Whether you are a direct sales rep or you work for a rep firm, there has been a lot of talk (and a lot written) about how eCommerce will replace sales jobs in the B2B eCommerce space. The subject comes up regularly with our prospects and customers, particularly in the manufacturing and distribution space.
Manufacturers and their retail channels have struggled with this question for years. How have the successful companies adapted and used their retail channels to their advantage? How have eCommerce-only retailers started thinking about providing additional services to their customers for delivery, pick-up, and reducing the delivery times to hours rather than days? There are many examples of large retailers becoming “omni-channel” and working with customers to allow them to order online, order in the store, or even order online while in the store. The advantages are numerous for things like offering the customers a wider variety of products beyond those that are stocked in store, promoting specials, dealing with close-outs, etc. They also provide a better customer experience and instill brand loyalty by enabling customers to buy however and whenever they want. You have also seen the delivery process evolve from pure online order and ship to order online and pick up in the store. Amazon is even talking about delivering product by drone and looking for retail space to support same day delivery and to offer bricks & mortar shopping (an actual Amazon bookstore!).
So, how can the more traditional B2B manufacturers and their sales organization embrace eCommerce and still have a place for traditional sales jobs?
The short answer is….they can and they can’t. They can have sales jobs, but they won’t be traditional sales jobs. The days of simply taking orders are over. The order process, including product research, comparison shopping, aggregating orders for better pricing, and even configuring complex products have been fully automated by eCommerce. Not everyone has fully embraced the technology yet, but they all will at some point in the very near future. How many retail stores don’t have a website that doesn’t allow you to also order online these days?
The traditional sales function needs to evolve and embrace the technology and use it their advantage. The sales professionals that evolve and continue to add value, will continue to be a valuable resource in the B2B world. How can you evolve? There are many things the reps themselves can do to grow their business and remain highly relevant. You can embrace the technology and fully understand the order workflow, business process, and how eCommerce is integrated with your customer’s other systems and your own company’s supply chain, i.e. think and look beyond the order. You will need to become more consultative and have a better grasp of the overall market, the competition, become a thought leader and a valuable resource for you customers. Consider providing additional services and becoming a single point of contact for your customers for sales issues, finance, support, quality, warranty issues, etc. The business owners can consider updates to the comp plans to drive this new behavior and help fuel the growth.
There is way more information available than ever before. Use that information to your advantage. Understand how to manage the pipeline, expedite orders, provide that information back to your customer so they rely on you to help them understand what is going on with their orders. You can become managers of the information and look for trends or other bits of data that can help your customers be more successful.
There is a lot of work and probably some uncomfortable suggestions here, but you can continue to add value (and sell more) by embracing the technology. The retail channel has been through some challenges and is now working nicely with online channels. The same evolution will occur with B2B sales. Will you embrace or be replaced?