Death of a Salesman - Does the digital age and data-led intelligence bring the sales profession to an end?

8 October 2018

Having recruited Sales and Marketing professionals for almost 15 years, it is clear that both professions have seen massive changes during that time. The relationship between sales and marketing has often been fraught, with a pointed finger from both sides arguing that one would be nothing without the other. I take a look to see if the digital age and data-led intelligence bring the sales profession to an end?

The traditional model saw marketing at the bottom end of the sales funnel, attracting customer attention, arousing interest and allowing sales to swoop gloriously in to convert the interest into desire and close the deal. 

The traditional role of a salesperson was to educate the customer, to articulate the features and benefits and cleverly position their product or service as the best in the market for the customer's needs.  Very often a ‘successful’ salesperson would close the deal on the spot as the customer was left in no doubt that there was no other proposition in the market that could match. With this traditional model, it made perfect sense to have armies of salespeople on the road and often the most successful companies were those with the largest salesforce who could cover the ground, pitching the features and benefits and closing the deal.

Salesperson, Marketing, Marketeer

This model was effective but expensive. There was a clear realisation that while customer acquisition was important, customer retention was essential and much more lucrative in the long term.  Business author Frederick Reichheld outlined in his book ‘The Loyalty Effect’ that a 5% lift in customer retention led to a staggering 35-95% increase in lifetime value. The shifted focus on customer retention saw the introduction of Account Managers and the traditional armies of sales representatives depleted. 

Since then, digital technology has further revolutionised customer behaviour. The vast amount of information now accessible to customers allows them to do their own research and to qualify a product or service comprehensively before the purchase. The purchase itself can be made online and the entirety of this sales process has no place for a salesman. However, this process is not necessarily applicable in a B2B sales environment and digital marketing can influence the sale, there is still an important role for a sales professional to play.

Online Marketing, Digital Marketing

While B2B customers will rely on digital platforms to gather information and help make a decision, there is still a strong human need for reassurance. Mintel research in 2015 illustrated that 70% of us seek advice from others before making a purchase.  Of course, online reviews go some way to offer this reassurance but interestingly 54% of people would buy a product recommended to them by someone they know, even if they saw negative online reviews.  At a time when the concept of ‘fake news is so widely discussed, reliance on human interaction may become even more valuable during the sales process. Sales professionals that are successful, are those that can offer expert advice in line with their customers business objectives.  Successful sales professionals build trust through their expertise and ultimately work in collaborative partnership with their customers.  A customer could spend more time churning data and maybe find a ‘better deal’, but why would they. 

Fake News, Online News

The sales function is still represented at Board level in the majority of large successful businesses and relationships in everyday business are often hinged on personal relationships.  The Salesman is not dead but has changed and evolved, perhaps more than any other profession.  The emphasis on the modern salesman is much more on emotional intelligence and empathetic behaviours rather than the traditional, and often crudely characterised, raw ‘gift of the gab.

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