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Are we witnessing the death of the B2B salesperson?

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28th Aug 2015
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With unprecedented amounts of information now available, and access to it easier than ever, buyers are becoming better informed and more self-sufficient. Before making a purchase, they have now done much of the leg work and gathered all the information that would previously have been provided for them. So in this brave new world of B2B, is there still a role for the salesperson or account manager to play?

At the 2015 Forrester Sales Enablement Forum, principal analyst Andy Hoar delivered a presentation about a future – or lack thereof – for the B2B salesperson. And when one of the most influential research and advisory firms in the world states that 1 million B2B salespeople in the US will lose their jobs to self-service ecommerce by 2020, you sit up and take notice.

In the report, Hoar explains: “The days of flipping through a B2B catalogue or talking to a B2B company sales or call centre representative to learn about a particular product or service are over. Now B2B buyers educate themselves online throughout most of the buying process, often wherever they find the highest-quality information and have the best browsing experience.”

With this in mind, in 50 years’ time will we be looking back on this period as the end of an era? Is the B2B salesperson the next victim of the digital revolution? Or is it high time that B2B caught up with the rest of the world and embraced the concept of online account management?

A new digital age

The Forrester report shows that almost 75% of B2B buyers prefer to buy online when purchasing products for work. Despite this, only 25% of B2B companies actively sell online and many insist that buyers interact directly with a sales representative. As a result, many companies are missing out on this potentially lucrative business stream.

Buyers now enter the ‘sales cycle’ when they are more than halfway through the process – after visiting the website, researching competitors and seeking out case studies. This gives the salesperson a tiny window of opportunity when the buyer is satisfied enough to call the salesperson. So, if B2B companies delay the creation of a self-serve ecommerce website, they risk losing market share to those properly embracing this growing medium.

Whatever your personal preference, there’s no denying that digital channels are here to stay. Both B2B buyers and internal sales professionals use them to complete transactions so it’s up to ebusinesses to create websites that will provide a network to connect B2B buyers with call centres, sales agents, field sales professionals, and their own internal websites.

The dawning of a new era

Founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, once said: “What’s dangerous is not to evolve,” and that is certainly the case for B2B salespeople and account managers. And one such way is to embrace digital technologies. For sustainable success in the B2B market, it is vital that companies build digitally enabled selling models to put self-serve ecommerce on equal footing with commissioned salespeople.

Digitally enabled B2B selling models will enhance a company’s sales efforts in several ways. Businesses are able to focus salespeople away from basic tasks that can be managed digitally, so they can concentrate on more profitable targets and provide an improved service offering to customers.

The rise of online sales should be the push that companies need to become more customer-focussed. With the recent economic forces and ever-evolving technologies, the only way companies can survive is to change their processes in order to win, serve and retain their customers.

Identify your buyer

Forrester states that B2B buyers now fall into four distinct quadrants – ‘Show Me’, ‘Enlighten Me’, ‘Serve Me’ and ‘Guide Me’. Based on a combination of the complexity of the solution type and the complexity of the buying environment, it goes beyond simple binary transactions to show that buying behaviour is becoming increasingly complex.

Using this theory there are four types of buyer, and consequently four types of seller too. High complexity products and services require careful consideration from the buyer, and often persuasion from the seller that the purchase – i.e. an ERP or CRM system – is required. At the other end of the spectrum, low impact and high volume products require little input from either party.

Companies must therefore pair the appropriate B2B seller “archetype” with each quadrant’s specified B2B buyer type. Until this has been recognised across the industry, self-service ecommerce websites will continue to serve B2B buyers more effectively and efficiently than salespeople can – especially in low complexity buying environments where human interaction just gets in the way. But, as much as we like to buy online, there will always be the need for human contact.

A personal touch

In spite of the continued growth of online sales, the human voice remains a key part of the transaction and reassures consumers of their intent to purchase. Online should be a complement, not a supplement, for traditional sales methods.

In the digital world, buyers are being constantly bombarded with the next big product, technology or innovation – and to really know what each one offers, they will rely upon a competent, and honest, salesperson. Whether it’s 2015 or the year 3000, online should be seen as a complement to, not replacement of, traditional sales techniques.

There will always be certain products and services which can be just re-ordered, or if the customer truly understands your product they can bypass a dedicated salesperson. As a result, the role played by knowledgeable sales staff will become ever more important in the IT world where there is no one-size-fits-all solution and a do-it-yourself approach sometimes isn’t enough.

Technology will continue to grow and change at a rapid rate and buyers will never be fully equipped to know exactly what products are available. Therefore, reports of the death of B2B salespeople and account managers have certainly been exaggerated, and the changing landscape offers huge potential for those who manage the transition process correctly to enjoy even more success.

Also, how many of the 1 million B2B salespeople that are expected to become unemployed by 2020 will still be required to deal with errors, complaints or general queries from all those online purchases? When you consider how many buyers will be self-educating online about products and services, aftercare will surely become the biggest department in any organisation.

The industry is perched on the precipice of a fundamental shift in the way it does business. And as companies look for new ways to build and grow, it’s up to their B2B salespeople and account managers to fight back and ensure they are fully equipped for whatever the future holds.  

Ashley Sterland is communications director at The Change Organisation.

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By Robert Weiss
03rd Sep 2015 15:02

"Online should be a complement, not a supplement, for traditional sales methods." This is especially true for enterprise sales / sales that take a long time.

As stated, people are online every day doing their research and getting informed...at every stage of the buying process...yes, I said buying process,not sales process as most of the power has shifted to the buyer.

Companies need to now provide meaningful information to buyers that is not salesy and provides important relationship bridges.

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By Scott McLean
11th Sep 2015 10:03

For me what this most importantly highlights is the need for the B2B customer journey to be properly mapped and then the content created to support the entire end-to-end journey, rather than just the upfront engagement content that businesses overly focus on today. B2B buyers are digitally self-reliant and B2B marketers need to up their game to support the digital buying journey. Furthermore, modern content strategy platforms, such as Odyssiant, allow you to map the journey, plan the content and then analyse the consumption of the content so you can see where your buyers are on the journey and what they are interested in.

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