Sales Strategies. There’s room for digitalization

Commercial Excellence Lab


A SDA Bocconi survey maps and models the managerial variables of the transformation taking place in the consumer and business sectors

by Marco Aurelio Sisti, SDA Bocconi associate professor of practice and EMMS Director


In the age of digital revolution and of extremely rapid transformations in the purchasing processes of consumers and business customers, companies are busy rethinking their marketing & sales strategies, and are transforming them quickly and thoroughly. Given the extent of the changes taking place, some important management-related questions naturally emerge: do companies have a clear road map for their digital strategy? When considering the digital transformation of sales, what are they focusing on? And what are their results?


We have tried to find concrete answers to these and other key questions at SDA Bocconi’s Commercial Excellence Lab, in collaboration with our business partners Hilti, Luxottica, P&G, Vodafone, GfK, and 3M. We interviewed 540 managers from mostly large businesses in Italy, Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. The quali-quantitative research (headed by Guenzi, Sisti, and Caiozzo) also allowed us to map and model the main managerial variables that come into play in the digital commercial transformation (DCT). We found several points of interest to managers.


One of the first findings is the fact that the vast majority of companies (74%) is approaching the digital transformation with caution and in a carefully-planned manner. They see it as an evolution rather than a revolution, and the motivation to change comes proactively more from within the company itself rather than from customers and competitors. Companies seem to be concerned with supporting and simplifying the sales process (especially pre-sales) for customers, providing them with added-value digital solutions. These are the main objectives and not, as some might imagine, streamlining the sales networks. Reducing the number of sales representatives is not mentioned, at the moment, as one of the main reasons behind digitalization. More generally, if on the one hand companies perceive DCT as something extremely important and a priority in their strategies, on the other hand the execution levels are different depending on the countries analyzed. The United States and Germany are well under way, while Italy is definitely further behind.

But which companies are ultimately the most strategically advanced and are most successful in their transformation? Our analyses show that they tend to be brand leaders, companies that are first and foremost digitalizing their offerings rather than their sales processes, and who focus their transformation mainly on the most attractive and new customers, rather than on those already in their portfolio. These are also the companies where DCT is associated with the best economic performance, i.e. with profitability levels and turnover growth rates on average higher than all other businesses.


The research also showed how fundamental it is to have dedicated resources within the company, and a clear definition of who is responsible for the digitalization. At the moment, DCT is led mostly by figures in technological roles (ICT functions) but there are several companies that report the presence of new inter-functional organizational units. Finally, and thanks also to the definition of four profiles, the research allowed us to gather concrete ideas so as to draft a managerial model for the planning of the sales transformation.


In short, managers are aware that the challenge of commercial digitalization is open, and it has potentially profound and lasting implications on the business, on the organization, and on the management of sales processes and networks.


SDA Bocconi School of Management



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