The Death of the (Average) Salesman
While “consultative selling” has been a hot topic for decades now, the truth of the story is that very few organisations have really needed it and even less ever gotten around to really practice it.
Between most B2B organisations, the majority of buying and selling has been happening between a salesperson and a person from the buying organisation at either the technical level or from procurement. In other words, if you as a salesperson could manage to be present at the right time, with the right product, a reasonable price, and not be too arrogant in your style – you would get the order.
But in more or less all industries this is changing, and it is doing so with tremendous speed and immense implications for the salespeople.
Selling and buying is getting more difficult
It is probably clear to most people working in B2B selling or buying that both the nature of the products and how they are bought are changing dramatically:
1. Products are getting more sophisticated: Most physical products are getting increasingly complex and are often both data generators and processors on top of their mechanical properties. Also, the boundaries between software, hardware, and services are blurring. For this reason, new business, delivery, and payment models are constantly emerging.
2. Access to information is increasing: 15% of the buying process is spent on “de-conflicting information” (link) in the buying committee, which on average consists of 6,8 people (link). Buyers report using an average of 6 channels to get information, (link) and 90% of stakeholders now report that they are looping back and forth on decisions (link).
3. Technology has made an increasing proportion of buying transactions more frictionless, automatic and almost free: B2B e-commerce sales in the US alone is expected to cross the $1trillion mark this year (link), and in 75% of buying situations B2B buyers now prefer to meet virtually with the seller instead of face-to-face (link).
The added complexity and new possibilities brought about by technology drive a need to rethink the role of the B2B salesman.
The death of the (average) salesman
The core of the typical salesman´s role has been to act as an intermediary by connecting buyers with products and demand with supply. But the harsh reality is that with purchases of simple and standardised products, salespeople are in most cases a necessary evil that potentially add costs, complexity, delays, mistakes, and other risks to the buying process. It is easy to picture that if the salesperson is perceived as no more but a costly added layer between what is being bought and the buyer, the future looks rather gloomy as companies and customers will continuously look for ways to simplify and automate these types of purchases.
At the other end of the spectrum, many types of B2B purchases are getting more complex. Buyers need support from expert advisors that can help them make sense of complex information in an often time rapidly evolving and unfamiliar space. They need help to identify relevant opportunities and options, build realistic solution scenarios and business cases, and to navigate internal stakeholders. Also, they need help to design the evaluation processes, and to shed light on potential risks avoiding expensive pitfalls. This type of complex B2B buying demands a high level of human interaction based on skillful guidance by the salesperson.
This dual force is squeezing the B2B salesman from two sides. On the one side, the B2B salesman often cannot compete with the convince, speed, and lower cost of e-commerce and self-service platforms. On the other side, the B2B salesman often do not possess the capabilities to truly help the customers and understanding challenges, navigating solution alternatives, and orchestrating the buying committee.
Blazing a new path for salespeople
The dual force squeezing the B2B salesman is hurting performance, especially for the average traditional seller not capable of acting as more than a middleman merely facilitating a buying transaction. Studies show that the gap between high performing and low performing sales representatives are widening (link) while more salespeople than ever fail to meet their quota (link). This development will only accelerate as technology will find ways to replace transactional selling. The B2B salesman will sooner or later be forced to pursue one of the following paths:
- Be recast as an Inside Salesperson: As buyers increasingly choose to educate themselves online (link), B2B companies will continue to invest in digital marketing, inbound tactics, and content marketing (link). The rationale is to get in early in the customers’ buying process so that they can potentially influence preference and buying specifications. To succeed, marketing and sales will need to tightly align their efforts on lead generation and early opportunity pipeline activities. The B2B salesman can recast herself and play an important role here as an Inside salesperson. The inside salesperson’s’ role is to support digital demand creation efforts by qualifying leads and performing virtual sales activities, pushing opportunities through the sales pipeline. The successful inside salesperson is capable of effectively using the phone and the web to help potential clients further in their evaluation process, adds real value to each step of the buying process, sometimes all the way to the actual transaction.
- Be upskilled to be a consultative problem solver: B2B buyers are increasingly in need of support and guidance during more complex purchases as product complexity is increasing, and the wealth of information available is abundant. To succeed as a consultative problem solver, the B2B salesman will need to have domain expertise in different areas in order to offer relevant help and create value during the buying process. Among other things, the B2B salesman will need to thoroughly understand the industry in which key clients play, how they create value to their clients, undertake meaningful conversations on different levels of the organisation, solicit and analyse client situations, issues and needs, emphatically help the different stakeholders articulating the underlying business issues, and navigate multi-stakeholder buying committees. They will also need to help clients make sense of apparently conflicting information, master the executive vernacular, help to build concrete need specifications and business cases, and act as project managers making sure that all internal and external stakeholders are contributing and kept informed during the entire process. In other words, the consultative problem solver is a professional facilitator of complex purchases.
Rethinking the sales organisation to fuel growth
No matter what path is chosen, all aspects of the sales operating system will be affected. Below is a high-level overview of the two approaches to selling that is needed in the B2B companies of tomorrow.
At Kvadrant, we help companies navigate this new reality and redesign sales operating models to make use of this seismic shift rather than being a victim of it. While the headline is probably a little too dramatic, we believe that the tendencies outlined in this article have implications for most B2B companies. Do they resonate with patterns you are seeing in your business, and if yes, how have you accommodated them?
Managing Partner at Kvadrant Consulting
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