B2B Selling in the Era of the Digital Buyer

digital selling in the B2B marketplace


The B2B marketplace is evolving faster than ever. In an increasingly automated world, sales representatives must leverage technology and analytics to adapt to changing customer needs and drive higher-value strategic sales through digital selling. Emerging research from McKinsey shows that B2B sellers often struggle between choosing a great sales force and great digital capabilities. In today’s digital age, they will need both.

What is Digital Selling?

The new era of B2B sales is defined by digital selling, the integration of AI technologies and/or predictive analytics that enhance the productivity and effectiveness of a company’s sales reps. 

In the past five years, sales productivity continued to decline by 14% despite billions invested in sales operations.1 Digital selling technologies give companies new opportunities to add value in customer experience and overall business growth as more traditional outreach channels become obsolete; 92% of B2B decision makers do not respond to cold calls and 53% of B2B buyers prefer going online to interacting with salespeople.2 Providing consistently high-quality customer experiences is now a telling competitive differentiator in the B2B market.3 Ultimately, digitization has become a sales team’s key to managing sale profitability, optimizing customer analytics, and prioritizing actions based on insights about top priorities.

The rise of digital selling can be attributed to recent changes within the B2C industry. With the emergence of Google, Amazon, and Uber, companies have completely reshaped customer interactions within their industry, and those changes are spilling over into B2B companies. Now more than ever, B2B customers expect the same level of personalization and frictionless interactions.4

From Selling to Digital Selling

The B2B digital selling experience is relatively low in maturity, especially when compared to B2C businesses. While 73% of companies recognize that new and returning customer expectations for more meaningful services and sales experiences are much higher than before, only a little over half of companies have initiated efforts towards digital strategies that address customer acquisition and retention in the past three years.5 Furthermore, only 10% of companies surveyed by McKinsey stated that digital was a top investment priority.3 This continued reliance on a SDR’s personal client relationship puts incumbents in a disadvantageous position against digital natives who prioritize customer expectations. 

The fastest-growing companies will harness the power of advanced analytics and machine learning to address fundamental strategic issues: new high-value sales opportunities, effective resource allocation to existing clients, actions that directly result in sales productivity, etc. These digital leaders are expected to generate 3.5% more in yearly revenue and average 15% more in profits than the rest of the B2B field.3

Leveraging Human and Digital Capabilities

The emphasis on digital selling can also be attributed to a disconnect in buyer needs and seller actions, which can compromise even the strongest B2B relationships. Sellers who solely focus on digital updates can find themselves disconnected from long-time customers; those who solely focus on traditional sales cycles lack initiative on digital investments critical to modern commerce.6

To be successful, it is important for companies to leverage both human and digital capabilities to provide an intelligent, personalized level of service. A 2019 Accenture study found that companies who adopted this service-over-sales mindset saw quick benefits, with over 95% reporting higher profitability or increased market share. Additionally, companies were almost 20% more likely to employ new technology platforms to help overcome service barriers, and twice as likely to store centralized data sets that personalize customer offering and engagement across omni-channel selling.6

Digital selling strategies can complement B2B companies by standardizing a sales approach that provides more control over allocating resources and investments to high-value opportunities. The rise of service-first and self-service selling can not only give buyers autonomy over the sales experience, but also optimize the usage of customer data in the sales process.3 Combining these digital tools with traditional sales intuition can modernize a business’s process in a constantly changing market with shorter product life cycles.2

Drivers of B2B Sales Growth

The top two priorities that are driving B2B sales growth are empowering customer-facing sales teams and integrating digital technologies.7 AI and data analytics are common denominators in both of these processes.

Empowering Customer-Facing Sales Teams

Digitization gives customer-facing sales teams more data—and consequently more information—on how to better acquire new clients and engage existing customers.

This shift towards human-AI collaboration enables sales teams to pivot towards higher-value opportunities by automating tedious and repetitive activities. Representatives can then use advanced analytics to help potential customers understand how products or services provide added value by augmenting their knowledge on successful sales tactics; an example is using deal analytics to enhance pipeline and opportunity management. Through these processes, companies can harness customer data about sales efforts and modify behaviors to better optimize revenue growth.

Advanced analytics also helps sales teams achieve results in an increasingly crowded market. Propensity modeling and automated forecasting can intelligently identify where high-potential sales opportunities are for new and existing clients. On a higher level, analytics support the evolution of new sales models. By understanding the profile of high-margin digital sellers and identifying their strong points, companies can change employee experiences to see results in recruitment and compensation KPIs.

Integrating Digital Technologies

Digital technologies are the gateway into developing new business models and empowering sales teams to drive higher-value strategic sales.7 Again, the greatest benefits are realized when both human and digital capabilities are used to their full advantage.

Search-engine marketing activities, performance analytics, and digital assistants can be used to collect a “Golden Record” view of customers that continuously feeds into AI and machine learning algorithms. Information is then reanalyzed to make targeted marketing automation offers, such as personalized landing pages. With the potential to cut an SDR’s time spent on sales administration by 60%, significant reductions in cost per sale can be achieved. 

True digitization in the new era of sales is a continuous process and faces the strong challenge of legacy pradigims.4 However, it is imperative for companies who have not prioritized digital to begin now. The B2B sales process is defined by digital selling, and those who have already invested in digitization will continue to do so at a more aggressive rate.5

Sales Metrics and KPIs in B2B Sales

sales metrics and KPIs displayed on a laptop screen

Optimizing sales productivity requires a top-down approach that synthesizes business sales goals with an individual representative’s daily performance. Sales metrics, specifically key performance indicators, provide visibility into the fundamental factors that ultimately drive sales initiatives and scalable growth. 

What are Metrics and KPIs?

Sales metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) are oftentimes used interchangeably, but are more accurately described as two sides of the same coin. 

Sales metrics are data points that represent performance, whether it be for an individual, team, or company. They are broadly used to track progress towards goals, predict future growth, and identify any complications that may arise with sales plans and targets midway through a sales cycle.1 Many companies set goals based on lagging indicators, a type of metric that reports on previous time periods such as total sales or revenue per time period. Leading indicators—number of follow up calls, number of calls to prospects—are metrics that can have a real-time impact on course corrections.4

KPIs, however, are the key sales metrics specifically identified to best track the performance of a business or individuals with their respective objectives. Understanding these key indicators can turn numbers like first response time into actionable growth plans. Because there are many common metrics across managing sales teams, it is important to identify KPIs that are relevant within the specific industries and company departments. 

Sales metrics and KPIs are the backbone of an increasingly data-driven sales industry. On their own, KPIs are just numbers on a dashboard; they become meaningful only when analyzed for underlying trends and themes that can contribute to making a sales team more efficient.2 By examining drivers for successful goal attainment, B2B businesses can use strategic insights from KPIs as a means to align key targets with company growth.3 Without metrics, nothing else matters.

Best Practices in Managing Sales Performance

Monitoring the right KPI metrics can be the difference between driving scalable growth and fighting a flatlining revenue. A Salesforce study revealed that high-performing sales teams are 3.5 times more likely to use sales performance analytics than underperforming teams, which enable them to measure performance during a set time period against goals.4 Around 97% of B2B marketing decision makers also say growing revenue, a common KPI, is a top priority.

Metrics are not intended to be the final outcome, but rather a measure of progress. Consequently, it is important to translate sales KPIs into initiatives that make sense to both the executive team and sales representatives themselves. By choosing a mix of lagging indicators and leading indicators, companies have access to data they can interpret in relevant contexts; action-oriented KPIs inspire action and can help uncover possible causes when goals are not met. Managers and executives can then compare dashboard analytics with previously established benchmarks in order to assess trends in sales activity and give the directions necessary to yield the best results. 

With many companies increasing their use of KPIs and sales metrics, only the smart companies will see their sales increase as a result. For example, the number of follow-up calls that directly result in sales is a clearly defined and measurable KPI, allowing sales managers to tweak this variable and measure the results.4 

Clearly defining KPIs is an effective first step, but what is truly powerful is using these indicators as strategic levers towards a greater initiative of driving new sales growth. Only after establishing KPIs that monitor productivity can a business make strides towards their overall business goals.

Sales Team KPIs

General B2B Sales KPIs

At baseline, KPIs can connect how a B2B sales team directly relates to a company’s overall performance, health, and growth potential. It is important for sales executives and managers to interpret and use KPI data about their teams continuously throughout the sales cycle.

  1. Marketing qualified leads (MQL) to sales qualified leads (SQL), also known as lead to opportunity, is a KPI that requires synergy between marketing and sales departments. In the MQL stage, businesses have expressed interest in products or services through signing up for the email list, downloading website content, or other avenues. A company moves into the SQL stage after they have been vetted to speak with a salesperson and have potential to become a prospect client. The MQL to SQL conversion rate can determine if marketing efforts are leading to a high-quality pipeline, as well as provide visibility into the quality and volume of leads handed over to a sales team.6
  1. Net new revenue attainment, the total additional revenue generated from acquiring new customers and investing in existing businesses, can reflect the overall contribution to a business’s revenue growth. By comparing planned and actual revenue performance, sales leaders can then identify the changes needed on a representative level in order to increase organizational attainment percentage (percentage of the revenue plan that was achieved).3
  1. The Net Promoter Score (NPS) is a growth-focused leading indicator that measures company health from customer loyalty and satisfaction. If revenue is dropping and/or the number of leads decreases, the NPS can assist sales KPIs in understanding their customer base. Knowing if and why customers lack loyalty enables businesses to uncover what is turning away potential customers and improve the sales experience of existing clients.5
  1. Sales cycle length offers information about where the sales process is stalling, time-to-onboard, and churn rates. With data on the average time taken from first contact to closing the deal, managers can identify what sales cycle length produces the highest number of closed-won businesses and the success rate of those deals down the line to adjust accordingly. For example, if a representative is closing deals in record speed but frequently have dissatisfied customers who churn after a few months, a longer sales cycle length could result in a higher retention rate.7


Lead generation and pipeline creation KPIs are useful metrics for sales prospecting as representatives make outbounding efforts in hopes of creating opportunities.

  1. The number of accounts contacted is a leading indicator of how many opportunities the sales team will move forward to account executives; this can include the total number of companies prospected, as there may be multiple points of contact, and total number of companies that have responded to outreach. A conversation between sales representatives and account executives should occur to establish the level of contact needed before the moving converting a prospect into a sales opportunity.3
  1. Average lead response time is how long it takes for a sales representative to respond to a contact made from a lead. A Harvard Business Review study “The Short Life of Online Sales Leads” comments on the idea that time kills all deals, revealing that the average company responds to leads within 42 hours of an inquiry—if at all.8 Every minute matters in sales. Ideally, representatives should follow up with leads quickly to increase the chance of it being high quality. To decrease lead response time, representatives can explore options in live chatbots and automated email workflows.
  1. An ideal sales process is defined by low system touch, or low customer interactions that indicate salespeople are efficiently closing new leads. Salesforce estimates it takes six to eight touches to generate viable sales leads, while other sources report seven to thirteen.10 If an individual has missed their target quota and additionally has a high number of touchpoints per closed-lost deals (ex. 4 video meetings, 15 email correspondences, 8 phone calls), they may benefit from restrategizing their techniques which can refine the overall team’s average sales cycle.
  1. Opportunity creation by lead source is a KPI that should be consistently monitored. For outbound SDRs, this metric is commonly the percentage or number of sales opportunities created through proactive outreach on different platforms. B2B sales have a low average conversion rate of only 10 to 15% of opportunities typically leading to sales. Tracking the common sources of sales opportunities gives representatives the data that shows what efforts are effective in driving sales opportunities.
  1. Pipeline creation is an important predictor of revenue generation, and should be monitored on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis; the more visibility into a sales pipeline, the more visibility into revenue. If the opportunity pipeline is decreasing in size, representatives have the information to identify where in the process prospects are leaving and improve those areas; insight may lead back to the quality of opportunity creation from certain lead sources.10

Field Sales and Inside Sales

Metrics on new businesses and existing businesses are critical for field sales and inside sales representatives. These KPIs not only position efforts as contributing to larger team goals, but also stimulate healthy motivation to reach on-target earnings.

  1. Once sales development reps (SDRs) track where leads are coming from, a KPI on estimated revenue by lead source can measure what portion of a company’s revenue derives from major sources. If a company has $40,000 revenue in sales with half from social media engagement, then social media outreach would account for 50% of total revenue. Comparing current metrics with historical data can both show profitability of each source and figure out where sales representatives should be dedicating efforts in order to meet revenue targets.
  1. The average revenue per account (ARPA) is the average revenue per customer upon closing a deal. Tracking ARPA by business segment is useful for comparing average sales prices or transaction sizes within respective market averages. ARPAs can expose trends in account expansion and contraction and evaluating effective or changing pricing plans within monthly cohorts. This metric varies depending on product and pricing levels, so constant data collection from past quarters and years can serve as effective benchmarks and target predictions.11
  1. A new business win rate assesses how efficiently account executives are turning qualified leads into new customers and revenue. Important things to keep in mind when analyzing new business win rates are lead source and cohorts: inbound opportunities will inherently have a higher win rates than outbounding efforts, and win rates will fluctuate as companies in the pipeline mature at different stages. Ultimately, the goal of new business win rates is to establish reliable benchmarks to predict future targets. Representatives can improve win rate calculations by cross-referencing win rates of cohorts with past data or computing the metric on a rolling basis.3
  1. Together, gross customer churn rates and churn dollars provide insight into customer behavior. Because it is anywhere between five and 25 times as expensive to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one, customer retention and expansion are key for driving sustainable revenue growth. Recognizing patterns in large churn events or the occurrence of many smaller churns across an existing customer base indicate what products and services inspire customers to return and contribute to company revenue, which allows representatives to optimize that information. 
  1. SDRs can determine if certain verticals are responding well to products or service pitches by tracking upsell and cross-sell numbers. Established credibility and knowledge of client preferences provide encouragement to expand customer accounts and decrease the likelihood that a company will churn. The more integrated a customer is, the more difficult it becomes for them to switch vendors.12 
  1. Percentage of time spent demoing is a KPI that can provide insight into an SDR’s productivity and help understand how long it takes to reach revenue targets. This metric tracks how much time is spent demonstrating products to potential customers. The faster an individual can hit sales targets, the faster a company can hit sales productivity.10

Case Study: Intercom

Intercom is a business chatbot unicorn that provides a platform for businesses to communicate with customers. Since its founding in 2011, the company has used KPIs to drive business closer to the next level of sales growth.

As Intercom’s customer base moved upmarket in 2014, the company utilized KPIs as a way to monitor new outbound initiatives that would help reach global revenue targets. LB Harvey, Intercom’s SVP of Sales & Support, hired outbound sales representatives to sell to larger companies, working with the finance team to establish realistic metrics and timelines. This process of explicitly defining KPIs on win rate, new net revenue, and number of opportunities created allowed the department to plan for how they could achieve an ROI of 4X on each outbound SDR.

Harvey also shared the importance of KPIs during product launches. When Intercom launched their new sales and marketing chatbot, setting a specific target for new net revenue gave sales managers the opportunity to come up with a clear amount of pipeline each representative needed to create. Tracking a dedicated KPI ensured that their “investment in our product has a positive financial impact.”

Why B2B Marketing Fails its Mission (Part 1)

Man writing about B2B marketing

The mission of B2B Marketing is to get Sales on the short list of vendors that a prospective buyer wants to meet with. That is what happens to Top Tier Vendors—they get invited to present anytime a potential buyer has a need.

However, the vast majority of B2B companies are Tier 3 vendors—they compete with hundreds, if not thousands of other companies for the same customer base. Tier 3 Vendors never get invited, so they  must spend a great deal of time and money trying to get noticed for a deal they are unlikely to win.

The first step towards building predictable revenue and high growth is to focus on becoming a Top Tier Vendor in a clearly defined market space.

What Tier Vendor are you?

This concept of vendor tier is critical to the goal of achieving high growth rate. Tier 1 and Tier 2 vendors grow at a high rate. Tier 3 vendors either miss their targets or grow at an anemic single digit level.

Tier 1 Vendors

A tier 1 vendor is the market leader in its chosen market space. It has a deep bench when it comes to products, services, and expertise that are a high fit for its customers. As a result, it is the vendor that most customers want to buy from. It also charges a premium to customers for the privilege of buying from the leader.

There are usually no more than 2-3 Tier 1 vendors for any given market.

Tier 2 Vendors

A Tier 2 vendor is a strong niche competitor, but it probably doesn’t have the same scope and scale as a Tier 1 vendor. However, within its limited scope and scale, its offer is as complete and unmatchable as a Tier 1 competitor. In addition, a Tier 2 vendor typically charges less than a Tier 1 vendor.  Therefore, for customers who don’t need the scale of Tier 1, a Tier 2 provider is a very attractive alternative.

There are usually no more than a handful of Tier 2 vendors for any given market.

Tier 3 Vendors

Any B2B company that is not a Tier 1 or Tier 2 vendor is automatically a Tier 3 vendor—meaning that it is one of many dozens, if not hundreds, of vendors attempting to serve the same customer base with an undifferentiated, “me too” offer. Tier 3 offers are typically seen as “commodity,” and price competition is the only way to win deals.

In this article, we will refer to Tier 1 and Tier 2 vendors as a Top Tier Vendor.

The Real Test of Top Tier Vendor Status

Here is a simple test. If your prospective customers know who you are and what you do, then you are a Top Tier Vendor in your chosen market. On the other hand, if your target customers don’t know you, then you are a Tier 3 vendor as far as that market segment is concerned.

If we have agreed so far, then the mission of B2B Marketing should be to make a B2B company a Top Tier Vendor in its chosen market space.

What we typically see from vendors is an unfocused, highly undifferentiated message that goes something like, “Company ABC, the leading provider of XYZ, has the best…” No one really cares, so that vendor is relegated to Tier 3.

Here is a question for you, the CEO, to ask yourself:

  • Would you rather be a Tier 3 vendor competing with everyone for anyone’s business and earning hair-thin margins with anemic growth, or
  • Would your rather be a Top Tier Vendor competing with less than a handful of other vendors for the business of a market that knows and respects you and invites you to present your solution, so that you grow at a healthy rate and earn healthy margins?

The Power of the Short List in B2B Marketing

From the vendor’s perspective, getting on the short list of a buyer confers two very important advantages:

  • Since the list of competitors is short, the probability of a win is much higher, resulting in more predictable revenue and higher growth rate.
  • Since the list is short, buyer-vendor engagement level is high. Reps can more accurately gauge their chance of winning and can exit early if they don’t see a win. This further reduces wasted sales resources, which reduces cost of sales.

However, from the buyer’s perspective, getting on the short list depends on whether you as a vendor are trustworthy or not.  Can the buyer trust you to not to waste her time? To be honest with what you can and cannot do? And most importantly, is trusting you going to cost the buyer her reputation, or even her career?

If you are a Tier 3 vendor, the answer is simple. You are not trustworthy, and the only thing that would make up for the risk of working with you is rock-bottom prices.

However, if you are Top Tier Vendor, you have proven to be trustworthy, and you are invited in to present.

The purpose of  B2B Marketing is to make your company a Top Tier vendor so that you can get on the short list.

From there, you just have to prove to be the best fit for the opportunity— and that’s Sales’ job.

Read about the three hurdles in proving trustworthiness.