Online sales and e-commerce dominate the typical discussion regarding the economy and the future of sales. While the trend is indeed changing the landscape of sales, does it mean that your sales force will soon be obsolete? Absolutely not. Most of the dollars spent on the sales effort are spent on business to business (B2B) sales as opposed to retail.
As Edwin Vlems stated in the article, “Why B2B is Bigger than B2C: the Dumbest Marketing Blind Spot,” “What most marketers don’t know is that the B2B market is perhaps smaller in numbers, but there are many more markets and these markets are together much bigger (in money value) than the consumer market. To understand this, you will have to start thinking vertically, along the business chain from basic material to the end product.”
Because the bulk of sales comes from B2B sales (which require a sales team), while advertising focuses primarily on consumer sales, the need for B2B salespeople is not going away. In fact, I would ask employers to consider carefully who they hire for that position.
Technology has caused a shift in the structure of many companies’ sales forces, and the growing use of analytics and social media in the sales effort has led many companies to increase their inside sales force. Because of the traditionally high turnover with inside sales, some companies are starting to use more contract employees for this work. While this might seem like a good idea conceptually, there are some valid concerns with this strategy. Businesses rely on their vendors’ salespeople to be their consultants and help them problem solve. These employees aren’t viewed as high-pressure annoyances as the typical stereotype of a salesperson implies. Rather, these salespeople are an integral part of the decision-making process and can provide valuable input to organizations. In addition to this consultative approach to sales, today’s salespeople have strong analytical skills. The increased availability of information systems that provide measurements of communication and buying habits, means the salesperson needs to understand statistics and how to apply these statistics to customer interactions.
The changing landscape of the sales industry means those in charge of hiring need to reconsider the traits and skills needed in their salespeople. Traditional thought has been that employers should look for personal traits like tenacity, self-motivation, self-discipline, sense of humor and adaptability. Critical thinking has always been a necessary trait in salespeople, but the degree of business understanding in order to think critically and to provide consulting services to the customer has increased dramatically. Salespeople need to understand how businesses operate, how the various departments integrate and how a decision affects a business in multiple ways. They also need project management skills, because it’s common for salespeople to be involved in all stages of the buying process as well as implementation. Knowing this, I believe employers need to change their selection process when looking to hire for sales positions.
While it’s common for businesses to recruit at colleges, some don’t emphasize a college degree for their sales positions. The reasoning? Employers have traditionally looked for personality traits, knowing that they could give on the job training to these employees. But — the changing industry should cause employers to re-evaluate this decision and consider requiring a business degree. Business majors are taught critical thinking and product management skills. Most business programs help their students to understand business as a whole, instead of just focusing on their major. Couple this training with the growing number of required analytics classes, and you now have students who are better prepared to enhance your company and sales efforts.
Employers need to consider how they are going to compete with other disciplines and woo the best and brightest to a sales career. Breaking through the negative stereotypes regarding sales positions is the place to start. Allow the salespeople to use traits that are now valuable to the position: analytics, problem solving and critical thinking. Micromanaging or encouraging high pressure practices will cause them to go elsewhere. Demonstrate a clear career path where they can stay in sales if they choose, but give them other options as well.
The sales force is a group of trained individuals who know the company, customers, competitors and industry better than almost anyone else in the organization. Combine that knowledge with their skills, and they can prove to be valuable, long-term employees.
Kim Donahue is a senior lecturer in marketing at Indiana University Kelley School of Business at IUPUI.