The rise of digital and overwhelming amount of information now available to anyone in buying mode could be bad news for B2B salespeople.
In fact, according to a recently published report on CIO.com, an estimated 1 million B2B sales jobs could be at risk in the very near future.
We reached out to the industry to gauge just how big digital’s threat is to the B2B salesman. The consensus? Digital could certainly be a threat, but the good salespeople--those who bring value and that one-to-one human connection to the sales process--can never be replaced by a Web site or a product video.
Peter Isaacson, CMO, Demandbase, told CMO.com:
Ever since data came out that 60% to 80% of the B2B purchase cycle happens before the hand raise, pundits have been predicting that sales organizations will slide into irrelevancy. While this data provides a stark reminder that marketing organizations have to bring their “A game” every single day, it is definitely not a harbinger of death for the B2B salesman. In fact, I believe that digital marketing is making the B2B salesman job even more valuable. Innovative marketing technologies, along with the proliferation of big data, are giving B2B sales teams the ability to focus their efforts around target accounts at the right time, with the most relevant message. And marketing data is now making it possible for marketing teams to identify prospects even while they are “anonymous” to influence behavior and improve the types of opportunities we deliver to sales teams.
Digital marketing is also helping sales and marketing teams better align their strategies around target accounts and practice account-based marketing (ABM). By focusing marketing and sales activities around the accounts that are most likely to close, we improve collaboration across the organizations, increase pipeline, and close rates. But even as marketing works to improve our ability to target and nurture prospects, in the end an outstanding sales team is essential to bringing the deal over the line.
Robert Tas, CMO, Pegasystems, told CMO.com:
I don’t believe digital marketing will cause the death of the B2B salesperson, but it will change and, in fact, enhance the role in a number of ways. Customers are doing more and more research online before ever engaging with a company, so rather than focus on selling, salespeople will have to focus on helping customers buy. The good news is that digital marketing can help them in that process.
- By connecting engagement channels, the sales process will be better enabled across the entire buyer journey.
- Digital data will provide more feedback, which will result in better content, experiences, and products for customers and thus for sales to leverage.
- Companies and their sales teams will better understand buyers’ pain points and key drivers, which will allow sales to better target and hopefully shorten the sales cycle. They should be getting better and more qualified leads.
- We will see shifts as more and more sales and marketing assets continue to convert to digital, especially video–product information, product demos, e-books, etc. At Pega, for example, we’ve created a series of online videos that prospects can view before ever talking to a salesperson.
- Traditional whitepapers will change form factors and become two-minute videos or slide shows.
- Data will empower salespeople with better customer info, much like we’ve seen in the consumer space.
- The worlds of B2B and B2C are blending, and we are using the same technology and techniques to better understand the customer buyer journey. Though it is definitely changing the role of the B2B salesperson, I believe, in the long run it will give our salespeople better tools and information to do their jobs.
Tom O’Regan, CEO, Madison Logic, told CMO.com:
Digital marketing is, indeed, evolving quickly in the B2B space. It’s important to remember that B2B customers are individual consumers themselves with their own shopping habits, which will undoubtedly influence their professional purchasing habits as well. They will expect to be engaged at a personalized level and given the information they need to make a decision. Their research habits are signals of their independence and their abhorrence of relentless email messages for products they have no need for. The research clearly points to this trend.
However, when you provide messaging that is the right message, to the right person, at the right time, B2B customers will welcome sales calls. Marketers now know how to engage B2B targets and what data they need to create that experience. Companies that do not use data powerfully will be at a disadvantage, but those that partner with companies who use data to drive engagement will thrive. Will B2B lose 1 million jobs? Only if they continue to do what they did in the past; however, it will be their fault for not listening to their prospects and clients. The key will be to engage with prospects throughout the sales funnel, leveraging the intent data to drive engagement on a personal level.
Kerry Bianchi, COO, Collective, told CMO.com:
As the awareness and prevalence of automated digital buying systems has increased, there has been a parallel concept that this could replace human-to-human selling as more ad buying happens through these more automated means.
While automated platforms may increase speed, efficiency, or visibility to the sales process, and may replace certain bespoke one-to-one sales actions, we don’t see a wholesale elimination of the B2B sales team. That said, it’s likely the role and skill set of these salespeople will necessarily shift. As the landscape becomes more fractionalized and the multitude of potential technologies continues to grow, clients will need help navigating and evaluating the relative merits of these platforms and help in unifying reporting and distilling insights in order to take better actions. This will, in turn, require sellers to take on a more business consultative role, as brands demand more transparent, agnostic, objective views of their ad spend.
Jen Gray, VP of Marketing, HelloWorld, told CMO.com:
Technology has certainly reduced the need for human-to-human contact when searching for–or buying–a product or service. Type a few words into Google, and you will receive a plethora of information about the topic at hand (sometimes too much in this world of “content creation is king”). Moreover, with marketing automation tools popping up everywhere and available to solution providers, salespeople can spend more time on qualified hand raisers who actually have interest in their products and services, rather than just stabbing in the dark. This is changing behavior across the board–both on the buying and selling side–and is making this process more efficient for everyone, hence the discussion of the “death of the salesman.”
Digital marketing is changing the landscape of B2B sales, but if you aren’t selling a commodity, technology will never replace the need for human interaction, particularly for large purchases. B2B business is largely run by personal connections and working with people you trust. Typical sales behaviors and business processes need to change, however. In consultative businesses like ours, best practices and capabilities can be shared digitally, but the nuance of what we do and strategies for moving forward should be discussed face-to-face.
All of the technologies available to us have made us buyers an instant-info-gratification society and have make the buying cycle more efficient. Salespeople need to understand how and when to use the insights and technology available to them about their prospective customers and step into the process at the appropriate time in the buying cycle. It’s a fine line between being helpful and being a stalker, so make sure your data and CRM systems are being used properly. For example, I once downloaded a whitepaper from a potential partner, and I had three different salespeople calling and emailing me about the same topic, which came across as disorganized and annoying, and certainly didn't lead me to purchase.
It’s important to know what both the right hand and the left hand are doing in your organization because the attention to detail can either secure a potential buyer or turn them off. Additionally, use the digital technologies available to you to up the ante with your sales team–drive the changing behaviors you want to see. It’s not necessarily about reducing your sales force, but making them more efficient via the tools available and driving bigger revenues for your business.
Ben Maitland, EVP of Sales and Marketing, MultiView, told CMO.com:
Today’s B2B customer is a more informed buyer than ever before. As Simonson and Rosen argue in “Absolute Value,” a new age of “nearly” perfect information is having a major consequence on the effectiveness of marketing on a few fronts, including positioning and differentiation, both historical battlegrounds for salespeople arguing their products are particularly useful and superior. The authors further argue that this will increase the rationality of the buyer as they focus more on product, and the true value of its attributes, by conducting readily available online research and reading peer reviews.
In this age, presumably, loyalty and the traditional sales-client relationship matter less than innovation and the ability of the supplier to meet customer needs. I believe this view reflects the sentiment of the market and helps explain the possibility of the demise of the B2B salesman. This overarching theory is supported by the latest shift toward informative content in marketing tools and all things marketing automation, which prefer to educate and respond to client actions than to market and “sell” as we’ve seen for generations. Further compounding the apparent change is the fact that programmatic advertising is delivering automation and algorithms to the buyer journey, and, truly, we have an industry convinced that it’s over–B2B sales is forever changed.
Predictions of the death of the B2B salesman are greatly exaggerated. However, this is only true for those sales professionals who can evolve in this time of change. The need for sales will always follow the understanding of the producers and customers in each market of the information relevant to the products and services. As new technologies unfold, no amount of self-directed research will address all pertinent facets of new products. New B2B technologies will rely on sales forces to help usher late majority and late adopters toward change. While the confident buyer thrives on near perfect information, not all buyers represent that segment.
Evolving the sales approach will require the sales professional to become a customer advocate, helping facilitate the purchase, pricing, implementation, and stakeholder education necessary to achieve progress. Whereas historically your B2B professional salesman sold “to” you, they must instead sell “with" you going forward. When you purchase a home, your realtor is your trusted adviser, advocate, and agent working on your behalf while still very interested in “making the sale.”
In an increasingly information-rich real estate market, the realtor is still more relevant than ever. B2B sales professionals should follow this model, utilize the amazing new tools developed to help them, and enjoy working with the most informed buyers in the history of business. The increased information and information flow will undoubtedly improve the interactions of B2B sales professionals, and help them achieve greater customer satisfaction through better solutions designed for clients who understand them very well and make rational, demanding buying decisions throughout the customer journey.
Matthew Bellows, CEO, Yesware, told CMO.com:
There's no question: Digital is changing B2B sales as we know it. The Internet makes product research easy, removing the salesperson from the initial information-gathering part of the sales process. The “freemium model” also changes the sales process, allowing prospects to try out the product and essentially prequalify themselves as leads before entering the sales funnel. While digital has changed the role of the salesperson, it has not diminished its importance. Salespeople can now spend less time researching and qualifying leads and more time maximizing every interaction with prospects. Dynamic conversation, empathy, and human interaction is still–and will always be–an important part of closing the deal.
Amanda Chin, VP of Marketing, ShopKeep, told CMO.com:
I saw a group of friends at a restaurant sitting around the table staring at their phones, and I realized they were all playing a trivia game with each other–interacting and engaging by way of their devices. Of course, there is a fear that digital marketing will result in less of a need for human interaction. And that is true–the need decreases. But the desire does not. The role of the B2B salesman isn't going away; it's changing as a result of digital marketing.
The people making buying decisions for their businesses still require a level of trust, and nothing takes the place of human support in order to build that. Digital marketing only helps the B2B salesperson find the most qualified prospects, at the very point they are ready to look up from their phones and talk to someone.
Carin Van Vuuren, CMO, Usablenet, told CMO.com:
Digital marketing will not cause the death of B2B salespeople. On the contrary, digital marketing will make good salespeople more effective. While tools like mobile marketing automation and self-service online customer portals make it easier for buyers to do their research and discover solutions at their own pace, that does not replace the value that can be created through effective person-to-person interaction.
Digital marketing tools actually make salespeople better at understanding the pain points and information needs of their buyers, allowing for greater personalization in each customer interaction. The winning strategy is using effective tools and data that begin to predict buyer behavior and enable solution selling for salespeople who can connect with buyers at the right stage of the customer journey.
Hilary Kay, Marketing Communications Manager, Wibbitz, told CMO.com:
I understand why people would say digital is a threat to traditional B2B sales because there is a constant stream of new technologies that are replacing much of the grunt work and day-to-day responsibilities. But until the world is ruled by robots, human connection and interaction will always be an important part of the sales process.
It is possible to integrate programmatic advertising with traditional sales teams, and publishers are even encouraging their sales teams to integrate programmatic into their sales pitches to execute directly sold deals programmatically.
At the end of the day, even B2B sales occur between individuals or teams of people. It may become the “programmatic sales team” and “programmatic agencies,” but those people will still need sales skills and to understand how to maintain and grow client relationships.