In 2011, internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen warned that “software is eating the world.” He was right: Multiple business sectors have scrambled to deal with the impact of digital transformation in the last decade, automating manual processes once performed by humans and reimagining relationships between manufacturers, distributors and business customers. In “Death of a B2B Salesman” in 2015, B2B e-commerce analyst Andy Hoar, then with Forrester Research Inc., predicted the demise of up to a million front-line salespeople by 2020.
I’ve spent the last 15 years in the e-commerce business, and I do not completely agree with these prognostications—especially as they pertain to B2B salespeople. For one thing, some of the changes corporations are experiencing are taking place only gradually. And software automation is going to have multiple effects, small and large. But, in my opinion, a B2B e-commerce platform that offers an integrated CRM system, automates many manual tasks and has the ability to provide vast amounts of customer data from a central environment actually makes salespeople more essential than ever.
It’s important to understand that commerce in the B2B sector is far more complex than in the B2C space; corporate buyers have needs and expectations built through years of working with merchants, and direct salespeople play a key role in helping customers navigate the purchasing process.
While e-commerce platforms can easily displace an in-store clerk with an online purchase of a $25 sweater, this does not always hold true for B2B merchants. In the B2B world, technology actually enhances and scales the capabilities of a good salesperson. I believe, in fact, that these systems are empowering a new generation of direct salespeople that can use technology to become more efficient, to increase sales, and to help their companies grow even faster.
Automation Facilitates the Personal Touch
A strong B2B e-commerce solution, which offers a clear and intuitive user experience for a merchant’s staff, provides a comprehensive suite of tools to manage the entire sales process.
Salespeople can monitor and intervene with far more insight and specificity, jumping in when needed rather than expending energy on unnecessary customer contact. Where they once had to sort through piles of handwritten notes or wait to receive information from marketing or finance departments, salespeople can now monitor all customer interactions in a single dashboard and see in real time how a sale is progressing. They can focus their energy on overcoming obstacles and ensuring smooth movement through the sales funnel. I’ve seen first-hand that salespeople work far more efficiently when they have customer information at their fingertips and are able to concentrate their efforts where it matters most.
Breaking Down Silos to Improve Customer Service and Brand Experience
A centralized e-commerce system not only makes the individual salesperson more efficient; it also brings increased communication and automation to his or her broader work environment. Traditional B2B sales cycles have long been slowed by having key customer data in multiple information silos, impeding communication between departments and slowing responsiveness to customers. A comprehensive e-commerce/CRM platform puts consistent information at every employee’s fingertips, enabling swift responses and informed communications.
What’s more, using such a system means that every transaction with a customer is documented and retained, ensuring consistency in customer service and a unified brand experience. The result is a more holistically integrated organization, one that can be accessed easily by every salesperson whether in the office or via mobile devices when on the road. Instead of having to collect, manage, and update each customer’s company information, past transaction history, and other relevant data in a painstakingly manual manner, a B2B e-commerce platform performs all of these tasks on behalf of the salesperson just like an intelligent assistant.
Improving Sales by Focusing on Strategy
When B2B merchants begin to experience the full benefits of an e-commerce platform, their salespeople quickly find themselves able to focus on areas—and customers—where their efforts matter most. It frees sales teams up to concentrate on the highest-value prospects and to operate on a more strategic level, benefitting the enterprise, customers, and their own compensation. By automating everyday tasks such as order placement, tracking and fulfillment, B2B e-commerce systems give sales teams significantly more time to invest in existing accounts, as well as the ability to increase share of customer wallet/lifetime value. They can, in short, focus on adding strategic value to their accounts, rather than spending time on administrative tasks or other non-revenue-generating activities.
Salespeople can use the time saved to focus on generating new opportunities and business, on building new relationships and deepening existing ones. It’s important to note that these relationship-building activities, such as checking in on a client and asking about his/her family or recent vacation, can never be performed by a technology system, yet are some of the most important elements in the sales success.
I would argue, then, that modern e-commerce solutions—far from eliminating sales jobs—can actually enhance the importance of a direct sales force to an organization. By embracing the true potential of modern B2B e-commerce systems, mid-size companies and enterprises alike can free up salespeople to do what they do best: strategically identify new opportunities, build and deepen key relationships, and expand revenue.
These kinds of transitions are never simple, particularly in companies that have done things the same way for decades. But the promise of automated e-commerce is vast, and companies that are bold enough to take advantage of it will be the dominant players in their industries in the future.
Yoav Kutner is founder and CEO of Oro Inc., an open source business technology company serving B2B merchants. Kutner is also the co-founder and former chief technology officer of the e-commerce platform Magento, which was acquired by eBay Inc. for $180 million in 2011.