B2B Salespeople Can Survive If They Reimagine Their Roles
“Death of a B2B Salesman,” a new report from Forrester Research, lends urgency to the need for companies to rethink and radically transform their sales models by incorporating digital media into their processes. The study found that by a factor of 3 to 1, B2B buyers want to self-educate themselves by going to sellers’ websites to learn about offerings, and a majority of buyers prefer to make purchases online. Despite this shift, many sellers continue to force customers to deal with a sales representative to learn about prices and complete the transaction, Forrester found.
Contrary to what these findings — and Forrester’s prediction that “1 million U.S. B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce by 2020″ — seem to suggest, the live B2B salesperson is not destined to become a dinosaur. Rather, his or her role needs to be redefined. Here’s how B2B sellers should do that.
Map the customer journey and redesign your sales funnel. Firms must conduct a deep dive and map the customer journey, or buying process, taking into account customers’ use of the emerging digital media to search, learn, purchase, and obtain follow-up service. In addition, each needs to rethink its sales funnel, the process for finding, attracting, and retaining customers. A company’s goal should be to integrate its arsenal of traditional and emerging digital marketing tools and specify where the field salesperson should be involved, if at all. Previously, salespeople focused a significant portion of their attention on the beginning of the funnel: finding sales leads and converting them into prospects. Today, they may have to redirect their efforts to points further along the process: closing hot prospects, providing follow-up service, and cultivating long-term relationships.
Fortunately, B2B executives can draw upon sound guidance when reformulating their sales and marketing efforts. High on any executive’s reading list should be two Harvard Business Review articles from the 1990s: “Staple Yourself to an Order” and “Discovering New Points of Differentiation.” Both spell out how to map the buying process and customer experience and optimally redirect the firm’s sales, marketing, operations, and service efforts. In addition, there are a host of digital marketing firms — notably HubSpot and Oracle Eloqua — that have sales models, tools, and strategies for successfully adapting to the new buying process.
Thoroughly evaluate digital marketing costs before jumping on the bandwagon. The business media makes it sound like digital marketing is practically free and implementation is effortless. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the costs of digital media are far less expensive than the cost of a sales call, pundits often overlook the costs and resources associated with sustaining a 24/7 real-time marketing effort. In his 2014 book, The Marketing Performance Blueprint, Paul Roetzer states that there are “15 core competencies of a modern marketing organization”: coding, copywriting, data analysis, e-mail marketing, event planning, graphic design, lead management, mobile strategy, paid media management, public relations, search engine optimization, social media, strategic planning, video product, and website management.
According to PayScale, the current average salaries of some of the personnel needed to provide these skills include: content manager ($62,930), content strategist ($62,000), marketing analytics manager ($109,784), digital community manager ($47,797), website design manager ($58,604), video production specialist ($51,576), and graphic design manager ($76,000). Compared to the total of these salaries, Forrester’s reference to an average salary of $53,000 for a field sales person sounds like a bargain. And for small- to medium-size businesses, the required resources — technology, personnel, costs, and assets — are daunting if not out of reach. The moral: Do not act rashly. Do a thorough evaluation of required costs and resources associated with digital marketing efforts. Research firms such as Forrester can assist by documenting the total costs and resources required for a firm to field a first-rate digital operation.
Reimagine, retrain, and redeploy your sales people. For 50 years, pundits have repeatedly proclaimed that salespeople would soon be rendered obsolete by the emerging media or technologies of the day: catalogs, telemarketing, dot-coms, online reverse auctions, and now digital search. Each time, salespeople survived. How? They evolved.
As Forrester correctly points out, ordering can be more efficiently conducted via digital devices; thus, salespeople are no longer needed to perform the task. Instead, today’s field salesperson should be an educator, negotiator, consultant, solution configurator, service provider, and relationship manager. They are integral to discovering the “something more” that customers want. As customers will tell you, “A salesperson must add value by becoming part of the product or solution.”
B2B executives and salespeople can find sound guidance on how to upgrade the skills and effectiveness of their selling efforts from consultants and publications, including Value Merchants, which I coauthored with Jim Anderson and Nirmalya Kumar. In that book, we provide methods for transforming transactional salespeople (i.e., order takers) into consultants. These methods pivot on identifying unmet customer needs, configuring high-value solutions, and then successfully demonstrating and documenting their value to the customer.
As the new Forrester report aptly verifies, B2B sales and marketing practices are at a critical turning point and B2B executive must rigorously analyze and reformulate their current efforts. But the answer is not to fire all field salespeople; it is to integrate the select competencies of both digital marketing and the field salesforce.