• June 30, 2015

Death of a (B2B) Salesman?

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According to a recent Forrester Research report, business-to-business (B2B) salespeople are in danger of losing their jobs. The report, released in April, predicted that of the roughly 4.5 million B2B salespeople in the United States, 1 million (or 22 percent) would lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce by 2020.

"The way in which B2B buyers behave has changed dramatically," says Andy Hoar, a principal analyst at Forrester Research and author of the report. "Buying today is a relatively self-service environment."

In this environment, Web sites, not salespeople, are at the heart of how B2B companies buy and sell, he explains. Amazon, Hoar noted in the report, "has proven that it's possible to produce tens of billions in revenue annually from selling products and services online, all without salespeople."

According to Hoar, B2B buyers would rather do their own product research than talk to salespeople. "They do not really need or want to talk to a salesman. It's an impediment, or at least an inconvenience, to talk to salespeople," he says.

The same trend also extends to the actual buying process, with 75 percent of B2B buyers saying it is more convenient to buy from a Web site than from a salesperson. "They want to cut them out of the process and buy online as much as possible," he says.

Hoar's bold predictions were not surprising to some. Volker Hildebrand, global vice president of strategy for customer engagement and commerce sales and service solutions at SAP, for example, says buyers today are "digitally connected and better informed than ever before." That, he adds, "is changing the rules of engagement."

Hildebrand cited research from Maximize Social Media, a digital marketing agency that reported recently that 54 percent of B2B buyers begin the buying process with informal research before ever contacting vendors, with a whopping 78 percent of their time spent researching online. "This shows that buying behavior has changed," he says.

But not everyone is as concerned as Hoar. Henry Schuck, CEO of DiscoverOrg, argues that B2B buyers will never be fully equipped to know exactly what new products they want and need through online research. "Anyone who's been in hardware or software sales knows there are endless nuances between products, and you can't buy from a data sheet online," he states. "You need a salesperson to talk you through it."

Schuck points to a recent study of marketing technologies by ChiefMarTec.com that showed that the number of marketing technologies has grown more than 18 times since 2011 and doubled in the past year alone. There is no way modern marketers are equipped to find and understand all of these technologies on their own, Schuck says.

"In short, there will be no death of the B2B salesperson," he adds. "There may be a rejiggering of them to be focused on adding consultative value and educating the buyer … but they will not die."

Even Hoar concedes that salespeople are not completely without purpose. In his report, he noted that 91 percent of B2B buyers still want to talk to salespeople when negotiating price; 80 percent want to talk to salespeople about complex purchases; and two-thirds prefer to talk to salespeople for expensive purchases or when the product requires installation or servicing.

Hoar breaks down salespeople by four key types: order takers, explainers, navigators, and consultants. Of those, order takers and explainers will see the greatest losses, at 33 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Navigators will fall by 15 percent. "If all you're doing is taking orders or punching orders into a computer, you are at high risk," he warns.

The number of sales consultants, however, will actually rise by 10 percent, Hoar predicts. Consultants, he says, "are most capable of relationship and solution selling, integrating themselves most effectively into their clients' businesses and helping them find and solve problems.

"The way salespeople can save their jobs is by becoming consultants," Hoar adds.

Schuck maintains that the sales environment will likely shift from field sales to inside sales. And as the inside sales model expands, "the sales rep will have to be a product expert and a problem solver," he says.

Hoar also has some advice for B2B companies looking to stay competitive in the digital environment. He recommends they invest as much in e-commerce as they do in commissioned salespeople, develop advanced self-serve e-commerce Web sites, leverage well-trained customer account professionals across all channels, harness multipurpose inside sales reps to accelerate buyer journeys, and incorporate versatile call center agents into key parts of the selling process. —Leonard Klie

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