Picture Robert, sitting among a bank of similar professionals, in a city near Provo, Utah. He is busy looking at different monitors that provide him data in real time, and typing on his keyboard and speaking into his headphone mic. No, he is not an air traffic controller.
This is what is shaping up to be the future of business-to-business marketing and sales.
What is Virtual Sales?
Virtual Sales is the model where a single human contact inside a company, the virtual sales rep, provides personalized, anticipatory, concierge-level service a business buyer needs to make purchase decisions. These virtual sales reps are marketers, salespeople, and service technicians, all rolled into one.
An excellent example of this model is already available in the B2C marketplace today: The Apple Genius Bar.
Modeled after the Ritz-Carlton concierge service, the rep behind the counter at the Genius Bar is able to help any customer with any issue or question they may have.
How can they do that? With extensive automation behind the scenes. Sophisticated marketing and customer service automation allows these geniuses to produce answers at the touch of a button, virtually any problem the customer may have.
The virtual sales rep, similarly, will depend on advanced automation support at the back end to field prospective buyers' questions and concerns. Marketing departments will play a major role in providing this support.
The virtual sales model fits into the auto racing analogy well. The virtual sales rep is the driver that everyone sees. The pit crew that makes a driver successful consists of the marketing and customer service teams, both in person and in automation.
Why are companies evolving Virtual Sales?
Today's business buyers are changing the way they approach purchase decisions. They want to know the product offering by doing homework on their own.
The needs of these self-sufficient buyers are largely met by content marketing efforts. Marketing content, suitably created and made available, will engage the buyer for almost half the purchase cycle.
Only when they need additional info such as deeper understanding of the product, a price quote, or a product demo, do they choose to contact the sales rep. And when they do, they expect the rep to have the answers ready, or get them in real time.
This trend is only continuing. Bureau of Labor Statistics offers data on job growth expectations from now to 2020 (table on the right). Notice how All Sales are lagging overall growth. Even excluding retail sales, Tech Sales are still lagging overall growth. Contrast it to Market Research which is exploding by leaps and bounds, hinting at the increase in the self-sufficient buyers.
International Data Corporation (IDC) projects a change in the way B2B purchases unfold in the years to come. The graphic on the right indicates where the purchase cycle timeline is headed. Notice how self sufficiency is expanding and how severely outside sales is shrinking.
Even virtual sales needs to be accomplished in about a third of the purchase timeline.
Companies that embrace the virtual sales model enjoy cost efficiencies:
- Automation enables higher productivity with fewer sales force
- Quality data and content allows less experienced people to conduct some sales tasks
- Improved buying service leads to higher conversion rates
- The best sales people enjoy better productivity through the same tools and content that help virtual sales reps
So, companies with a good support for virtual sales will be the winners in the future.
When does Virtual Sales make sense?
Purchase risk is the main factor that controls when virtual sales becomes useful to a company. The higher the purchase risk, the higher the need for virtual sales.
Factors that influence purchase risk are:
- Cost. Low cost, eCommerce transactions need virtually no sales involvement. Higher costs that bring in additional people to the approval cycle bring in a need for virtual sales.
- Complexity. Even low cost products that are challenging to tailor or implement will benefit from virtual sales. Examples are cloud computing solutions that are complex at the back end.
- Familiarity. Even high cost products, when purchased for the nth time by the same buyer, needs no sales involvement due to familiarity. When it is purchased for the first time by the company, or for the first time by the person in charge of the purchase process, virtual sales will be key.
The following table captures how different parts of the marketing/sales cycle come into play with differing buyer-perceived purchase risk.
What are the important success factors?
The overarching success factor is the mindset that the needs of the prospective buyer are paramount.
In line with this mindset, marketing must provide a two-pronged support to the purchase process.
- Buy Side support. This consists of all the information the company provides the buyer directly. This falls into the broad classification of content marketing, including eCommerce, advertising tools, data analytics, and generally information on the web.
- Sell Side support. This is the support structure that helps the virtual sales rep behind the scenes. This includes customer relationship management (CRM), marketing automation, sales enablement, tools for pricing, configuration, etc. An emerging technology in this space is cognitive systems which is sure to play a larger role in the future.
A major success factor is to have flexible, recombinant content available for virtual sales. Characteristics of such content are:
- Answers all the questions from the customer
- Constructed in smaller chunks so they can be assembled in a modular fashion
- Adaptive, different types for different circumstances
- Tagged for discovery and retrieval by meta data
So, what does this all mean?
- B2B companies of the future should plan on abandoning the serial handoff between marketing and sales. No more "me and my sales quota" sale force, for the most part.
- Marketing will need to expand its role in the sales process. The massive effort in generating content marketing materials for the potential buyer as well as the elaborate and sophisticated infrastructure for the virtual sales team is largely borne by the marketing function.
- Strategic investment in technology is a requirement for success. Cognitive systems, for example, will play an increasing role in the future.
Kathleen Schaub, Vice President of IDC’s CMO Advisory Service, is a B2B marketing strategist with a 30+ year career. She joined IDC in 2011 where she provides research-based guidance and marketing best practices.
Kathleen's career mission is helping companies achieve their business goals through better connection with customers and the application of management science to marketing. Kathleen accomplishes this mission as a researcher, analyst, consultant, writer, blogger, speaker, and coach.
Some of her recent speaking engagements were at major conferences FutureM, LinkedIn Sales Connect, Tech Marketing 360, and IDC Directions.
Kathleen held executive roles at leading technology companies, notably Sybase, where she was Vice President of Marketing Operations and Transformation and earlier led product marketing. Kathleen also held executive positions at Cadence Design Systems, and she served as Chief Marketing Officer for ComputerLand.
She holds a BFA in Design from the California College of Art and an MBA from Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, CA.
Follow Kathleen on Twitter @kathleenschaub.