There have been hidden human costs in our drive towards efficiency and productivity using technology. As we approach the post-pandemic period, when businesses will decide which practices to continue and which to wind down, I foresee a rush to digitally transform B2B sales too quickly as harmful to human connections that build trust and long-lasting relationships.

The Cost of Efficiency

When I managed social media at a big bank in the early days of this technology disruption, I needed to understand and exploit its value for financial services. While looking back at the history of technology disruptions in banking, I found a pattern of automation in which to gain efficiencies the industry slowly chipped away at personal connections with their customers. Starting with telebanking, we at least had someone to talk to from home without driving to a branch, automation grew less personal.  ATMs gave customers quick access to basic banking functions, such as making a deposit or cash withdrawal. This culminated in smartphone apps, where many banking functions were accessible from the phone in our pocket.  Each step separated customers further from banks, slowly eroding personal relationships.  Luckily, as a “people-powered” digital platform, social media could address the trust gap.

It’s incredible how wide the gap between customers and businesses has grown.  Here’s an example, as told in Wells Fargo’s blog.  After the 1906 San Francisco Great Earthquake and Fire, most of Wells Fargo’s ledgers were in a vault that survived the quake and fires but couldn’t be opened for weeks without exploding. To help the devastated city recover, the bank’s tellers relied on memory and personal relationships to get their customers the cash they needed to survive, let alone start to rebuild. These tellers knew their customers well and were able to disperse money based on their recollections of customer balances and credit worthiness. After recording these transactions in school children’s composition books, they found that these transactions squared within a few dollars after the bank ledgers were finally retrieved weeks later.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, many banks that were already established in social media had built trust and better weathered the brand damage that other institutions suffered throughout the industry.  They’d built social capital with their customers, which was much needed in the aftermath of the crisis.  While financial services have modernized and scaled through efficiencies that have harmed human connection, the financial services blogs rebuilt trust through stories employees told of how they’d helped their customers succeed and reduced the fear that was palpable then by recounting how the bank had helped their customers survive previous economic catastrophes, thus swinging the pendulum back a bit towards trusted relationships.

As we rush towards the digital transformation of sales, let’s not let the pendulum swing too far. Consider the shift post-pandemic in manufacturing from “just in time” to “just in case” supply chains and our collective desire to emerge from isolation with live events and shopping. We’re wired and ready to connect.

The Right Use of Sales Technology

Sales and customer success teams maintain relationships that can only be built and preserved by people over time. This is particularly true when buying expensive enterprise business products or services.

While conducting research for this year’s upcoming digital selling report, I’ve found a number of approaches that dial back automation in favor of genuine relationship-building.

For example, video meetings exploded during the pandemic as a way to continue face time with customers and prospects while in shut-down.  As more sales reps used video calls, we then saw growth in personalized videos sent via email.  As a consumer, this change was palpable and impactful.  Getting less, “Hi Ed, I thought you might like…” in an annoying automated email, I instead started receiving videos clearly meant for me.  In one case, I received a personalized insurance briefing based on a request I’d made, which used my own and my husband’s name, presenting insurance plans that might be best for us and ending with a simple call to action (which I took, I’m now a customer of this broker).

Personalized video messages are a great example of how tech can be used not only to scale but also to build trust in essential long-term relationships.

Maintaining Relationships Post-Pandemic

Sales and customer success team managers know which of their team members have relationships that have grown the bottom line.  These reps need to be supported by digital, but not necessarily by building deep digital skills. A salesperson is much better at reading a customer’s body language, gestures, and so on than any AI I know of.  A data analyst is better at connecting data points to draw valuable insights than most sales reps. We need both of these skills, and that won’t change with the digital transformation of sales in front of us.

To scale and meet the demands of digitally savvy customers, many brands I’ve spoken to have told me that their return on investment in customer experience is diminishing—perhaps a sign that consumers are on to overly automated engagement.  In response, they’re investing in more personable tactics.

B2B businesses I’ve interviewed have built a virtuous circle by leveraging their customers’ digital reach to advocate for them once a trusted relationship is established.  One company I spoke to told how during shut down, when most communication went digital, they discovered that they didn’t have permissions needed to reach out in some digital platforms, like email. So, they built customer advisory boards to listen to feedback and build better products, which in turn were amplified by those customers in digital, such as sharing company content with colleagues. Valuable human connections with customers can build a businesses’ reach in digital.

The best digital transformation of selling strategy is one that invests in the digital domain but focuses on bettering the human domain. Tricky, but as the pandemic has demonstrated a realistic and achievable goal.