The death of B2B salesmen and how they can survive in a digital world

Every day we see evidence of the human race becoming obsolete, from self-driving vacuum cleaners and computers processing our shopping to robots building our cars, or even driving and parking them for us.

So it’s no surprise that people are beginning to worry that a machine will soon take their job – and none more so than B2B salespeople and account managers in the information technology sector.

Earlier this year, a new report by the world’s leading research and advisory firm Forrester made the bold claim that some 1 million B2B salespeople across the US will lose their jobs by 2020. And who or what would be replacing them? Self-service e-commerce, of course.

Forrester has forecasted that in less than five years’ time, the death knell will have sounded for 20% of B2B salespeople in the US. Inbound marketing and online sales are undoubtedly both on the rise – but is the future really as bleak as it seems for B2B salespeople?

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Despite the Forrester report’s shocking headline – Death of a (B2B) Salesman – there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

For a B2B company to stay ahead of the game, they must evolve and adapt to their surroundings. And it must all begin with the people themselves, and a fundamental rethink of the ‘role’ of the modern salesperson or account manager.

Evolve or die

The art of the salesman is still very much in demand, but it probably needs a bit of a makeover.

In fact, Forrester’s report recommends a slightly obvious need to expand the role and incorporate self-service e-commerce.

Research shows that close to 75% of B2B buyers say that buying from a website is more convenient than from a sales representative. And more importantly, once they’ve decided what to buy, the number of people who prefer to buy online rises to a staggering 93%.

“The days of flipping through a B2B catalog or talking to a B2B company sales or call centre representative to learn about a particular product or service are over,” writes Forrester analyst Andy Hoar. “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.”

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 e-commerce website, they risk losing market share to those properly embracing this growing medium.

The perfect match

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 e-commerce 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.

Let’s get digital

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 e-businesses 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.

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

If anything, the rise of online sales should be just the nudge that B2B companies need to ensure they remain ahead of the game. In the digital world you have to adapt to survive and the only way to succeed in the long term is to win, serve and retain customers – with online presence now absolutely key.

Finishing touch

If the B2B salesman or account manager is really to be extinct by 2020, that places a lot of pressure on the buyer. One of the main problems with buying online is that you are reliant upon an honest seller and you must trust your judgment. A certain amount of guesswork is also needed as the ‘customer’ is never quite sure about the quality of an item or service until they’ve used it.

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.

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And there will always be a need for the ‘human touch’. 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 that 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.


Sourced from Ashley Sterland, director, The Change Organisation

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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