while you’ve got their attention, make the product detail pages work harder. Providing product visualizers where they can select their finishes — or view a material in the context of a space, or on a product to understand the scale and repeat — and then be able to download the cut sheet with those selections documented and visualized is a huge help.
Now that we have the inspiration portion of the equation covered, let’s dive into what type of information they are seeking. Deciding what product is best fit for a client requires a lot of fact finding to make the most informed decision possible. Architects and designers are considering aesthetics, performance, and functionality, in addition to considerations for project budget, timeline, and sustainability objectives. It should come as no surprise, then, that architects and designers crave information transparency. Think materiality, detailed dimensions, construction, warranty, sustainability, pricing, lead times, the ability to customize or not, and more. They want straightforward answers that are easy to find, and their hope is to find them in a consistent manner across your site.
Think of product information in the same way you think of nutrition facts. The beauty of nutrition facts is its simple, consistent, and transparent format. You know right where to look to find any specific bit of information you’re seeking, and it helps you to make an informed decision. If every product detail page included all of the information in a downloadable asset, that supports a designer’s decision-making process. You are streamlining their process and creating fans of your brand.
So don’t be discouraged if architects and designers are not reaching out to you at the first sign of a new project. In fact, if you’ve set up your website to be robust as a resource for them, you may not hear from them until they’re a bit further down the road. But when you do, you’ll have a much more viable opportunity in hand, because you have enabled them to have already gone through the vetting process and conceptual reviews with their clients on their own terms.
Amanda: You can find more from our Mpowered podcast — that’s M and the word powered — wherever you get your podcasts.
Later this season you’re going to hear from special guest, acclaimed author Ryan Jenkins, [00:27:00] on reaching the next generation of designers. Be sure to hit the “Follow” button to subscribe to this podcast so that you don’t miss an episode!
Design Nerds Anonymous is a proud member of the SURROUND Podcast Network. Discover more shows from SURROUND at surroundpodcasts.com. This episode of Design Nerds Anonymous was produced and edited by SANDOW Design Group. Special thanks to the podcast production team: Hannah Viti, Wize Grazette, and Samantha Sager.