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Do We Even Need Sales People Anymore?

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Recently, I read a post from a marketing person I really admire. This person was asking the question and making the argument that perhaps we need to rethink selling, perhaps eliminate it.

He’s a considerate person, so I paid attention to what he was saying. Basically, he built his argument off two items. The old Peter Drucker quote, “The purpose of marketing is to make selling superfluous,” and Tesla’s recent announcement that it would move all sales online.

In the end, he admittedly paints an idealized world of marketing, suggesting if your marketing is working well in creating demand, if you have an optimized web site and purchasing experience (notice I’m not saying purchasing experience), then perhaps selling becomes unnecessary.

It’s hard to disagree with the logic, but there are a good deal of “If’s,” at the arguments. However, it’s something to think about seriously:

First, the quote from Drucker was taken a little out of context. The complete quote comes from Drucker’s, Management. It really states, “There will always, one can assume, be a need for some promoting. But the purpose of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The purpose of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. ”

Drucker, himself, recognizes that he’s suggesting a very idealized version of marketing, one in which we have perfect knowledge and perfect access to the client. While, the principles are inspirational and powerful, the reality is far from that–at least in much of B2B complicated purchasing.

Much of Drucker’s work is also based on idealized, “free markets,” that in any case–B2C, B2B, B2B2C, or others, is far from the reality. All of us know that search isn’t “democratized. ”

Having said that, Drucker’s principles are strong, and all marketing should aspire to achieve the visions outlined in Drucker’s thinking. If it doesn’t remove selling, it at least drives higher levels of demand and customer self instruction.

And while Tesla’s actual strategy on moving exclusively to the net appears to be in flux. We shouldn’t be surprised about the declining need for of sales people in B2C sales. Mass retailing has existed for decades, catalog, mail order, and, in the past couple of decades, web based sales. Pointing out the decrease in need for sales people in B2C is, kind of, ho-hum.

Even in B2B, for certain kinds of transactionalized items, electronic purchasing, web based purchasing is decades old.

However, the underlying assumptions to the article are based on a faulty understanding of sales and marketing’s function, at least in complex B2B sales. The focus of the article is on a product and making the acquisition of this product painless.

But is that what modern purchasing is truly about? Is it about product selection? Is it about the purchase process? Or is it about something more?

Complex B2B buying has likely never been about product selection or the buying process. Yes, decades ago, a key function of sales people had been in educating customers about goods, but even then, it was probably less than 50% of the purchasing process.

Today, the challenges our customers face in B2B purchasing has very little to do with product selection. Study after study suggests the customer buying process is where our customers need the most help. The process of working together, of aligning priorities, deciding how they will decide, managing the complexity and change management processes in their own organizations. These are unique to the client, to the individuals involved, at a point in time. This is where sales people have their effect, helping customers make sense of and navigate their purchasing process.

Marketing can encourage the sales person in this process, but marketing and new marketing technologies can’t know the particulars of this situation with particular individuals at a point in time.

More importantly, what about those customers who don’t recognize the opportunity or need to modify. Our marketing outreach is inefficient to those who aren’t looking, who don’t yet recognize they may have a need to buy.

If anything, the future for sales individuals in complex B2B purchasing, is very bright. Our customers struggle, they face overwhelming turbulence, they struggle to understand or make sense. It’s just not selected associations, it’s virtually every organization in the world.

Do we want sales people any more? Clearly, the answer is an overwhelming Yes!

Afterword: For those interested in the article, here is your link.

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