In a nutshell: Digital transformation of B2B sales – what needs to be unlearned

Scientific articles contain valuable management implications but are usually not very easy to digest. We summarize the core results so that you can use the latest research findings for your company.

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Business-to-business (B2B) selling and sales processes are being challenged by major disruptions brought about by advanced selling technologies, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and new digital working environments. […]
As sales work changes in fundamental ways, current ways of knowing and doing are in danger of becoming obsolete. At the same time, to learn new routines, channels, and about new information sources, sales organizations must also selectively discard old information and behaviors. […]
This study aims to offer novel means for rethinking contemporary business-to-business (B2B) sales operations and the assumptions that underlie them in the digital era. This rethinking relates especially to sales managers’ efforts to facilitate cognitive unlearning in B2B sales management during the ongoing digital transformation taking place in enterprises. Unlearning – the process of purposely reflecting on and discarding old ways of knowing and doing – is crucial to prevent outdated organizational knowledge and routines from becoming a barrier to change. Before adopting new sales practices, sales organizations must first discard old ways of knowing and doing.
Drawing insights from unlearning and B2B sales management literature and conducting empirical qualitative research on 31 executives and senior managers operating in various industries, the study outlines a four-phase process for unlearning as well as several key themes within each phase. The findings emphasize how top management facilitates cognitive unlearning regarding digital business transformation in the B2B sales context. The study contributes to sales management literature by introducing cognitive unlearning as a new theoretical angle on the issue of digital transformation. It also offers insights for sales managers on how to elevate and leverage the unlearning of salespeople.

Key statements

In the context of the digital transformation, sales work in the B2B sector is changing drastically. To successfully tap into the potential of this transformation, companies are required to question and possibly discard their established ways of working.
In this study, the authors refer to this process as “unlearning”. They investigate how salespeople can promote the digital transformation within their organizations by systematically discarding outdated knowledge and methods.
Based on 31 interviews with B2B sales managers, the authors define a four-phase unlearning process: (1) identifying the need for unlearning in the company, (2) determining what needs to be unlearned, (3) discarding outdated sales managerial processes, and (4) instilling change throughout the sales organization. For every stage of the process, the authors also identify critical factors that contribute to the success of the unlearning.
The following points can help you to promote the digital transformation in your company through unlearning:

  • Automate lead generation: In particular when it comes to identifying potential customers and collecting large amounts of data, AI-supported technologies are more efficient than human salespeople. Use these technologies, for example, to match possible contacts online with your target group or to identify patterns in the customer data.
  • Personalize communications: New technologies can help you tailor your offering even better to your customers. Integrate insights from the customer history or the customer journey on your website to personalize your customer communications.
  • Set up self-service: Customers are moving more independently through the digital world and increasingly prefer a self-serve buying experience. Respond to this development by offering, e.g., a customer portal with a self-service option. This allows for scalable, lean, and profitable cooperation.

Mattila, M., Yrjölä, M., & Hautamäki, P. (2021). Digital transformation of business-to-business sales: what needs to be unlearned? The Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 41(2), 113–129.