7 Emerging B2B Trends

Peter Dean has ridden the rollercoaster that is business-to-business sales. With two decades of B2B selling experience – including a stint pitching software in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s – he understands how quickly trends can change, and how challenging it can be to adapt.

“I used to know what was going on in clients’ heads because they needed to talk to me,” says Dean, the founder and CEO of marketing analytics firm RenderTribe. “The problem we have is it’s very hard today to get feedback from our target customer because they’re doing a lot of stuff on their own and doing their own research, and really not involving us as much as they used to in that purchase process.”

Sound familiar? Indeed, the same customer patterns Dean is witnessing in technology are now trickling into the ad specialty market. But now’s not the time to let a little frustration get you down. Identifying these market shifts can help you plan ahead and outmaneuver competitors. With that in mind, here’s a look at seven B2B trends that will affect your sales, client base and marketing strategy in the present and near term.

1. Freelancers Matter
There are 53 million freelancers in America today, and by 2020 Intuit predicts 40% of the U.S. workforce will be freelancing in some capacity. Gregg Emmer, CMO at distributor Kaeser & Blair (asi/238600), says ad specialty sales reps are a part of this trend as well. “The reality is more and more people are going the freelance route,” Emmer says. “The network we support are all freelancers and independent contractors, people who own their own businesses. None of them work for us.”

Whether you’re an independent contractor or not, the so-called gig economy is here to stay. If you know where to look, there’s great opportunity for promo sales. “If I were a freelance plumber and I wanted to make sure that I got the referrals from a big box retailer, I’d probably feel the need to put promotional items with the managers in the departments at a whole bunch of different stores,” says Emmer.

This kind of thinking works not just for tradesmen but across sectors. Consider pitching campaigns within the growing freelance field of consulting. “Consultants who want to work in a certain segment should do the same so when businesses are looking for a consultant, they ring their phones instead of somebody else’s,” Emmer says. “As the number of people leaving traditional employment increases, the potential for new customers for somebody in the promotional industry increases.”

2. Concierge Selling Is a Thing
The harsh reality for many sales reps is they aren’t being utilized as much by end-buyers – and some aren’t even involved in the order process at all. “The sales process has changed significantly in that a lot of it is self-driven depending on the industry you’re in,” Dean says. “I think the highly compensated, enterprise salesperson is going away, and it’s becoming more concierge-type sales as opposed to walking them through that process because, quite frankly, they don’t want us to. We’re not part of that, and they don’t bring us in.”

Generally speaking, the lower the cost of a good or service, the less a sales rep is typically involved in its purchase, according to Dean. This is a trend he expects will continue.

“There’s this point where people in a certain industry for a certain type of service will want to talk to a salesperson. They have to sort out whatever they have to sort out – negotiation, gaining an understanding of different tools and all that. But a lot of times what happens is they have already gotten to the point where they have selected certain items, and there’s less work to do on the sales side than before,” he says.

Regardless of the industry, sales reps will continue to be utilized in more complex orders, according to Dean. This is why it’s key to present yourself not just as an ad specialty rep, but a marketing rep – someone who can provide ideas and solutions that can’t be commoditized or easily matched. “The less complicated it is, the more coin-operated it is,” Dean says. “That’s kind of what we’re finding, and I think industry be damned.”

3. 50/50 Splits Are Disappearing
In terms of B2B revenue splits, Kaeser & Blair is one of a dwindling number of firms that still gives 65% to its sales reps. But Emmer believes 50/50 splits, let alone 65/35, may soon become extinct in the promotional industry – a clear trend noted in the 2016 Advantages Compensation Survey.

The primary reason? Competitive pricing that threatens to drive down profit margins. Case in point: Emmer recently earned a writing instrument order with a prized customer only after matching the price of an aggressive competitor. “I checked my nets, and my nets basically gave the price that we have published. But it wasn’t good enough. I said, ‘OK, meet their price. I don’t want to lose the business,’” he says.

Emmer expects tough decisions like this one will become the norm, and lead to a domino effect. “We have contract pricing from a major vendor in this industry, and yet there are still people out there that are willing to go even further than that in order to secure the business,” he says. “That’s what’s causing the distributors to say, ‘The 50/50 split can’t last because we’re doing all the work, we’re putting our money at risk, we’re paying you in advance in some cases, we’re dealing with everything else, and all you’re doing is writing the order.’ That’s the attitude with many, many distributors.”

In addition, Emmer says a higher percentage of distributors are now running their businesses on “borrowed money,” making it difficult to justify a 50/50 split. “If you’re operating on borrowed money, there’s not enough fat in there to do it. Paying an accelerated commission is hard to do, and do profitably,” he says.

4. Branding Preferences Demand Alternatives
The demand for B2B brand-name items is still high, but the way those branded items are being used is changing, Emmer says.

“For years, if somebody was doing a wristwatch, they’d want it to say ‘Seiko’ on it because people knew there was a value to that as opposed to an unbranded, blank product,” he says. “Now, maybe they want the back of the watch to say ‘Seiko,’ but the front of the watch they want to reserve for their own logo. So there’s still some value in branding, but in some cases, we have clients who don’t want to share that space.” This trend has also appeared with branded apparel, Emmer says.

“There are some apparel companies that have a retail presence that already take the best places on their garments for their own logos, but somebody that wants to use that quality product, they want their logo in the most prominent position, so they have to back away from the branded product,” he says.

The result: customers are asking distributors to “find alternatives that are equal in quality but where they can have the premier position for their logo,” Emmer says. “You do end up with conflicts like that.”

Emmer thinks, though, there will remain certain areas in which the “quality and purity” of branded products will be the most important thing. “When you get into some of the quasi-pharmaceuticals and hand cleaners, there are a lot of people who still ask for a branded product,” he says. “There’s always been a segment where branded product is preferred. That’s usually when you step immediately from what you might call promotional programs and merchandise into premium promotions and merchandise.”

5. Social Intros Say Hello
Dean believes Twitter is becoming the go-to social media platform for B2B sales. He also thinks SEO service providers like Socido are helping to create higher-quality online introductions.

“You can target certain demographics based on content through LinkedIn, and they connect LinkedIn to Twitter, and they’ll give you a dashboard where you can see all these people that are tweeting about certain things,” he says. “I can look through the whole list of people and say, ‘Oh, there’s the CMO of IBM and he just tweeted this out,’ and automatically through this interface, you favorite the tweet.”

Tools like these are being used more often as a social media icebreaker between a sales rep and a target customer, Dean says. “If they follow you back, you can say, ‘I like your tweets on marketing automation. I’d love for you to check us out and tell me what you think.’ And people actually respond,” he says. “It’s just providing an engagement for you that you can manage one-to-one.”

A word of caution, though: Dean says setting up fully automatic set-it-and-forget-it Twitter systems will have the unintended consequences of turning off prospective clients. “I’m not a big fan of automating without oversight,” he says. “Don’t set an automation and just run it, because everyone knows it’s automated.”

6. Social Selling Gets Integrated
The integration of multiple high-tech and social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn is the future of social selling, according to Matt Heinz, president of Heinz Marketing.

“Social selling will continue to be a critical channel for modern sellers to engage with their prospects, but I expect it will also continue to merge with other channels in an integrated approach moving forward,” he says. “Many sales reps have a disciplined, multi-stage and cross-channel follow-up process that fully integrates email, phone, social and more.”

For example, rather than simply following up an introductory email to a prospective customer with yet another email, some sales reps are utilizing a social media platform, too. “You might mix in a LinkedIn InMail,” Heinz says. “The more you diversify channels used, the more you’re accelerating impact and familiarity.”

7. ‘Smarketing’ Showcases Collaboration
Speaking of integration, Sangram Vajre, co-founder and CMO of marketing firm Terminus, says a shared dynamic between sales and marketing is where the future lies. “Account-based marketing is a collaborative approach that engages multiple departments in your company,” he says. “Think about your sales and marketing teams as one ‘smarketing’ team with the goal of driving revenue for your company.”

To be a true revenue-driven marketer, Vajre believes, you have to measure your success based on your marketing-sourced pipeline. Ask yourself: “How many marketing qualified accounts (MQAs) as opposed to marketing qualified leads (MQLs) are being delivered to sales? How many MQAs progress into sales qualified accounts (SQAs) meeting BANT or other criteria then become opportunities? Remember that salespeople close accounts, not leads, so marketing needs to support that effort,” Vajre says.

Vajre contends this type of synergy is also stretching into the social media world. “One way to support social selling efforts is for marketing to ask your sales team which accounts they are trying to close this month or quarter, define who the contacts, stakeholders or decision-makers are, then make sure you’re following those folks on both Twitter and LinkedIn, sharing their content, and liking their updates,” he says. “The extra social media effort will go a long way.”

3 More B2B Trends to Watch

Sangram Vajre, co-founder and CMO of marketing firm Terminus, offers his take on what will drive the business-to-business market.

1. “Human to human” interaction. “Virtual reality experiences are one of the next big trends in both B2B and B2C marketing. Let’s go ahead and call it H2H, or human to human, marketing,” he says. “Salespeople are becoming more active for virtual presentations through tools like Google Hangout and Blab. It will be interesting to see who is first to market with a virtual-reality sales platform.”

2. Rise of predictive analytics. “Analytics, especially predictive analytics tools, are important for identifying best-fit accounts,” he says. “There’s so much data available and solutions which mine that data for you so you can program in what type of accounts you want to find based on your ideal customer profile (ICP). From there, predictive analytics tools can go even deeper to find contacts who match your buyers’ personas within the ICP.”

3. Yes, swag is still strong. “One tactic we use for onboarding new customer accounts is to send them a box of swag,” he says. “There’s a Terminus T-shirt, stickers, beverage holder and a copy of our account-based marketing framework which is sent to every new customer. We even made Terminus onesies and pacifiers for babies so that even baby ‘Terminators’ are in our logo.”

Shane Dale is an AZ-based freelance writer.