Death of the salesman

The Redwood blog
Published:  05 November, 2013
Mike Redwood

Twenty-five years ago a salesman was a craftsman who controlled his area like a border guard. Contact lists, client information, and negotiations were kept secret. They guaranteed job security. Should anything go wrong the contact list went with the salesman to a competitor and he picked up where he had left off. It was all down to contacts anyway, was it not? 

Remuneration included a high proportion of personal bonus that rewarded revenue generation, so sharing was pointless.

This was about the time I moved from technical and general management into a specific role in sales and marketing. I introduced an approach called Key Account Management, which has stood the test of time and is much used today throughout industries involved in business-to-business marketing. I know this, as I am lucky to be part of the Management Faculty at the University of Bath and to have colleagues like Dr Iain Davies who are the current world leaders in this area that I pioneered so long ago.

Personal selling

With this approach a lot of time is needed to be spent changing the role of the salesman (they were all men in those days). Personal selling was very much about the transaction. The purpose of sales was defined as “to stimulate, rather than satisfy, demand for products." This meant the task of the salesman was seen as very short term. Aggressive techniques were used to persuade customers that they needed a supplier’s products. 

This role involved four activities: contacting customers, selling the product or service, servicing the account, and managing information between the seller and buyer. The salesman's job was essentially done when the sale was made.

By comparison the fundamental rule behind key account management is that business-to-business is more about the relationship than the transaction, with a small number of major clients nearly always providing most of the sales and the profits. Consequently sales are really about increased attention on long-term, buyer-seller relationships. The salesperson’s role in long-term relationships is crucial in creating value for customers as well as for their own organization.

21stcentury salespeople focus on increasing customer productivity

The sales function increasingly involves longer-term strategic roles such as a customer partner, buyer/seller team coordinator, customer service provider, buyer behaviour expert, information gatherer, market analyst, planner, sales forecaster, market cost analyser and technologist. To move in this direction the salesman has to learn new skills, and most of all change approach to the work. Basic order-taking – traditionally a sales preserve – has effectively become an operational task.

The sales person becomes one of a number of people in what we call “boundary” roles working with account managers and others who a have to work together in the formation of long-term buyer-seller relationships. Modern communications mean that some aspects of information gathering, repeat ordering and delivery monitoring are now assigned to online processes (or should be) but this does not mean that interpersonal skills are to be forgotten. In the October McKinsey Quarterly survey on B2B marketing this was made crystal clear:

“Face-to-face and phone contact with sales representatives ranked highest among B2B customers considering, evaluating, and purchasing products, as well as in product-loyalty decisions.”

To get a good feel of the way a customer is thinking and whether the premium you charge for your leather is perceived as value or not you need quality feedback from your sales person’s frequent contacts. The modern sales person is now a team player and one that must be listened to.

Sales in a business-to-business context are increasingly associated with account management and solution development. Allied to the creation of relationships there has been an accompanying shift from product to service (or solution) selling, which sometimes gets termed “servitisation”. This means that selling is no longer a function but a process, which must be two-way, firstly collecting customer information and requirements and feeding them, back to their own organisation and secondly collating organisational knowledge and resources.

Selling has forever changed from a function to process, from an isolated to a cross-functional activity; and from operational to strategic. Grasp that and your business-to-business customer approach becomes much easier to manage.

Mike Redwood

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