At first feeling threatened by online sales, the sales team (which is expanding) at distributor Geriatric Medical went on to help improve the website to better interact with customers and grow sales.

Justin Racine, director of marketing and e-commerce, Geriatric Medical

There has been a lot of talk in our space around the role of salespeople and specifically their buy in to e-commerce and other self-service platforms and technologies. I’ll be the first to say, when our salespeople heard about this fancy new e-commerce platform that we rolled out over four years ago, they weren’t exactly over the moon with the idea, and understandably so.

They assert that e-commerce represents a direct threat to their main job role, selling things and taking orders—and they are right. The predicted ‘death’ of the B2B salesmen is true—in the traditional sense of what a salesperson is.

But the salesperson—just like e-commerce—is in the middle of an evolution. Their role is no longer selling specific products, but selling the brand, the experience, and the relationship our company has with its customers. Their role is to manage their group of customers and their business to ensure that the customer is ordering smarter, faster and more efficiently, has access to education and product resources, and of course, increasing our wallet share with our customers wherever possible.

We spent some time with our team here to show them how this new e-commerce solution and their changing role would be beneficial to them and our customers. After some time, they began to see and experience how this change would be a positive.

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Before we knew it, our sales team started submitting to management new website feature ideas that our customers had asked about. For example: “Hey Justin, this feature really works well, but it would be better if it did this…” or “My customer asked about adding this to the cart page of the checkout process, can we do that?” And just like that, a new collaborative culture was born within our organization and with our customers. We were working hand-in-hand with our customers to build what mattered most to them.

Now, instead of our salespeople acting as disruptors for our e-commerce solution, they had morphed into enablers. They were using the site as another tool in their bag to sell to prospects. They were working with existing customers on new features that made sense for them and other customers.

Our salespeople learned to see our website as a competitive advantage for them, and even more than that, as a way to retain and protect business.

That’s largely because our site was customized with features that came directly from their customers’ requests. Sales reps could then go back to the customer who suggested the new feature around the cart page and say, “Hey Courtney, thanks for your suggestion around the cart page enhancement, your direct feedback really resonated with our team and this feature is now live on our site!”

That kind of message makes our customers feel valued. The fact that someone was actually listening to what the customer had to say ultimately creates a bond and a branding situation that allows us as a company to become even more sticky with that customer.

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Whether you feel that salespeople’s jobs can be replaced by e-commerce or not, you have to admit that e-commerce provides a unique opportunity to allow the role of salespeople to shift into something that, in the end, is likely better for the customer: a trusted resource and consultant focused on helping customers do they do in their business better and smarter.

At the end of the day, we have to take care of our customers and their needs. Otherwise, someone else will. Self-service e-commerce allows them to place their own orders, instead of taking the traditional route of placing orders through a salesperson. Meantime, giving salespeople more time to focus on fostering the business and building the relationship pays dividends.

Take that from a company like Geriatric Medical, which is hiring more salespeople—as it also nears 80% of all of our revenue coming through our digital channel.

Justin Racine is director of marketing and e-commerce at Geriatric Medical, a distributor of medical supplies. He will participate in two panel discussions—on recruiting e-commerce talent, and getting support from senior executives for e-commerce projects—at the B2B Next conference in Chicago in September. Follow him on Twitter @JustinPRacine.

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