How Salespeople Can Adapt to a Digital World—And Keep Their Jobs

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How Salespeople Can Adapt to a Digital World—And Keep Their Jobs


There was a time when B2B salespeople were in charge of every sales transaction. They were the ones with the information at their fingertips that allowed them to have some control over the buyer’s journey. Now the balance has shifted in favor of the well-informed, savvy buyer in a digital landscape where new technologies are driving innovative business models that perhaps threaten the very existence of the sales professional.

“The new sales world is all about inbound marketing, social selling strategies and flattened sales organizations that collect orders and add value at the end of the sales process. Sounds good for the customer and company, but not so great for the salesperson.”

This quote—from author and sales leader Lee Bartlett— sums up neatly the situation sales people are facing, one that will need them to adapt and evolve to survive in the digital world we now inhabit.

Let’s look at the challenges they face, and what they need to do to keep their jobs.

The Digital Challenge

Buyers are no longer restricted to the information available in a brochure or sales prospectus. They have a wealth of information at their fingertips online from their mobile devices including product details and specifications, company background, and peer reviews. Buying decisions are naturally heavily influenced by what they discover in their searches—meaning they often don’t even feel the need to speak to a sales person at all.

Automation and big data analysis are disrupting traditional methods, blurring the lines between marketing and sales as digital marketing technologies smooth the buying journey. If you add in the cost pressures most businesses face today, you will soon see an environment where doing more with less might erode the value of the sales function.

While this might not be too much of a threat in the short term, both sales people, and those who employ them, need to start thinking strategically about the future. Let’s look at some of the factors influencing the future of our B2B sales reps.

Digital Preferred—Except for New Products

While the new breed of buyer shows a strong preference for digital, there are circumstances when they still prefer the human touch. According to a 2016 study from McKinsey, while 85 percent of B2B buyers prefer to use digital channels for many repeat transactions, when it comes to considering a new product or service, three-quarters expressed a preference to engage with a sales representative.

Meanwhile, further evidence that digital doesn’t dominate entirely came in the shape of a report highlighted at The Marketing Scope.Though the report explored how consumers prefer to interact with retailers, it did give some insights into the mindset of buyers in general. Keep in mind B2B buyers are real people who buy stuff outside of work too.

Overall the study found while most people favored online chat (28.9 percent), almost the same proportion (28.7 percent) showed a preference for a phone conversation. An indication of future trends came with the revelation that when it came to the millennial cohort, there was a significant gap with 37 percent preferring chat to just 21 percent who like to talk to a person face-to-face or over the phone.

Build the Relationships—Build the Network

The role of the sales person has always been about building relationships and networks. These traits will hold even more value in the future as sales people seek to differentiate themselves from the competition and remain valued by their organization.

The previously mentioned McKinsey report confirms that strong relationships and networks will be of particular value with new product launches. In an era of fierce competition and low entry costs, speed to market is vital and there’s no better way to reach the right decision makers than by direct contact from a well-placed sales person.The successful sales rep will build and maintain their network so that they can act as soon as opportunities arise, in the process making them an indispensable asset to their company.

Support not Control 

The salesperson of the future will need to evolve from a “customer owner” to a “customer advocate”, supporting the customer in their buying journey, not controlling the process as they might have become accustomed to in the past.

This excellent infographic from Blackdot sums up the mind shift the salesperson will need to embrace to meet the challenges they face.

blackdot infographics

Graphic Source: Blackdot

This means having a different approach to the prospect. Don’t start by telling them with how great your company and products are, but listen to what challenges they are facing and suggest how you can help them with a solution. This is a vital part of any relationship and something a good salesperson has always done. Sadly it’s an area where many are falling short, an issue Eric Vidal explores with his video presentation, Discovery Calls and Why Salespeople Need to be Making Them.

Take Advantage of Digital 

Don’t think for a moment that it’s only about human relationships and that digital technology is the enemy of the salesperson. Two items in the above infographic explain how this isn’t the case.

  • The traditional salesperson needs to stop seeing digital channels as competition and make a bridge between digital and physical.
  • Salespeople of the future need to be driven by customer data rather than feeling burdened by it.

Technology, digital, and social channels must be used to complement and enhance personal relationships. Insights gained from digital tools can be applied to customer data and used to provide the information the potential buyer needs when and where they want it. Tools like Owler and Nudge can help sales people stay up to date with company and industry news as well as personal mentions and social activity.

Technologies such as CRM applications shouldn’t just be viewed as a means to automate sales and marketing processes. They should be enabling, transformational tools, which can improve communications, free up time, and improve efficiency.

Not a Threat but an Opportunity to Differentiate 

Are sales robots about to shake up the commercial world and pose a threat to the whole sales force? Clearly not but what is inescapable is that changing customer demands and a technology powered B2B landscape will be viewed as an imminent threat by many.

The more enlightened sales people will see this as an opportunity to set themselves apart. The ones who will thrive will be those who use their expert knowledge to build a powerful network based on personal relationships, and know how to deploy the latest digital tools to inform and support them.

Successful sales people will continue to be in demand. As Lee Bartlett so ably puts it,  “a top performing salesperson with a transferable, customer-centric network and quantifiable skill-set will be in far greater demand as the machines take over.”

To gain more insight in to how sales professionals should balance social media and personal selling in the age of digital, and crucially what they can do to stay on top in the future, try this SMACtalk podcast from Daniel Newman.

Are you seeing digital innovations changing the rules for you as a seller, or for your sales force as an employer? I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Photo Credit: Alan O’Rourke Flickr via Compfight cc

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