How Data Is Changing the Sales Channel

Reps still need to talk to people, but the tools used to help sell are changing dramatically.

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In the digital age, data is transforming not just how we work but how we live. From social media interactions and extensive research before major purchases, such as cars, to daily content consumption on platforms like TikTok and LinkedIn, the influence of data permeates every facet of our modern lives.

This transformation extends into the professional realm, where Zoom conferences have supplanted the extensive travel that once characterized a manufacturing salesperson’s job. Amid evolving challenges like supply chain disruptions and workforce shortages affecting pricing and demand, the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) (computer systems that can perform tasks that normally require human intelligence, like visual perception, speech recognition and decision-making) in bringing actionable data into the equation has become more pronounced. In fact, the AI market in sales is estimated to reach $13.4 billion by 2025.

Throughout these shifts, the basics of sales haven’t changed. Reps still need to talk to enough of the people the right way and be top of mind when they’re ready to buy. But how manufacturers and distributors use tools to sell is changing dramatically. Keeping up is what will help you keep ahead of the competition, so here’s a look at how the sales channel has changed … and where it’s going.

The Role of Data in Manufacturing Sales

After years of using super-convenient shopping platforms like Amazon, customers expect the same level of convenience from everything they buy.

And this has even leaked into B2B experiences: After all, going to work doesn’t instantly erase the desire to get things quickly and easily.

One aspect of this shift is the need for detailed product and attribute information. Customers want to know everything about a product before they buy it — even in the manufacturing sector. They want product inserts, case studies, videos, and detailed product images. The more data a customer can get their hands on, the easier it is to close a sale. And that means manufacturers need to provide these details to distributors so they, in turn, can make them available to customers.

But that’s not the only way data is becoming essential to the manufacturing sales channel. AI is also an important player:

  • According to Accenture, AI is poised to increase profits in the manufacturing industry by 39% by 2035.
  • AI use has jumped 50% among manufacturers from 2022 to 2023.
  • Gartner predicts that by 2025, 80% of sales organizations will have shifted to AI-driven processes, potentially increasing productivity by up to 30%.
  • AI is filtering out poor leads, summarizing meetings to ensure follow-ups aren’t missed, recommending next steps, analyzing sales calls, and more.
  • AI tools like Gong are delivering precise insights that heighten revenue efficiency and fortify decision-making.

It’s becoming clearer that more and better data is transforming all points of the sales channel.

Shift From Traditional Sales Models

Data is also transforming the day-to-day activities of manufacturing sales staff. Gone are the days of “milk runs,” or checking in on the same customers and prospects at the same time via the same channel each week.

Now, customer sales data guides the schedule. AI can sort prospects into who is most likely to buy, so salespeople can reach out to them at the right time. They can also use it to analyze open and lost leads and point out where mistakes were made that they can learn from in the future.

Smart salespeople also lean on social media, email marketing, and tools like LinkedIn Sales navigator to generate qualified leads. With the right data, what used to take hours on the phone can now be done in minutes.

Changing Dynamics in Manufacturer-Distributor Relationships

Another change to the sales channel is the shifting dynamics between manufacturers, distributors, and end-users. One example is the research consumers do before reaching out to a salesperson. Instead of relying on the expertise of a salesperson, they now tend to read 3-5 pieces of online content about the topic before reaching out to a salesperson.

And other dynamics are changing, too. Manufacturers and distributors have generally been hesitant to share customer information for fear of manufacturers going direct and cutting the distributor out of the equation. But, as the distributor sector becomes increasingly consolidated, the remaining small distributors can no longer afford to keep large inventories, forcing some manufacturers to ship directly to their customers. This gives manufacturers new visibility into where their products are actually being used and who their biggest customers are.

This shift places increased importance on manufacturers and sales representatives to be more knowledgeable and accessible, so they have the information a customer needs when they’re ready to buy. This has transformed the role of salespeople from generalists to crucial facilitators in the sales process, emphasizing the need for efficient, informed, and fast service to meet the modern customer’s expectations.

Listening to the Market: Adapting to Customer Demands

End-user expectations have also changed the products manufacturers make and how they produce them. With more data available and more options for where to buy, customers are now choosier than ever.

Take eco-friendly products, for example: Nearly 75% of consumers say they care about the environmental impact of the products they buy, resulting in a push toward eco-friendly offerings like Tap Magic’s biodegradable Pro Tap. Those attitudes will no doubt bleed into B2B as well.

Another customer need — cost savings — might also require some planning and adaptation on the part of the manufacturer. That’s why cost-cutting measures like EDI systems, online order functionalities, and enhanced supply chain efficiency have become much more important in recent years.

The Future of the Sales Channel

No one could have predicted the huge changes in the sales channel just five years ago. So, looking forward, it’s hard to tell what other shifts are in store.

But we can make some educated guesses:

  • With so much data available, sales teams will continue to use better and better data to prequalify and follow up on leads and close more sales.
  • Marketing will become more important to manufacturing than ever before, with tools like social media generating high-quality leads and building brand recognition among consumers. (According to the Content Marketing Institute, 67% of manufacturers have plans to invest in social media marketing this year, up from 40% the previous year.)
  • We also predict a shift toward the outsourcing of non-manufacturing tasks. Manufacturers know how to build things; they don’t necessarily know how (or want) to market or sell them. With staffing being tight, many will turn to marketing agencies and Independent Manufacturing Representatives (IMRs) to fill in those skill gaps and free up time to spend on new products. This will also give them an advantage, as these partners will have access to a bigger-picture market view that can lead to better decisions.

Countless sales tools and trends have emerged throughout history. But at its core, sales is about knowing what the customer needs, knowing how your product meets those needs, and using the right tools to close the deal more efficiently.

Staying on top of these changes may feel a bit daunting, but as we look ahead, it’s clear: Staying adaptable, data-savvy, and customer-focused isn’t just smart — it’s essential for keeping up in this fast-moving game.

Patrick McKeever is president of Durrie Sales, an industrial manufacturers’ representative agency specializing in cutting tools and industrial products.

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