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June 25, 2015


What are new tasks of salespeople in the digital world?

by Tom De Baere

new tasks of salespeople in the digital worldThe digital evolution has changed how organizations conduct business. There’s a lot of change happening: customers now have new ways of communicating using social media, forums and product reviews. They gather real-time information on products and services, and engage with brands in real-time, using mobile phones and more.

The rise of real-time messaging applications like Snapchat, Vine, Instagram and others signal a new era where customers increasingly expect personal experiences and instant real-time interactions. Instant shipping of products in ever shorter times provide instant gratification to buyers that live in the moment of today.

More access to information also means buyers increasingly research products, even for low involvement products like FMCG, fashion, computer software, multimedia products or home decoration. More and more of the buying process is happening online, where buyers today need to be served more and more by the content that marketers provide them.

The abundance of online content and channels is shifting the power from the seller to the buyer. Today buyers are more informed then ever, in which they don’t need salespeople anymore to help them buy. Or, salespeople get invited to conversations much later these days because of online content, in which they are confronted with very educated customers.

What is the impact of all of these changes on the role of salespeople within the buying process?

buyers research products

Is the job of sales really disappearing, or just changing?

The answer is more complex, and as usual, it depends…

In some markets like SaaS (software-as-a-service) providers, e-commerce websites, software vendors, this seems obvious. More and more of the relationship that customers have with brands will happen without them ever talking to a human being.

Gartner predicts that 85% of this relationship will be conducted like this, and this will happen as soon as 2020.

Gartner_customer relationshipThe question is what will happen in other industries? In some industries you might expect the continued need for salespeople. Just a few years ago, questioning the need for salespeople inside any expensive consumer product or at most B2B companies would be absurd. “Of course you need salespeople”, would the obvious reaction be. Who would otherwise educate buyers about that expensive CRM or ERP system?

But even high value products are not immune for the changes that digital is bringing. Expensive cars like car manufacturer Tesla motors is selling their +80.000EUR cars completely online, and Volvo and BMW are planning the same. Enterprise software is usually very complex and seems impossible to sell without salespeople. But in the case of Atlasssian, an Australian enterprise software company, no sales people are required.

I think the current salesperson is disappearing, but to be replaced by a different, new type of salesperson.

Do we still need salespeople?

In the old days it was very difficult for buyers to find independent information about the products and services that they want or need. And for unhappy customers, there was no easy way to voice their disapproval of a company in public. It was also impossible for both buyers and existing customer to communicate instantly with the companies they did business with, unless for the occasional “user groups”.

The effect was that the salesperson had more knowledge and therefore had the upper hand in negotiations.

Research from Google and the Corporate Executive Board (The Digital Evolution in B2B Marketing) of 2011, gives us new insight into buyer behavior. This research found that customers reported being nearly 60 percent through the sales process before engaging a sales representative, irrespective of price point.

Forrester forecasts that 1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service eCommerce by the year 2020. Not all salespeople will be impacted equally, in which especially order takers are impacted the most.

Some might say that’s easy enough, because these people add little value. But I think what is happening today in the digital space is going to have a much more dramatic impact on much more types of salespeople.

Today, the situation has changed dramatically

The buyer is more informed than ever thanks to the abundance of content, and now has the upper hand in negotiations. Customers have a loud voice through social networks and review sites to share their experiences and ventilate any discomfort. In our always-on world, buyers expect instant, 24/7 service. Companies today have a huge incentive to fix problems and make customers happy so they don’t complain in public.

While 91% of B2B buyers in a Forrester survey said they would like to interact with a salesperson on price negotiations, there is a clear trend toward software and algorithms doing more of that.

Contrary to what these findings seem to suggest, I believe the live B2B salesperson is not destined to become a dinosaur. Rather, his or her role needs to be redefined.

The new model: the Salesperson as Consultant

Today, the salesperson has to be better prepared.

While the sales cycle has transformed into a buying process led by customers, there are many simple things a salesperson can do to remain an expert in the new world of digital information. We are already seeing the trend of organizations moving from field sales to inside sales in order to reduce the cost of sales.

For well-defined problems, the buyer can get exactly what he wants via Google and e-commerce exactly when he wants it. For complex, emerging and poorly defined problems, the buyer can get a business partner who understands his business.

How can the sales person become a business partner of the customer?
How can you redefine the role of the new salesperson in a digital world?


What skills are required from salespeople in the digital world?

What are some of the skills required from new salespeople, and how can you onboard these skills into your organization?

In a nutshell, I think what new salespeople in the digital world should be able to do is the following:

  • understand the buying cycle
  • curate online content for customers
  • be socially ‘switched ON’
  • act upon data & online buying signals
  • engage contextually relevant
  • closely work with marketing
  • use content to facilitate the close

How do you do that? Let’s have a close look to each of these elements…

Understand the buying cycle

Companies need to be educating salespeople about the buying process, making them understand the buyer’s journey, and educating the sales force about what things work to help move the customer through their buying process.

How do you do this?

  • Train new salespeople what content buyers need along the buying process, and how buyers use the content.
  • Draft the buying journeys on paper, and discuss this journey with the new salesperson. He will be able to help you to refine your content marketing strategy, and change the sales process altogether.
  • Discuss buyer persona’s with the new salesperson, and discuss which marketing content is available or missing which can be use by the new sales person when engaging with customers.
  • Analyse the customer journey and redesign your sales funnel. The goal should be to integrate your arsenal of traditional and digital marketing tools and specify where the field salesperson should be involved, if at all. The objective of this analysis is also to track down barriers and irritations of buyers throughout the customer journey, and to remove these barriers and irritations. Today your might redirect the new salesperson to points further down the process to closing hot prospects, providing follow-up services and cultivating long-term relationships (check out this post on Discovering New Points of Differentiation).


Curate online content for customers

The classic salesperson is becoming less relevant. But the new salesperson is relevant by being a part of the customer decision making journey. They can do so by sharing an curating quality content that helps the buyer become educated and informed about the business issue at hand, and how your company can actually help solve their concerns.

How do you do this?

  • Provide training to sales people on how they can find relevant content for their customers using new content curation tools (start simple with Feedly, Pocket,, Storify, and check out more advanced tools like Curata, PublishThis and Trapit) and new social sharing and amplification tools (Addvocate, Sociabble, GaggleAMP, SocialToaster, DynamicSignal, and EaseSocial
  • Set-up a searchable central content repository of relevant content, highly structured using meta-data and tags, so account managers can search the knowledge base. Simple tools like Evernote for Business might do very well for you.
  • More advanced sales enablement tools like Showpad, Brainshark, or KnowledgeTree provide this content on the go, and allow salespeople to search, send and share this content easily with prospects. These tools are used by new salespeople to provide relevant content in every step of the buying journey, and the tools help them finding content based on best practices or content predictions of which content is needed that gives the new salesperson the highest chance of winning the deal.


Be Socially ‘Switched ON’

With well-informed prospects, sales reps have to quickly learn what buyers know or perceive about the organization, products/services and competitors. Social media can help them better understand what is motivating buyers to take action, what buyers believe to be true, and perhaps most important, who they believe.

How do you do this?

  • Train new salespeople how they can use social media to listen to prospects, provide value by sharing content, triggering conversations, and understanding when to engage.
  • Equip new salespeople with tools like socially enabled CRM systems, that allow them to listen and follow-up on prospects.
  • Provide a social business leadership and employee coaching program.

Act upon data & online buying signals

New salespeople have access to data and information that signal when a prospect is moving toward a decision to buy. When a customer or prospect is engaging with some of your content, the behavior is tracked and provided to the new salesopeople. Behavioral information is provided to the new salespeople, who can launch specific marketing actions towards prospects.

How do you do this?

  • Intelligent CRM and marketing automation technology provide the new salesperson with possibilities to launch specific actions towards known prospects.
  • Predictive analytics engines suggest recommendations that help the new salesperson sell more.
  • Alerts from CRM and marketing automation instantly pull up information of the buyers’ company, and allow the new salesperson to act faster and more informed.

Engage contextually relevant

Using the insight into the business of customer, their challenges and pains, and the behavior data about the customer, the new salesperson personalizes the customer journey with the brand.

When a customer visits a webpage, or download a document, the first interaction between the customer and the new salesperson is about something contextual relevant. When a prospect downloads a document, attends a webinar, or looks at a certain demo, the new salesperson will add value by providing a follow-up on that particular action which is relevant to the particular situation of the prospect.

How do you do this?

  • Listen to customers: Smaller organizations can rely on free services like Google News and Tweetdeck to constantly listen to customers and what happens in their industry. Larger organizations will want to invest in backbone technology and a real-time data environments that feeds the dashboard used every day by your marketers, PR professionals, salespeople and executives.
  • Training of new salespeople on how the new contextual customer approach works, and sharing of best practices between teams. New tools like Idio provide insight into interest profiles from buyers, and give content recommendations to salespeople.
  • Marketing automation that tracks customer behavior, and signals the new salespeople on interesting behavior of customers


Closely work with marketing

Traditional salespeople protect the access to their accounts. They act as if they own the customer contact, and marketing has to ask permission to contact their customers. New salespeople regularly interface with marketing to discuss new content needs, and allow marketing to act on their behave in marketing actions.

How do you do this?

  • The new salesperson informs your editorial calendar by joining strategic discussions and editorial meetings.
  • The new salesperson works together with marketing to develop marketing actions that act upon buying behavior of customers.
  • The new salesperson works with marketing to set-up lead qualification criteria and lead recycling programs.

Use content to facilitate the close

As each individual buyer approaches the end of the buying process, you must provide content and tools that facilitate the sales. This is where the new salespeople earn their commissions. Salespeople have a critical role now. Marketing has provided them with details about each sales prospect based on the actual content the prospect accessed.

At the moment that new salespeople interact with individual buyers, they need to user their selling skills to discern the customers’ need and then offer them even more focused content. The new salesperson can offer to add the prospect to the subscription list of an email newsletter, invite her to a webinar, alert her to the corporate blog, offer her online calculators, feature comparison charts, and make use of other tools.

How do you do this?

  • Provide online demonstrations.
  • Wizards that help customers to suggest the appropriate products.
  • Offering stories from current customers

New Salespeople will survive. How?

For 50 years, pundits have repeatedly proclaimed that salespeople would soon be rendered obsolete by the emerging media or technologies of the day: catalogs, telemarketing, dot-coms, online reverse auctions, and now digital search.

Each time, salespeople survived.

Why? because they evolved.

Ordering can be more efficiently conducted via digital devices, that’s right. Digital will continu to disrupt industries, in which classic salespeople are no longer needed.

I think today’s new salesperson should be an someone who guides the customer in their decision making and buying process. I think they should educate, help negotiate, consult, seek solutions, provides post-sales services and manage the relationship as a whole.

Just as content marketing is providing added value on top of the existing products and services of brands, so are new salespeople adding value and giving something more of what customers want.

What do you think the future of salespeople looks like? Let me know in the comment field.

Warm regards,

Tom De Baere

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