Do We Even Need Sales People Anymore

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Recently, I read a post from a marketing person I really respect. This person was asking the question and making the argument that perhaps we need to rethink selling, perhaps eliminate it.

He’s a thoughtful person, so I paid attention to what he was saying. Fundamentally, he built an his argument off two items. The old Peter Drucker quote, “The aim or marketing is to make selling superfluous,” and Tesla’s recent announcement that it would move all sales online.

In the end, he admittedly paints and idealized world of marketing, suggesting if your marketing is working well in creating demand, if you have an optimized web site and purchasing experience (note I’m not saying buying experience), then perhaps selling becomes unnecessary.

It’s hard to disagree with the logic, but there are a lot of “If’s,” in the arguments. But it’s something to think about seriously:

First, the quote from Drucker was taken a little out of context. The full quote comes from Drucker’s, Management. It actually states, “There will always, one can assume, be a need for some selling. But the aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself.”



Drucker, himself, recognizes that he is suggesting a very idealized version of marketing, one in which we have perfect knowledge and perfect access to the customer. While, the principles are powerful and inspirational, the reality is far from that—at least in much of B2B complex buying.

Much of Drucker’s work is also based on idealized, “free markets,” which in any case–B2C, B2B, B2B2C, or others, is far from the reality. We all know that search is not “democratized.”

Having said this, Drucker’s principles are powerful, and all marketing should aspire to achieve the visions outlined in Drucker’s thinking. If it doesn’t eliminate selling, it at least drives higher levels of demand and customer self education.

And while Tesla’s actual strategy on moving exclusively to the web seems to be in flux. we shouldn’t be surprised about the declining need for of sales people in B2C sales. Mass retailing has been around for decades, catalog, mail order, and, in the past couple of decades, web based sales. Pointing out the decline in need for sales people in B2C is, kind of, ho-hum.

Even in B2B, for certain types of transactionalized items, electronic purchasing, web based buying is decades old.

But the underlying assumptions to the article are based on a flawed understanding of sales and marketing’s role, at least in complex B2B sales. The focus of the article is on a product and making the acquisition of the product painless.

But is that what modern buying is really about? Is it about product selection? Is it about the purchase process? Or is it about something more?

Complex B2B buying has probably never been about product selection or the purchasing process. Yes, decades ago, a primary role of sales people had been in educating customers about products, but even then, it was probably less than 50% of the buying process.

Today, the challenges our customers face in B2B buying has very little to do with product selection. Study after study indicates the customer buying process is where our customers need the most help. The process of working together, of aligning priorities, deciding how they will decide, managing the complexity and change management processes within their own organizations. These are unique to the customer, to the individuals involved, at a point in time. This is where sales people have their impact, helping customers make sense of and navigate their buying process.

Marketing can support the sales person in this process, but marketing and new marketing technologies can’t know the specifics of the situation with specific individuals at a point in time.



More importantly, what about those customers who don’t recognize the opportunity or need to change. Our marketing outreach is ineffective to people who aren’t looking, who don’t yet recognize they might have a need to buy.

If anything, the future for sales people in complex B2B buying, is very bright. Our customers struggle, they face overwhelming turbulence, they struggle to understand or make sense. It’s just not selected organizations, it’s virtually every organization in the world.

Do we need sales people any more? Clearly, the answer is an overwhelming Yes!

Afterword: For those interested in the article, here is the link.

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