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B2B, or not 2B? - that is the question.

20 July 2019

Are digital technologies killing the sales representative?

Many think salespeople will be replaced by digital lead generation and sales automation. But, who will actually kick the more complex sales over the line?

Death of the B2B sales person

It doesn't take much online research to find articles like this one "Death of a [B2B] Salesman"

Forrester forecasts that 1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service eCommerce by the year 2020. B2B buyers now favour do-it-yourself online options for researching and buying products and services, and they are demanding that B2B sellers fully enable those digital paths to purchase.

It makes sense, doesn't it? Everything else is being turned upside down by digital disruption - why not sales?

The Harley salesperson

Years ago I arrived at Melbourne Airport, jumped in a cab and started chatting to the driver; he was the proud new owner of a Harley motorbike.

"I've been saving for 10 years" he explained.

"A couple of weeks ago, I had the money and headed down to Harley Heaven. They have this huge showroom - a big glass window shop front. Each day, they wheel out about 15 Harleys and park them on the sidewalk. There, right by the door, was the model I was after. I kicked my leg over, and put my hands on the grips."

For a minute, I sat enjoying the bike. The door opened and the Harley Salesperson walked out.

"Big tall bloke, with a beard, dress jeans, cowboy boots, a leather tie and sports jacket. Aviator sunglasses."

He doesn't say a word.

"Just walked up, put the key in the ignition, started it, and gunned it. He's just looking at me through his sunglasses while twisting the throttle."

"After clearing the wax out of my ears, he shut it down."


"Then he cocked his head toward the door and said nice and calm..."

"Paperwork is inside"

Selling can be an art.

Sales people come in many flavours

Some are order takers, others have a facilitating role in the sales process, and others manage more complex sales. And still further up the rung, senior people in the organization focus on the large customers and big deals. Large sales take years to close.

Savvy salespeople understand a truth so logical it's axiomatic; people don't buy, prospects do.

Salespeople who need to "hard sell" are focusing their attention on the wrong people. This fact is no more evident than in the car industry; most people who walk into a dealership will buy a car within 72 hours.

Rat with a gold tooth smile

Let's be honest, are we ever comfortable with a salesperson?

I always feel like I am being... well...sold. That uncomfortable feeling of falling for the sales pitch, the perception you've been rushed into a decision and might have overlooked the 'gotcha'.

Any wonder then, people have embraced buying online.

Instead of the claustrophobic feeling of being in the clutches of the glib salesperson, we can browse the internet, do our own research, and decide at our own pace.

Thing is, high-pressure selling was always an aberration. Except in rare cases, it was never the basis for a sustainable business model and not in B2B markets.

Sales like any profession have a range of performers from poor right through to outstanding. It's a continuous scale.

The Harley salesperson mentioned above was extraordinary. As in all professions, the majority of salespeople can't emulate the top salesperson's talent even though sales training courses attempt to make them believe it's possible.

Years of watching salespeople achieving inconsistent results while drawing significant salaries and claiming outrageous expenses are for many as annoying as owning a light globe that mostly shines half-bright, next minute flickers and dies, and occasionally has a flash of brilliance.

Business owners and management are therefore receptive to an alternative. Many have been looking for a way to get rid of the sales team for years.

Then someone invented the internet

A dream come true; we can replace the sales team with a computer!

Steadily, digital marketing is replacing salespeople. The salesperson is dead.

Or, that's what we are being lead to believe.

For sure, the internet has challenged retail models, and for B2B products and services, digital marketing is increasing access to information and facilitating purchasing processes. Many pre-sale processes (the letting of tenders for example) are facilitated through the internet and post-sale projects are managed through the gradual introduction of sophisticated platforms. Building Information Modelling (BIM) is an example.

However, to make the blanket statement "digital marketing is now making the field salesperson obsolete" is like saying television killed radio.

It didn't kill radio, but it sure changed the landscape and business models needed to adapt.

Digital disruption continues to change the way we do business and including modifying the way business structures and deploys its sales force and sales administration.

Let's explore the traditional sales roles and make the case for how digital disruption, rather than killing the salesperson, will simply enhance their role by...

Eliminating the low-value work: digital lead generation is replacing salespeople who weren't really 'selling' they were just taking orders.

Adding process to improve efficiency: there are two things salespeople consistently (with a few exceptions) have always struggled with: Paperwork (read 'process') and prospecting.

Digital platforms provide the tools to do both with much greater effectiveness.

Proposition: "We’ll see the rise of the professional salesperson - automation powered by AI will require it. The majority of salespeople will be efficient, so the most effective will (survive) and the rest will be replaced by technology. This means we’ll also see a rise in the need for excellent sales training around conversational abilities and navigating complex sales effectively.” -Rex Bibertson, principal, Rexb.co LLC"

The conclusion is obvious, in the digital age salespeople will still be needed but they will be applied to high-value processes not (yet) able to be performed by automation and will be fed somewhat qualified leads by digital lead generation systems.

So, "yes" there is still a role for salespeople and "no" the digital age will not replace salespeople. Just make them more effective.

This isn't saying there won't be changes.

Business-to-business selling has a number of variants...

Straight transactional selling
The customer knows what they want and just want to order. For example, buying electrical, electronic, computer, spare parts or components. Ring-up (or order online) and place the order. Done. Minimal (if any) salesperson touchpoints. This is the type of selling most likely to be replaced by digital marketing.

Transactional with telephone or online assistance
The customer needs technical assistance ("does the MBX-250 use a standard three-wire connection?"). A trained technical inside salesperson can field that call and convert the sale. A bit of added value, but not a lot. The technical salesperson has value, rather than doing the online research, it can be just quicker to ask someone who knows "the MBX-250 uses two wires; if you must have 3 wires - then I suggest you use the Franken-Digi 200. Works just as well and is 30% cheaper." However, digital marketing can be made to replace (or enhance) the role of the inside technical sales consultant by supplying well-engineered online technical content and product selection guides. Better still; offer both.

Account selling
In B2B selling, signing-up new accounts is the efficient way to drive transaction sales. Instead of sales reps calling on customers to sell product, they sell the concept of a product range combined with customer service. In B2B transaction sales, the larger customers buy regularly and a range of different items. The account sales person focuses on finding large customers, and keeping them happy. However, the actual sales orders are processed either through the customer service team or through an online ordering portal.

Solution selling
This is a higher-touch sale. The customer has a problem to solve and needs a bespoke solution. Before the quote can be prepared, a solution needs to be developed. The first step is called 'needs analysis'. The salesperson meets with the customer and drafts a requirements specification. The salesperson brings the spec back to the office and a solution is developed. The quote is prepared and the salesperson returns and presents the proposal. They're working on it, but solution selling is difficult to replace with a digital sales system.

Strategic selling
At the top of the range is strategic selling. Much of the selling that takes place in business to business markets is a long sell. Both the customer and the supplier have a team of people involved in the sale, and often the customer is engaged with multiple competing vendors. The selling skill required is so far removed from the foot-in-door-selling many organizations don't even use the term "sales" to describe this process. People working in strategic selling have loftier titles designed to obscure their true purpose "customer representative", "area manager", "product specialist", "field engineer" and my favourite "business development manager".

This is one part of sales where the digital world has a role to play but will not remove the need for buying teams to talk with selling teams and for a high degree of collaborative thinking and discussion to take place before the sale is transacted.

And this brings us back to the quote...

There is a need for excellent sales training around conversational abilities and navigating complex sales effectively

The complex-sale, high touch solution selling salesperson requires a diverse range of skill sets including a high emotional intelligence. Being able to read people, read situations as well as driving a systematic sales process is a rare talent. In addition, it's rare to find a salesperson in this space who doesn't have deep domain knowledge.

Communication skills and the ability to connect with people complements the above skillsets, rounding out the profile of highly successful salespeople in complex sales.

Digital lead generation and sales automation

The effectiveness of the digital sales model is that it can potentially deliver more than simply an online sales catalogue with an e-commerce payment gateway attached.

Sales automation at the bare minimum provides various levels of sophistication in lead nurturing.

Capturing digital fingerprints enables sales automation systems to track digital touchpoints and deliver pre-canned sales messages to people who have browsed an online shop (or other parts of a company website) through EDM and online advertisements. Each of these messages is crafted to engage their interest and (hopefully) convert them at some point in the future. Or, at the very least, keep reminding them of the sales channel when they are ready to buy.

Frankly, the majority of the implementations of these lead nurturing systems are clumsy.

Most sales automation delivers almost the same insincere glib sales pitch as the dreaded 'kick-the-door-down' human sales leaches they replaced (minus the smell of their aftershave).

However, others are increasing in sophistication and work superbly.

Sales automation still requires humans to write the content; writing crisp well crafted on-point copy for 4,000 products in a catalogue is a herculean task. And when authored by a 'twenty-something' whose previous copywriting experience was developed through text messaging while driving - "say what NO! Lol" - may lack the necessary panache.

The future of these systems is Artificial Intelligence, which will optimise the sales automation process by automatically fine-tuning the delivered content, timing, sales channel and anything else that can be controlled by computers. But it won't write the content.

Be careful though, often the scale required to make such systems worthwhile can be very large. Such sophisticated systems need large volumes of sales to justify the investment needed. A fact often left out when the Sales Automation salesperson calls you to sell you on sales automation (funny isn't it? Sales Automation can't seem to sell itself).

Sales is going through metamorphose

The reality is, the digital world is modifying the organisation's approach to selling. It is probably having the most impact on transaction sales with a catch that I will get to later

Where is the opportunity and what does the future look like?

The field salesperson has a future and may well be the only way to differentiate in an increasingly crowded online space. Eventually, as the lead generation companies and sales automation "business development managers" kit us all out with slick automated tools, the playing field will once again become even.

Moreover, the online world is becoming a crowded place; maybe we will see the return of the sales professional in some industries as the new technique for gaining a competitive edge

From the b2b marketer's perspective, designing a suitable selling model needs to consider all of the available tools (human or digital) and apply them astutely to their market, their product/service set, and the scale of their operation. Unless your organization is a pure-play (unequivocally a dedicated singular sales model) then likely you will be best served by a blended approach - some digital at the front of the sales funnel and bring the humans in at the end to sift through the potential enquiries and close the sales.

But, blending isn't just about feeding the salespeople with digital leads; many business-to-business organisations have a mixture of 'run-rate' sales and high touch sales and need a sophisticated sales model that caters for both.

The blended sales model

I am in love with an online store called MWAVE - that's my go-to online store when buying new computer hardware (whole machines or components). I am often buying hard drives, video cards, keyboards and 'mice', and occasionally a whole machine. The reason I like it is...

  • They deliver fast: Yesterday something happened to me that I've heard about but never, in 30 years sitting in front of desktop computers, experienced before. The power supply in my computer blew up. There was a loud phut, a flash of blue light. And the smoke (that lives inside all electrical components) escaped. The three screens went blank. I needed a new power supply but instead used the opportunity to buy a new PC. Straight to MWAVE. I browsed the options, read the specifications on Thursday night. Woke on Friday morning and at 7 AM placed the order. At about midday, while on the way to the airport, I received an email telling me my order had been dispatched. I am confident I will receive the machine on Monday. No salesperson. All done online. Over the next few weeks, I expect to see a greater number of MWAVE online adverts stalking me.
  • Back-up the online system with a real human being. If online technology lets me down I can call a real human being and have a real conversation. They usually fix any glitches in the matrix fast and can provide advice on hardware selection.
  • Faulty goods return: Once I bought 4 big screen DELL monitors through MWAVE. One of them arrived with a smashed screen. Again I called the human and they agreed to exchange the product (obviously damaged in transit) but to be fair, how were they to know if I had dropped the thing while unpacking? They didn't but they fixed the problem - fast.

Do you see what I am doing here? I am an advocate of MWAVE (disclosure, they are not a client (yet) of JWPM and I don't have shares ). I just appreciate a good performance. But here is the clincher. I don't really care if they stock DELL, SAMSUNG, BENQ, Western Digital etc. my brand preference (emphasis on preference) is for the sales channel, not the products.

This is a common phenomenon in a digital age, consumers having brand loyalty to the sales channel more so than to the brand.

I referred before to the pure-play model. For many years I have perceived MWAVE as just an online store. I've no idea but assume they have no physical (bricks and mortar) shop and are a web store connected to a warehouse and dispatch system.

But they do have a field sales force for capturing large corporates. The online model is an efficient sales channel for capturing rats and mice sales and the field sales team capture volume deals where the opportunity to sell (say) 250 desktop computers in one hit to a law firm that is upgrading their technology. At the same time, MWAVE takes away the old machines, wipe them clean, check them and then offer them online as "refurbished" 2nd hand machines.

This is an example of a blended approach. See? MWAVE hasn't killed the salesperson by deploying digital technology...

...they've simply embraced an efficient low touch digital model that releases their sales team to pursue high-value transactions.

Selling the sales portal as a service

A growing trend in business to business sales is sole sourcing and dedicated customer ordering portals or b2b gateways. Large corporates have calculated the cost of doing business with a huge collection of vendors and mandated pruning the list...

  • Each vendor has a relationship cost. Procurement and accounting back-office staff need to allocate time to manage each supplier relationship. Meeting with their representatives, sorting out invoicing problems, accounts receivables calls all have a time cost.

  • Volume discounts. Reducing vendors potentially increases the transaction volume through each vendor improving the opportunity for procurement to leverage a volume discount.

To further reduce cost, procurement is seeking to bundle all of their minor purchases (PPE safety equipment being a classic example) into one list of items that approved staff can order online direct from a sole source vendor without going through procurement. The vendor delivers directly to branch offices or project sites.

To facilitate this, suppliers are building corporate custom online portals that sit behind a login and provide a list of (say) 50 approved items. These portals vary in sophistication, but some include a management site allowing the customer's procurement people to monitor transaction activity and/or receive reports.

The role of the field sales team is to sell the portal concept and negotiate volume pricing on the selected products.

Once in place, the portal generates cash; it's the gift that keeps on giving.

The HCF sales model

Some years ago, I reviewed the sale model for a large abrasive blasting equipment supplier. Even before they embraced the internet, their key selling tool was an impressive sales catalogue.

Their sales model consisted of…

  • Field salespeople: a team of people who physically called on customers to see if they could jag a sale, they would return from field trips and spend the next few months working through quote requests and following-up leads.

  • An inside sales team: These were technical sales specialists, Their primary task was to take orders, but were trained to advise product selection and spot sales opportunities. A classic application of the old sales story of the man who went to a fishing shop to buy a hook and went home with a new boat, outboard motor, waders, jacket, fishing rod, reel, nylon line, and a hook.

  • The sales catalogue: which was an annual production exercise and each year was mailed to their client and prospect list.

After reviewing their selling model, we advised a subtle change, we said “your external salespeople should be selling the 1800 number not product.”

The inside sales team was a valuable resource to customers. The company ensured (through training) they were experts on abrasive blasting. Customers used them as technical resource. The capability of the inside sales team was an important part of the company’s competitive advantage.

This changed the focus of the external sale team from selling product to being sales channel champions. Their role was to introduce the concept of the technical sales resource “next blasting project you win, ring the technical team and they will advise you on what grade of garnet to use, which nozzle, what pressure, and tell you if your gear is up to the task.”

And, if in the 'unlikely event' it's not up to the task, we'll sell you some equipment that is. Ker-ching!

The job of the external sales team was simple…
• Find new customers
• Make the phone ring

We called it the Hook ‘em, Clean ‘em and Fry ‘em sales model or HCF.

After embracing the model, sales grew dramatically over the next two years.

How does this relate to digital marketing?

My client now publishes both a hard copy and online version of their company catalogue and delivers their legendary technical service advice both digitally and traditionally via telephone.

They had already built a team of people skilled at producing content, they now had two platforms for publishing.

The field sales team maintain face-to-face contact with the key customers and continue to be brand ambassadors as well as providing consultative selling for large ticket items and projects.

They are operating a blended sales model combining digital selling with traditional feet-on-the-ground salespeople.

7 ways digital marketing and sales automation can drive sales

1. Find the right sales model

It's possible to go 'all in' with digital marketing and sales automation and reduce your sales team down to just a few customer service people. But, it depends very much on the types of products and services you are selling and the average size of a sale. Building the right sales model is critical. Many B2B organisations have a mixture of run-rate sales and high-value project sales. These are best served with a blended sales model.

2. Keep the high-value salespeople

Digital marketing systems and sales automation are now replacing the lower value salespeople (the order takers). The opportunity is to increase the consistency and effectiveness of your sales organisation by combining digital and human sales.

3. Sales Automation doesn't drive itself

Digital marketing systems are more than just SEO, Google Adwords and some kid or the owner’s son posting stuff on Facebook. The full-stack digital marketing and sales automation system is a slick, well-oiled machine deeply integrated with your online sales platform (the webshop or similar), integrated with a CRM, linked with social media platforms and EDM delivery platforms and has a team of people constantly tending to this beast making sure it’s delivering sensible content and fine-tuning its performance.

Sales automation platforms need to be told what to do. You must think of these systems as you would any computer system. They are tools for magnifying human effort. Human effort is still required.

4. High-value B2B sales require people

Very rarely do sales automation platforms entirely replace human salespeople. Implemented correctly, it should leverage the performance of the sales team by more efficiently gathering qualifying, and nurturing sales leads. There are some sales functions that only humans can perform, Digital marketing will still have an application to these higher-value sales functions but in less significant ways.

5. Invest in a skilled team of digital marketers

When social media became "a thing" and was first applied to selling products and services, many thought "great, free advertising!" forgetting the time required to create content (write copy and produce images) and fussing with the social media interface. Time is money. And now that everyone is doing it, we are back to the world of traditional advertising skills - someone has to craft the selling message tailored to the target market and produce compelling content. The internet is just another publishing medium and eyeballs are spoilt for choice. This article is an example of content marketing - and it took me ages to write it!

6. Sales messages need to be specific

Every sales message delivered by the sales automation platform requires…

  • What message [picture, video, words] do you want to be delivered?
  • To whom do I deliver it?
  • Under what explicit set of circumstances do I deliver it?
  • What events do you want to be notified of (i.e. when a prospect does X the system will notify Y)

The sales automation platform works best when the messages it delivers are highly specific to the sales products being searched. For example, when visiting MWAVE and having browsed Kingston Value RAM 8GB (1x 8GB) DDR4 Memory, for the next two weeks I will be seeing MWAVE adverts popping up on other websites for THAT product and not a less generic message like "MWAVE - Great deals on memory modules."

You can see how if you have an inventory of 4,000 SKU’s in 20 different categories, loading up the sales automation system with the right bullets to fire will require a large team of skilled individuals.

7. Be prepared to make a significant investment

Appreciate that what you saved in firing salespeople will simply be replaced by people managing and feeding the sales automation platform (after 12 months of learning how to set up and drive it). And let’s not forget the fees paid to the automation platform vendors. However, potentially it will cover far more ground and deliver more accurate tracking data than you ever got from an all-human team.

As sure as television modified radio when it was introduced, online sales systems and digital lead generation is modifying the world of sales. But to say it is killing it is just a catchy headline.

But you can't blame them for promoting this proposition - it is, after all, a great sales pitch.

By Justin Wearne, Marketing Consultant


Death of a b2b salesperson [Forrester]
Field Sales Is Dead; Long Live Inside Sales
The death of the salesperson is the missing piece of the ROI puzzle
How sales have changed [Forbes]
The Bionic Salesperson: A future of fusing Talent with Artificial Intelligence

sales force extinctionthe death of the sales personsales automationdigital lead generationsales modelb2b lead generationb2b marketingb2b marketing blog

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