Gone is the static ‘contact us’ B2B service website. What new customer experiences online do you think we’ll see more of, as the start of the funnel?

I think that social search is going to play an ever more important role because, once the technology is truly proficient, the real beneficiary will be the customer. For now, the different parties have not aligned (to bring a fully relevant social search result) because of their competitive posturing, but I see the consumer leading that charge and rewarding platforms that provide superior results. The new Graph Search of Facebook is an example of this trend.

Similarly, I think the email inbox could end up being systematically filtered via the social graph. On another level, the developments in instant messaging lead me to believe, especially among the younger generations, that brands are going to need to navigate between and with ‘personal’ services such as Facebook video call, iPhone FaceTime, Skype, What’sApp, Libon, SnapChat, etc.  

Is the rise of social sales, and the related ‘content marketing’ inhibiting SMEs or does this approach scale up and down?

Social selling and content marketing are not for every organization or client. More importantly, some clients in certain industries are further down the adoption curve than others. I think that social sales scale beautifully if you can galvanize the entire organization to participate.

So, even if the amplification is just a function of the size of the company, there is no comparative disadvantage for a smaller company. As far as creating effective content-based marketing, there are many ways to skin the proverbial cat. I tend to believe that the style of marketing and the platforms used must be configured according to the brand’s objectives.

Some brands have naturally more content to provide (for example: a culture of giving, a library of digital assets, an education-based orientation….). Thus, there is no reason a smaller company cannot embark on a content marketing strategy. It depends on their business objectives and the resources they are prepared to put behind it.   

One area of your report that interested me was your assertion that salespeople may decrease in number, with the need for customer service, after-sales, technical and billing support increasing. Is the word ‘sales’ becoming a dirty word in B2B, and to what extent can B2B orgs achieve transparency in their approach? 

To the extent companies need to focus on productivity, the B2B salesperson’s drive (time, petrol…) from one client to another is likely to be considered increasingly as a luxury, reserved only for the higher value clients. Meanwhile, a full service approach should involve pre/during/post sales and that should be done seamlessly as far as the client is concerned.

Regarding whether the term sales is becoming considered a dirty word in B2B, I think that sales per se has probably never carried a particularly noble status. Lack of trust puts context around the word “dirty”. Those sales teams that can develop a deeper level of trust with their clients will be on the winning side. It all starts with clear and good communication.  

Transparency is, at least in theory, one way to improve trust; however, total transparency is neither desirable nor necessary. To the extent a lack of trust exists, opening up and creating real-time communications demands a greater level of transparency internally, much less externally.

To what degree will a brand enable customer ratings and reviews to feature prominently — and without undue moderation — throughout the search process and in social media channels? A brand can help foster greater confidence and trust by displaying both good and bad customer feedback. Depending on the brand image, the residual trust as well as the industry in which one is operating, the general propensity should be toward greater transparency. 

Is search visibility (and supplier website design) now a bigger part of the customer’s purchase decision in B2B than face-to-face meetings?

Bigger compared to when? Certainly, search is a critical part of the consumer journey. However, the value of search can depend on the sector. For example, for a private high net-worth banker, search may not be super critical.

I think that search has far from finished evolving, and the ability to be found on or offline will remain vital. Thus, being found in the search results will be key. The questions are (a) to what end and (b) on which platforms? Whether it is Google, YouTube, Facebook, Amazon, iTunes or Twitter (today) and others tomorrow, the search function is vital. That said, as far as the salesperson’s role is concerned, the big elephant in the closet is whether companies are prepared and equipped to make sure that their own salespeople have a personal presence online, providing social proof and trust indices on the individual sitting across the table.

Will a brand encourage clients to comment positively on a salesperson in that salesperson’s LinkedIn profile?  

Is the job of sales becoming more difficult with more learned/wary customers, each with preferred methods of communication? Or are there more opportunities for contact?

This question needs to be placed in a larger context since the pressure on sales has become ever more heightened as companies continue to seek productivity gains and to cut costs. The answer should be somewhat nuanced, for example, between sales in a retail store versus a traveling salesperson in a B2B environment. Suffice it to say that the salesperson’s job is definitely more challenging today because of the proliferation of information and the diversity of channels of communication.

The challenge is exacerbated by the inability to operate in real time due to deficiencies in technology, training and access to the right people within the organization. Yes, there is an opportunity for those people and organizations that can get ahead of the tide, operate in real time and provide a value-added service beyond just professing to have the “best product.”

The salesperson is a way to personify the brand. He/she is the personality on the street, one of the human touchpoints along the consumer journey. In the new form of marketing required for today’s customer set, I tend to refer to the 5 Es of the new marketing (engagement, experience…) and the salesperson is ideally able to transmit/promote these values.

The issue is getting the entire company/brand to learn to function as a unit, focused on the client who is one person using multiple channels at different times, with different needs (much less moods).

For more on the context of these changes in digital, what will make B2B sales successful, consequences for the organization, HR and technology challenges, do take a look at the full report, The Sales Organization of the Future.

You can follow Minter on Twitter at @mdial.