HARDISON’S TIPS – AUGUST 3, 2020 – ARE OUTSIDE SALES PROFESSIONALS STILL NEEDED?
This week, one of my clients asked me this: “Are outside salespeople obsolete?” He is the CEO of a distributor who specializes in automation equipment. He had just lost three field salespeople and was thinking about replacing them. “What kind of person should I look for,” he asked, “in light of the recent and radical changes in the economy?”
While his need for a solution was urgent, the question he asked is one that every B2B sales leader should be asking in the next few months.
For generations, outside salespeople thrived on face-to-face relationships. Their approach to the job was to get in the car and go see people. The world is full of businesses that have grown on that sales model.
For the last couple of decades, however, there has been a trend to enhance the role of the inside salesperson to complement and, in some cases, supplant that of the outside salesperson. Leading companies have been involved in slowly making these changes for some time. And, while the trend has been to move authority and accountability from outside to in, very few companies saw that as an all-or-nothing strategy. It was generally seen as an incremental approach, and almost no one considered that the function of the outside salesperson might be done away with completely.
Until recently. The COVID lock-down has turned the world of outside salespeople upside down. All at once, field salespeople found themselves locked out of their customer’s building. They couldn’t see their customers face-to-face. Those who were resourceful fell back on the phone and embraced video technology to attempt to stay in contact with their customers. They discovered that they needed to acquire an almost entirely new skillset, with new rules and new processes.
The new reality contains these elements:
Both sides of the sale – salespeople on the vendor side and purchasing people on the customer side – have discovered that phone and video technology is far more efficient than face-to-face live visits. The economics of the equation are unassailable. The typical outside sales call costs a company somewhere between $150 – $300 per call. Whereas the typical inside, proactive phone call costs a fraction of that: +/- $5.00 per call.
A decades-long trend has just accelerated. There has been a trend for purchasers to make decisions on the bases of internet information without a live sales visit. Fifteen years ago, for example, one survey reported that 70% of surveyed purchasers said they would rather have a good catalog and knowledgeable inside contact than a traditional outside salesperson. That tendency has been around of a long time, but now it has been given a figurative shot of steroids.
A certain percentage of purchasers are going to insist on remote technology use by their vendor’s salesperson, as a means of adding efficiencies to the buying process in two ways: In the reduction of time spent during a sales call and, 2. Reduction of time spent by communicating with fewer salespeople.
In remote technology (phone and video) the initiator of the call must be far more organized and on point than what was traditionally expected in a live sales call. While it was always a practice of the best to be organized and prepared for a sales call, in many industries the salespeople could ‘wing it’ and use their ‘thinking on their feet skills’ to finesse a sales call with little preparation. Those days are done.
Add all this up and you’ve got to ask, “Is the traditional role of the outside salesperson obsolete?”
While I don’t claim to have a special insight into the future, I have worked with B2B sales forces and selling organizations for 30+ years. I have an informed opinion. Here’s my view.
Is the traditional role of the outside salesperson obsolete?
In some industries, yes. In others less so. Here are three variables that will make a difference.