According to a recent forecast by Forrester Research (one of the most influential research and advisory firms in the world), “1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service eCommerce by 2020, accounting for 20% of the B2B sales force.” For years we have watched e-commerce make significant strides in the business-to-consumer (B2C) world. We’ve felt confident that such automation would never impact the B2B world as buying and selling is so much more consultative. We are no longer immune! In fact, the writing was on the wall the moment the Internet came into our lives.
Here’s a personal story: In the early 2000s, I was selling very sophisticated billing software to large telecommunication companies. While my boss was on vacation, a significant lead called. After one conversation with them, it was clear to me that they had done all their research and were in the final stages of selection – it was either us or one other vendor. I made the judgment to arrange a significant meeting flying in our top executives from Silicon Valley. When my boss returned from vacation, he hit the roof! He was furious that I would expose him in such a serious way “without properly qualifying the lead.” In his mind, it was impossible to be at the end of a sales cycle when we hadn’t gone through all the necessary sales process steps. What I realized in my first phone call was the buyer was at the end of their buying cycle and they had gone through their necessary process steps. Our CEO, VP Professional Services and VP R&D all flew in. Of course, I did my homework and briefed them on what the key issues and objectives were and exactly what I needed them to say and what aspects of our capabilities they needed to emphasize. The meeting went extremely well and that evening over dinner, we signed a million-dollar contract! Of course, my boss was happy to bask in the praises and congratulations from the executive team.
What my boss suffered from, and what most of us suffer from, is the perspective that our sales process has inherent value. It doesn’t! Its real value is how it enables us to meet the buyer’s needs in a methodical way. While handling multiple accounts and opportunities, a methodology keeps us organized and enables us to consistently provide value to the buyer.
Fast-forward to today and buyers are far more sophisticated and far more starved for time. Doing things on their own time, at their own pace and on their own terms is highly attractive. “New Forrester data shows that nearly 75% of B2B buyers prefer to buy online when purchasing products for work.”
This move to online commerce will not only affect salespeople. It will have a spin-off effect on hundreds of thousands of other jobs that are associated with sales.
The good news is that no matter how sophisticated machines and e-commerce become, they will never replace the human touch. The human touch will always be required at the top end of B2B relationships. As our world speeds up, our customers will face more complex challenges. As they do, they will look for partners to help them navigate the challenges. Because the challenges will be unknown, facing them cannot be automated.
The bottom line: All of us connected to the sales profession must decide which end of the spectrum we want to occupy. On the low end, there will be a need to be faster and cheaper. On the high end, there will be the need to inquisitive, innovative and committed to customer outcomes. In the middle, there will be nothing.
Here are 3 things you can do to ensure you are playing at the high end:
- Do your homework! If all you are doing is responding to known requirements, you are allowing yourself to be commoditized. Make the effort to understand the broader market trends that are impacting your customers, their strategic initiatives for navigating such trends and the related internal obstacles that are interfering with their success. Prepare a working hypothesis questions based on your research. Talk to multiple stakeholders to get multiple perspectives on the issue. Involve multiple team members in these conversations.
- Develop a vision with your client. As you think about the problems you can solve for your client, take them on a virtual journey so they can “see” the new future. Get them to brainstorm and collaborate with you on how things might change with a different approach.
- Develop a unique solution. As you create your proposal, ensure you have developed a solution that is bundled and unique to you. Ensure that your solution is compelling, that it cannot be pulled apart and that it isn’t available from anyone else.
There is no doubt that selling in the new world will be more demanding. However, it will also be more rewarding. Making the effort now to shift to higher-value will pay huge dividends and will ensure you are not in the group of salespeople that are forced out of the industry.