Companies that lead in B2B sales follow a three-pronged strategy to drive above-market growth.

B2B sales are on the verge of a revolution, with a number of trends completely redefining what it will take to be a market leader over the next five years.

Advanced analytics and machine learning have given sales executives access to historically unprecedented amounts of data and computing power, allowing them to predict with a high degree of precision the most valuable sales opportunities. The fastest-growing companies are using advanced analytics to radically improve their sales productivity and drive double-digit sales growth with minimal additions in their sales teams and cost base.

Also, radical changes in buyers’ preferences, with buyers being more content-driven, technically savvy, and comfortable engaging via digital channels, has led to the rise of a new breed of sales leaders who bring technical expertise and a strategic mind-set. This is also transforming what sales organizations look like, with a sharp reduction in field sales and marketing, and rapid growth in inside sales and analytics teams.

Finally, a significant shift toward subscription-based business models has redefined how customer relationships are managed. No longer is a sale a one-time “won and done” deal. In a world of recurring revenues, sales need to be won every month, quarter, and year. As a result, successful customer-relationship managers are becoming increasingly more valuable, and sophisticated sales teams are aligning themselves closely to the long-term success of their customers.

Emergence of a new science of B2B sales

As a result of these disruptive changes, B2B sales has evolved from an art to a science. By that we mean that sales is data-driven, enabled by digital tools, underpinned by advanced analytics, and focused on really understanding the “what, why, and when” of the customer. Companies that have embraced what we call the “science of B2B sales” have already started to pull ahead of their peers in terms of revenue growth (registering 2.3 times industry average revenue growth), profitability (3 to 5 percent additional return on sales) and shareholder value (8 percent higher total return to shareholders than the industry average).

A key feature distinguishing market leaders from the rest of the pack is that the CEOs of the market leaders actively lead the sales transformation, rather than leaving it to the head of sales. These CEOs realize that redefining their go-to-market engine is a cross-functional sport that requires their direct engagement and flawless execution from sales, marketing, HR, IT, and finance. Market leaders have realized that winning in B2B sales in the next five to ten years will require them to fundamentally transform their go-to-market engine around three defining principles:

1. Engaging customers the way they want to be engaged

Days when sales executives debated between investing in a great sales force or great digital assets are a figment of the past. Driving growth in the future will require bringing the best of both worlds. Our research indicates that market leaders view digital investments as the glue that holds together a powerful multichannel sales strategy. We surveyed more than 1,000 large organizations across industries and four continents to better understand their preferences in buying goods and services from B2B sellers. Our research showed that the ideal channel to reach B2B customers depends heavily on whether they are making a first-time or repeat purchase (Exhibit 1). Some 76 percent of B2B buyers found it helpful to speak to a salesperson when researching a new product or service. That figure fell to 52 percent for repeat purchases of products with new or different specifications, and only 15 percent indicated a desire to speak with a salesperson when repurchasing exactly the same product or service.

The ideal channel to engage B2B customers depends on whether they are making a first-time or a repeat purchase.

Engaging customers in the future will require a multichannel sales strategy powered by smart digital investments, which caters to the different needs of first-time and repeat customers.

When targeting first-time customers who are looking for direct interaction with sales teams, the fastest-growing companies are using digital tools to help their sales teams address customer needs at each stage of their purchase journey. For instance, they are using interactive product demos powered through tablets or browsers to help salespeople engage customers in the research stage of their journey. A significant proportion are using relatively simple customer-relationship-management software to track customers’ past questions, thus allowing their salespeople to anticipate future inquiries and offer lightning-fast responses when customers compare their products with competitors’. A few cutting-edge companies have also invested in customer analytics that empower sales reps with price recommendations based on analysis of deals other sales reps have closed with the same customer in the recent past.