The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated the already-changing dynamics of how work gets done between buyers and sellers. We’ve been tracking the trends since 2016, when we began to ask B2B decision makers about how they find new suppliers, build and foster relationships with them, and choose what and how to buy and reorder.
We wanted to understand the landscape of B2B sales and learn more about preferences at a time when omnichannel selling was emerging and customers were increasingly demanding more digital, consumer-like interactions with suppliers.
When COVID-19 emerged in early 2020, customer behaviors began to shift dramatically, favoring video conference interactions with sales reps and e-commerce. This pressured B2B sales to digitize more quickly; it had already begun to transform, but lagged behind B2C sales. The pandemic accelerated the move already under way to omnichannel and e-commerce, and survey respondents indicated that the change was here to stay.
Our latest B2B Pulse Survey asked hundreds of questions to US-based B2B decision makers—defined as customers who are responsible for making product or service decisions for their company—across dozens of industries.1 We asked decision makers to share their current behavior and preferences for interacting with suppliers. We also asked these same respondents to tell us what sales and marketing changes are happening at their own companies. In short, this research reveals that B2B selling has truly changed much faster and more dramatically than many would have imagined. For example:
- Ninety-four percent of respondents view today’s B2B omnichannel reality—in which customers buy face-to-face, remotely, and online—as being as effective or more than before COVID-19.
- B2B customers now regularly use ten or more channels to interact with suppliers (up from just five in 2016).
- Buyers are more willing than ever before to spend big through remote or online sales channels, with 35 percent willing to spend $500,000 or more in a single transaction (up from 27 percent in February 2021). Seventy-seven percent of B2B customers are also willing to spend $50,000 or more.
- Suppliers will have to fight hard to retain loyalty if customer needs are not met: for example, eight in ten B2B decision makers say they will actively look for a new supplier if performance guarantees (eg, a full refund if a certain level of performance is not met) are not offered.
As businesses gear up for yet another year of potential uncertainty and disruption, we found one thing to be sure: B2B sales are now resolutely omnichannel, with e-commerce, face-to-face, and remote videoconference sales all a necessary part of buyers’ experience. But buyers’ move to omnichannel hasn’t been a matter of simply shifting more transactions online. What B2B customers want is nuanced, and so are their views about the most effective way to reach them.
The ‘rule of thirds’ for omnichannel B2B sales is now standard
B2B leaders are embracing the new normal of omnichannel sales. Customers use different sales channels—for example, face-to-face, videoconferencing, online chat, or online marketplaces—at different stages of the buying journey. A “rule of thirds” has emerged: customers employ a roughly even mix of traditional sales (eg, in-person meetings), remote (eg, videoconferencing and phone discussions), and self-service (eg, e-commerce and digital portals) at each stage of the sales process .
When we share the rule of thirds, we often hear, “But my industry (or customers or company) is different.” That assertion conflicts with our survey data: the rule of thirds describes responses from B2B decision makers across all major industries, at all company sizes, in every country. Naturally, some nuances exist, but the similarities far outweigh unique results.
Implication: B2B suppliers cannot solve the needs of an entire segment of customers through one channel, nor can they ignore e-commerce as a channel. The option to engage via face-to-face, remote, and self-service should be available to all customers, from small to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) up to the largest organizations.
Omnichannel sales are more effective than ever
Doubters have become believers. Today, 94 percent of B2B decision makers say the new omnichannel sales model is as effective or more compared to the sales model they used before the pandemic . The percentage holding these views has climbed every time we’ve asked over the past 18 months. In April 2020, only 65 percent of respondents thought the new way of selling was as effective as the model used pre-COVID-19.
Implication: B2B suppliers must continue to adapt to meet this new omnichannel reality. Undoubtedly, shifting to a more varied selling approach is not a straightforward process. But selling organizations can take confidence from the increasing comfort that many of their peers (and their customers) have with omnichannel as an effective way of doing business.
Customers are using more channels than ever before
Omnichannel truly involves many channels. The number of channels that B2B customers use has doubled in the past five years. B2B customers say they are now interacting with suppliers via ten or more channels, up from five in 2016
Part of the reason customers are engaging in a wider array of channels is that suppliers are finally catching up to the demand. While in-person selling rebounded to pre-COVID-19 levels during 2021, more companies than ever before also began offering e-commerce as a sales channel (Exhibit 4). We now see a tipping point, with e-commerce surpassing in-person selling as a sales channel, at 65 percent, versus 53 percent earlier this year. Videoconferencing and online chat also rose during the year.