Sixty-eight percent of B2B buyers prefer to conduct research online instead of speaking with a salesperson, and 44% of businesses say that ecommerce sites “influence at least half of their offline purchases,” Forrester Research says. This offers significant advantages for suppliers. They not only have an opportunity for to capture a larger share of the market at the expense of slower-moving competitors, but they’re also able to do so at a lower cost, as ecommerce sites do not demand increased investment in sales headcount.
Unfortunately, this can cause resentment among existing sales staff who see themselves being “replaced” by a website. This fear is largely unfounded. While the growth of digital channels will necessitate a rethink of how businesses conduct B2B sales, including, let’s be clear, a disruption of existing models, it does not necessitate conflict between traditional and new sales channels. That’s true because B2B buyers still expect to interact with sales reps, and there are ways to help existing sales teams leverage digital sales, instead of being threatened by new channels.
Addressing Internal Concerns
Regardless of what industry you’re in, don’t be surprised if your salespeople view the emergence of digital channels with a wary eye. After all, they’ve become used to operating in a certain way, and the fact that customers can now bypass them to order inventory online threatens their commissions and even their jobs. This fear is not entirely unjustified. As Forrester Research has said in the report, “Death of a (B2B) Salesman”: “1 million U.S. B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service ecommerce by the year 2020 … B2B buyers now favor do-it-yourself online options for researching and buying products and services, and they are demanding that B2B sellers fully enable those digital paths to purchase.”
For simple transactions, such as reordering spare parts, it’s natural that customers will prefer the ease of going online to replenish their stock. There’s no real value that a salesperson can add. However, when the customer is unsure, or the transaction is complex, salespeople can add tremendous value as trusted advisors to their clients.
As such, while disruption is inevitable, it is highly unlikely that B2B salespeople will be replaced for the foreseeable future. According to research from global consultancy McKinsey & Company, 76% of B2B buyers “find it helpful to speak to a salesperson when they are researching a new product or service,” and just 4% of buyers never want to speak to a salesperson, preferring to make all their purchases online. Preference for digital channels only markedly grows among B2B buyers in cases where they’re simply reordering products they’ve already bought in the past.
B2B salespeople are also irreplaceable in upsell/cross-sell scenarios. Take the example of the aerospace industry. Simple, transactional, purchases will be executed by the buyer according to the terms specified in their contract with the vendor. While buyers may appreciate their convenience, some of the additional benefits offered by ecommerce platforms (product recommendations, analytics, etc.) are of limited value because buyers typically lack the authority to change a purchase order. This is something that will usually have to be negotiated between the customer’s buying manager and the vendor’s salesperson, who can use the opportunity to educate the customer on new products and incentivize their purchase with customized pricing.
In cases like these where a salesperson adds value, they should be fairly compensated with commission and credit towards their quota, even when the purchase originates and is made online.
Empowering Sales Reps
To best enable your reps to thrive in today’s digital era, ecommerce platforms should be just as much of a resource for your own salespeople as they are for customers. Think about it. Many B2B vendors have spent a fortune on either buying or developing digital commerce solutions that give their customers B2C-like functionality such as product recommendations. Why not extend those advantages to internal sales teams?
Product recommendations are an obvious example. It’s great to share suggestions regarding the products similar businesses have purchased with customers, but these insights should be shared more broadly with store administrators and salespeople as well. Customers aren’t always going to be paying a great deal of attention when placing orders—they probably just want to make the purchase and move on to other tasks—and will at times miss the recommendations and insights your ecommerce platform provides. Salespeople can add value—and grow revenue—by checking in with customers and ensuring that insights are shared.
Likewise, salespeople are likely to make better decisions in serving their customers when they have access to the latter’s order history. Consider a case where a customer is upset and demands a discount. Knowing the customer’s history allows the salesperson to make a more informed decision about whether such a discount makes sense—for example, if this is a long-standing customer.
The Future of B2B Sales
B2B sales are obviously changing, but those changes do not mean B2B salespeople will go the way of the dinosaur. Think of the emergence of ATMs in the 1970s. As soon as these wondrous machines became capable of performing tasks like giving out cash and allowing customers to check their deposits, there was widespread fear that bank teller jobs would be eliminated. In fact, the opposite occurred: the number of bank tellers actually increased. Why? Because ATMs made it cheaper for banks to open more branches, thereby necessitating the need to hire more bank tellers to handle the customer-facing functions ATMs could not.
Ultimately, B2B salespeople will need to become trusted advisors to their customers on big-ticket deals if they’re going to survive, but predictions of their demise are premature. Human salespeople will continue to be a part of major B2B transactions. No ecommerce platform is going to change that.
Corbin Murakami is a product manager at Liferay, a software company that helps businesses develop digital experiences. He oversees the vision and strategy for Liferay Commerce.Favorite