Absolutely, one of the most referenced metrics comes to us from CEB, the creators of the Challenger Sale. Their research indicates that when B2B buyers are making a purchase decision, they go 57% of the way through the buyer’s journey BEFORE engaging with a sales rep. The study highlights that today’s more empowered buyer is engaging digitally versus personally through most of the cycle.
Forrester reports that this shift to digital buying is real, and as a result, there will be a 22% decline in the number of B2B sales reps over the next 5 years. If this prediction is realized, this means that over 1 out of 5 B2B sales reps, that’s over 1 million folks would go the way of the dodo – replaced with digital buying.
Andy Hoar, Principal Analyst at Forrester, reported these findings at their last Sales Enablement conference and Thierry, you and I were both there. I can still hear the collective gasp and quite a level of uneasiness from the crowd at this reveal.
But not all the analysts agree with this research?
Indeed, some are calling these metrics an “urban myth”.
Analysts Marisa Kopec and Jennifer Ross revealed a thorough set of SiriusDecisions research at their annual event in Nashville this past May, a survey of more than 1,000 B2B executives who were involved in a significant purchase decision within the past six months and tallied 500M in B2B purchases across North America and Europe.
According to the research results, Marisa reported that B2B buyers interact with sales reps not just at the end of the process, but at every stage of the buyer's journey.
According to the study, more than half the time, rep involvement starts at the beginning of the journey. For more complex purchases, sales rep engagement starts at the beginning of the journey even more - two-thirds of the time.
In fact, the highest level of engagement with sales reps occurred during the education phase of the buyer’s journey, the first decision gate in the purchasing decision process.
These findings directly contradict the findings of CEB and Forrester that b-to-b sales reps’ role and importance are declining due to a disintermediation by B2B marketing and digital resources.
In a recent blog article, you point to several B2C examples that could perhaps point the way to what lies ahead for B2B sales reps?
B2B is quite different than B2C. In B2B it’s other people’s money vs. your own, it’s a consensus sale.
But despite the differences, there are similarities in terms of how digital has played a role in how consumers buy, and how this has changed the game.
If you look at several B2B markets, several commodity sales careers were completely rocked by the explosion of on-line resources, apps and ecommerce. Amazon continues to contribute heavily to the death of retail sales. Music streaming has reshaped the music business. Expedia and Orbitz have definitely had an impact on travel agents.
If we look at amore complex B2C sale, say real estate, maybe this can help us understand how B2B may be impacted over the next few years.
With so many on-line resources available, many have predicted the demise of the real estate agent over the past 15 years. But the evidence shows that these reps are still going strong despite a much more empowered customer.
Back in the day, the real estate agent held all the cards. For a short period of time to help put me through school, I became an agent in NY, so I know this space well. Information and pricing about available and comparable properties … this was all obfuscated by cryptic MLS listings and exclusive to the agent.
This was all pre Zillow, Trulia and Realtor.com. Now, it’s amazing the amount of available information on every neighborhood and property - pricing, value estimates, school information taxes and more. So with these advanced tools and amazing information, why do agents even still exist?
Despite these advances, not only does the real estate agent exist, they appear to be more engaged than ever, with an article in the Washington Post highlighting that today, 89 percent of buyers retained an agent, up from 69 percent in 2001. It's the same on the seller side, where only 9 percent sold a home without an agent, down from a high of 20 percent in 1987.
So why are real estate agents still relevant?
- A significant purchase decision – Your home represents one of the most significant investments you can make. There is high risk if you make the wrong decision (wrong schools, hidden costs or overpay), sell to early / late (as we learned during the bubble), and high reward if you get it right (great capital gains, no worries and awesome lifestyle). Agents are much better today at explaining the risk adjusted ROI, helping to ease the emotional strain and providing financial justification.
- Unique insights – Agents today are much better at knowing the market, especially culling information that is not publicly or easily available. The most successful use these unique insights to teach the buyer, guide the decision making process and provide an edge (eg. Segmented pricing analyses, pocket listings).
- Diagnostic advice – almost like a doctor, today’s better agents are assessing buyer / seller needs: asking the right questions to guide the buy or sell decision making process and generate better outcomes.
- Consensus required – Most real estate transactions involve multiple decision makers on both the buy and sell side. Perhaps the most important role of the agent today is working with couples to gain consensus – easier said than done with so much money and emotion at play. The agent has to get couples on either side of the table on the same page, and then gain agreement quickly between buyers and sellers are the most successful.
- Complex buying process – there are many steps to manage in the listing, search and purchase process. The agent helps shepherd the stakeholders through each step to make sure they are prepared and the transaction goes smoothly through each step of the process.
What are a couple of things you can do today to stay relevant, to stay in the game and be really effective?
The predicted demise of the B2B sales rep like the real estate agent has been greatly exaggerated. However, like how real estate agents evolved, there are several similarities and significant changes on the horizon that you need to be prepared for
However, like in real estate, the transactional agents of the 80s are not the agents of today. And if you as an agent didn’t make the transition, you found another career or were replaced by a more savvy and capable newer generation of super agent.
Today’s best are more diagnostic, more consultative, and despite a plethora of online information, have found a way to leverage these and other tools to productivity, while at the same time uniquely valuable through the purchase journey.
So what should you do as a sales rep to stay on top of your game, or as an enablement partner to help your sales reps make sure they stay relevant and effective?
B2B sales reps need to engage effectively throughout the buyer’s journey, especially at the critical early stages of influence. The ability for sales reps to help buyers navigate the journey, gain consensus from committee decisions, and articulate your unique value – all critical for continued relevance and competitive sales success.
As a result, sales reps need to be enabled to:
- Facilitate a complex journey - The buyer’s journey has become so non-linear and complex that it cannot be generalized, and is hard to guide with just on-line content and tools. It's a highly personalized experience, unique to each company and stakeholder, and requires careful and skilled facilitation.
- Survive Frugalnomics - Buyers are indeed more empowered, but they are also more skeptical and frugal, more risk averse and require more proof points to get to “Yes” (Frugalnomics). And although buyers are doing more online research and they are more knowledgeable, the #1 piece of content requested by buyers today is still a sales presentation, according to SiriusDecisions. And rising in importance, an economic focus on ROI and the business case.
- Enable Consensus - With more stakeholders involved in each purchase decision, some 43% more than just 2 years ago, each deal becomes an exercise in consensus building amongst all the stakeholders.
You are doing an Interview with Jim Ninivaggi on this topic on July 23rd, can you tell us about this session?
On July 23rd we'll be interviewing Jim Ninivaggi, SiriusDecisions’ Practice Director for Sales Enablement on topic on the Death of the B2B Sales Rep.
We’ll be debating the other research, what’s real and what’s not discussing their new research, the impacts this can have on you, and what you can do today to help overcome the issues. It promises to be controversial and incredibly valuable to your career success.
>>> The On-Demand Interview is available here: https://alinean.webex.com/alinean/lsr.php?RCID=bc511f3fd963493d9516a894b41763c1
As well, you’ve written a book on this topic, to help improve sales / marketing effectiveness: Can you tell us a little about it?
Indeed. As this research and debate highlight, b2B selling and marketing have changed. We are living in an environment of Frugalnomics – challenged by a more empowered, skeptical and frugal buyer.
So to help, I wrote the book - The Frugalnomics Survival Guide - How to Use Your Unique Value to Market Better, Stand Out and Sell More (available on Amazon.com).
The book highlights an incredible finding – the alignment between the ancient art of persuasion from Aristotle and the neuroscience of decision-making. What we found in this alignment was 3 buy buttons that you can use right away to better communicate and quantify your unique value, and to get your prospects to “Yes”.