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Why B2B sales jobs are getting more complex

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a top executive of a leading semiconductor company, discussing the various aspects that influence sales performance and the changing role of sales in general. I was of the opinion that the sales job is getting easier whilst his view was that the job of a salesperson was actually getting more difficult. Both of us used similar reasons. Adding them up though I had to agree with him and here is why.

The amount of easily available information, the wide variety of quality sales tools and the speed in which information flows is a blessing! My electronics and computer technology background may distort my view in this case, but compared with the faxes, paper, pen, a shared IBM-XT and a 1200-baud modem of yesterday, everything is there to make a sales man’s life easier. 

Why is it getting easier

  • It is easier to get relevant information. Competitive, customer, market or technical/technology information, the internet is a goldmine for sales people that do their due diligence.  A few hours of devoted research can offer information and insights that help to drive relevant and true meaningful discussions for both the sales person and the customer, starting from the first contact. This does not only save critical and valuable time of both the customer and the sales person, it also supports better and stronger business proposals and justifications.
  • It is easier to build or expand your network. With tools available like companywide data mining and social networks, it is now easier to find who inside your company or who of your business contacts know a specific person and could help you with an introduction. In addition, social networks, internally and externally, are good sources of information and intelligence supporting previous point.
  • It is easier to plan, organize and track your job. Whether you like them or not, if properly used, sales force automation tools help in making more efficient and effective use of (your) time and resources.
  • Less need to live close to your customer. Person-to-person interactions are important in any business relationship. Tools like video conferencing are common removing the need to be physically there for every meeting. The savings in travel time can be invested in visiting more customers and a wider area.
  • Customers have done their pre-work already. In the past, a significant part of the sales person’s job was to inform the customer(s) on what solutions or products were available with what specification. Most of this information is readily available on the internet and many customers have looked at it before even engaging with a supplier or its sales. Whilst it makes life easier on one side it also makes it more difficult:

Why is it getting more difficult

  • Customers are more knowledgeable. Similarly, whatever information is available on internet for a sales person is also available for the customer. The do not have to rely on sales people to get relevant information like the available solutions, competition or benchmark information and even pricing. Customers are indeed doing most of the pre-work without seeing or consulting a single supplier, from project requirements to detailed solutions.
  • Sales people need to be more knowledgeable. Customers are looking for companies and solutions that add value and help them to solve their issues. To differentiate, a sales person needs to increase and broaden his knowledge level to above that of the competitor and high enough to have credible dialogues with the customer. 
  • Eco systems are getting larger. Available networking and communication tools make it a lot easier for customers to work with their customers or even their customer’s customer. The same tools can help you to cooperate with your customer yet at the same time, his customer(s) and larger parts of the total value chain are involved in the solution creation process. More people can influence the decision process and each may need attention to win the deal.
  • Sales cycles are getting longer. A faster flow of information and a better-prepared customer would suggest a shorter cycle. Unfortunately, the increased eco systems, the number of people involved in every project and the increased demand for due diligence to come to the right decision are slowing down the whole process.
  • Relationships are changing. Fifteen years ago, sales people were told to “educate the customer” and “tell them what they need”. Indeed, the sales person was often the main source of information for a customer. Not anymore. The process is shifting from a sales process to a buying process. Customers not necessarily ‘need’ the sales person and therefore it is more difficult to get a foot in the door or to setup a face-to-face meeting.
  • Information and communication overload. Finally yet importantly, many people cannot deal effectively with the daily amount of information that they receive. On top of that, the increase in available information is also driving the request for more information and hence more reporting which is a serious burden for many sales professionals.

Adding it all up

Without doubt, the B2B sales job is becoming increasingly more difficult. Whereas in the past, sales people could leverage their relationships, it is clear that much of that advantage has been lost with customers in the driver seat. The knowledge and competency requirements for sales people are higher now and rather than the sales process, the buying process and its dynamics are central.

Moreover, to be able to create the right solutions and value for their customers, companies need to shift from managing transactional information to true customer intelligence. This all calls for a new breed of structured IT-savvy sales people who combine sales competencies with business development, product marketing and application engineering. 

There are not many out there. To be or become successful, you may want to consider developing and raising your own breed.

Jack van Mook
© 2012 EnFeat