Do online sales signal the death of the account manager?

With one million B2B salespeople in the US (20 per cent of the B2B salesforce) set to lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce by 2020, according to Forrester, what does this mean for account managers?

Do account managers still have a role to play in the modern sales environment as customers snub human interaction in favour of the self-service approach? Ashley Sterland, director at The Change Organisation, explores the issue in this opinion piece.

In the Forrester report, analyst Andy Hoar states: “The days of flipping through a B2B catalog or talking to a B2B company sales or call centre representative to learn about a particular product or service are over. Now B2B buyers educate themselves online throughout most of the buying process, often wherever they find the highest-quality information and have the best browsing experience.” 

Although, this suggests ‘doom and gloom’ for the account manager, Hoar went on to write in his April 2015 blog – Death of a (B2B) Salesman – that to survive the ongoing digital revolution companies must evolve.

So there’s still a future for the B2B account manager. In fact, for B2B success, he recommends that companies build digitally enabled selling models to put self-serve e-commerce on equal footing with commissioned salespeople. 

The Forrester report shows that almost 75 per cent of B2B buyers prefer to buy online when purchasing products for work. Despite this, only 25 per cent of B2B companies actively sell online and many insist that buyers interact directly with a sales representative. As a result, many companies are missing out on this potentially lucrative business stream.

Collaboration is key

Whatever your personal preference, there’s no denying that digital channels are here to stay. Both B2B buyers and internal sales professionals use them to complete transactions so it’s up to e-businesses to create websites that will provide a network to connect B2B buyers with call centres, sales agents, field sales professionals and their own internal websites.

Digitally enabled B2B selling models will enhance a company’s sales efforts in several ways. Businesses are able to focus salespeople away from basic tasks that can be managed digitally, so they can concentrate on more profitable targets and provide an improved service offering to customers.

The rise of online sales should be the push that companies need to become more customer-focussed. With the recent economic forces and ever-evolving technologies, the only way companies can survive is to change their processes in order to win, serve and retain their customers. 

Human touch

If the B2B salesman or account manager is really to be extinct by 2020, that places a lot of pressure on the buyer. For example, buyers will have to know exactly what they want, which in reality is impossible in a digital world.

Buyers are consistently inundated with products, technologies and solutions – and to really know what each one offers, they will rely upon a competent salesperson.

“And when I saw that, I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ’Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of 84, into 20 or 30 different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?”
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

However, as much as we like to buy online, there will always be a role for this type of ‘human’ contact. In spite of the continued growth of online sales, the human voice remains a key part of the transaction and reassures consumers of their intent to purchase. Online should be a complement, not a supplement, for traditional sales methods.

Also, how many of the one million B2B salespeople that are expected to become unemployed by 2020 will still be required to deal with errors, complaints or general queries from all those online purchases? When you consider how many buyers will be self-educating online about products and services, aftercare will surely become the biggest department in any organisation.

It’s not over yet

So was Forrester’s report little more than mischief-making and scare-mongering? That’s definitely not the case, and its findings will hopefully provide a shot in the arm to force B2B sales staff, account managers and their companies to up their game and enhance the customer experience.

There will always be certain products and services which can be just re-ordered, or if the customer truly understands your product they can bypass a dedicated salesperson. But as a result, the role played by knowledgeable sales staff will also become more important as in the IT world there is no one-size-fits-all solution and a do-it-yourself approach sometimes isn’t enough.

The answer will not be to get rid of all B2B salespeople and account managers; but to integrate the select competencies of both digital marketing and the field salesforce. If anything, the predicted death of B2B salespeople is just the next stage in their evolution – leading to smarter salespeople and account managers that provide customers with a genuinely value-added experience. 

We are certainly on the precipice of a fundamental shift in the way people do business. It’s an exciting, and slightly daunting, era for businesses looking to survive and thrive, as the customer is constantly changing.

There’s no denying that digital channels are here to stay, but it’s up to the account managers, B2B salespeople and their companies to evolve with the market. Forrester may have claimed that the role of the B2B salesperson is a dying trade, but account managers still have plenty to give and to paraphrase Mark Twain – “the reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.”

About the author

Ashley Sterland is director at distributor The Change Organisation.

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