While I think it is important for experts and pundits to challenge sales people to stretch and evolve, to stay on top and ahead of evolving trends and technology, it is also important to keep it real. Since the advent of technology, especially from the start of the last century on, there has been a debate about the impact of technology on selling and sellers. The recurring prediction that sales people will be replaced or diminished in importance by automation, seems a favorite among some.
Technology no doubt brings levels of efficiency that will make selling different and impact the interaction between sellers and buyers. And while this discussion is important, it also needs to be real. It is important that we pundits help and contribute to the process of evolution, rather than impede or distract with outlandish statements that serve a narrow and self-serving agenda.
The piece starts and builds from a question asked by the author at Sales 2.0 conference, relating to acquiring books from Amazon.com, and interaction with Amazon.com staff.
For me, and for all professional sales people, the piece has some short comings, not the least of which are it fails to address or distinguish the real difference between B2B and B2C; it fails to differentiate between transaction – interaction – purchasing and selling.
If there is the dramatic reduction in the species that the piece suggests, it is almost certainly to come in the B2C camp, not in the B2B. Buying a book from Amazon is as retail as it gets, even more so than the drive through at SONIC℠. There is a great difference between selling and buying, and more so between buying/selling and fulfillment, which is what Amazon does when it comes to books. The book was sold by the author, publisher, pr firm, Oprah, and these days social media, but Amazon, they just delivered it. Most people these days will go in to B&N look at the book, compare and then transact using the fulfillment facilities offered by Amazon, There is no more selling by Amazon there than going to your local Piggly Wiggly® for a tube of toothpaste. Just look at how Piggly Wiggly® describes itself on their site,” America’s first true self-service grocery store, was founded in Memphis, Tenn. in 1916 by Clarence Saunders.” Not much new there, it has been going for 100 years; the store has just shifted to my screen.
As for the statement: “Gartner, a research organization, predicts that by 2020, 85 percent of interactions between businesses will be executed without human intervention. It is likely that of the 18 million salespeople in the United States, there will be only about 4 million left.” Gartner quotes interactions not sales. EDI has been around for a long time facilitating interactions between business, with the victims being more inventory clerks than B2B sales professional. Even when you look at concepts like Vendor Managed Inventories, the reduction in bodies have been related to warehouses and accounts payable staff than in the sales people who sell the service to begin with.
While we are all impressed with Watson’s success, that is a long way from creating demand, generating leads, dealing with all the variables that human interactions involve when it come to risk, money and emotion. I am not sure Watson answered complex questions as much as to chew through reams of data with breakneck speed. Dealing with a buyer afraid to pull the trigger on a change that is good for the company. Or responding and managing to emotionally based “objections”, are the same as searching a database at any speed. For an interesting examination of this read a Slate.com piece: Jeopardy, Schmeopardy, Why IBM’s next target should be a machine that plays poker. By Chris Wilson, Feb. 15, 2011
Another puzzling aspect to this is that the same people who seem to harp on relationships, and “people buy from people”, seem to be the ones supporting the disappearing sales person view. I don’t claim to be an expert, but how does Watson fit into the social selling world of the future?
An altogether more practical view of the issue was presented by Jeffrey Gitomer, in a piece in his Sales Caffeine, in a piece titled “Death of a Salesman! How alive are you?” He not only distinguishes between retail and B2B, but expands on the impact on the economy should all these sales people disappear. Rather than discussing how we will be replaced by machines, he outlines the advantage and opportunities presented to B2B sales people in the future. The reality is that computers will continue to replace transactions, order fulfillment, and other commercial interactions between companies; they will continue to bring efficiencies to selling in many forms, but when it comes to B2B sales, both for mission critical and discretionary offerings, they will remain a companion not a replacement. It is true that sales people, like the products/solutions they represent will need to continue to add increasing value if they are to remain in the profession. But for those who do, the future is more than bright, and more importantly rewarding. For should it come to pass that our ranks are reduced by 75%, the remaining 25%, to quote a friend “will not only be in great demand, but be filthy rich due to our abilities”.
I know that as pundits it is our role to deal with issues in an exaggerated fashion to make an important point. To do that, perhaps the question leading to the premise of the article should have been: “How many conference sponsors have bought sponsorship online; how many of you have done that without speaking to a conference rep?”
What’s in Your Pipeline? Tibor Shanto