Three Myths about the Impact of Social Media on Selling


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“Friends don’t let friends become salespeople.” At least that’s what we might deduce from what many experts are sharing online–that salespeople have lost their mojo, and that the selling profession faces threats from many forces.

While some of what’s posted might contain a truth here, and a fact there, things aren’t what they seem. I’ll separate myth from reality, countering the social-media inspired flames that engulf the weakened image of the once-powerful sales hunter, the extrovert with social skills and street smarts undaunted by rejection, but supposedly endangered by obsolescence.

Myth 1: Salespeople are dinosaurs

Truth: Salespeople who don’t adapt, innovate, and change will become dinosaurs, along with the ossified organizations that employ them. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts “Sales and Related” job growth that will exceed 6% through 2018 to 16.9 million. (Occupational Employment Projections to 2018, published in the November, 2009 Monthly Labor Review )

OK, 6% doesn’t get me particularly excited either, but dinosaurs died, and 6% is still a positive number. Check what’s happening underneath the 6% growth, and you’ll find sea changes that are more emblematic of what’s happening in our profession: telemarketing jobs will decline 11%, door to door sales workers and news and street vendors will decline almost 15%, and—drum roll, please—retail sales jobs will increase 8%! Whatever happened to bricks to clicks? Because retail sales jobs are notoriously low-paying, one big, honking question from this data is whether overall a sales career will be as lucrative as it was. But that’s another story for another blog, and in the meantime, nobody can say with certainty that sales jobs will become extinct!

Myth 2: Customers have information power.

Truth: This would be a true statement were it not exactly one word too long, because the more accurate statement is, “customers have information.” Period. If anything, information power is shifting to favor vendors. Remember how these recent headlines elicited public and legislative horror? “Facebook in Privacy Breach,” (The Wall Street Journal, Monday, October 18th, 2010), and “‘Scrapers’ Dig Deep for Data on Web,”(The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, October 12th, 2010).

If you can find customer information power in these developments, let me know, because power-preserving privacy just shifted from consumers to producers. I’ll agree that online search windows and social media communities offer consumers unprecedented information benefits, but they’re Tinkertoys compared to the tools vendors have at their disposal, including rich databases, sophisticated software, and predictive analytics. “Insight from complexity,” business intelligence vendors call it, if you’ve heard the sales pitch. Meanwhile, consumers receive plenty of complexity and questionable insight, through web pages and product reviews gushing from of the Internet fire hose, which pundits misconstrue by coining the phenomenon “consumer information power.”

If the myth were true, we wouldn’t need FINRA, you’d know whether an organized crime syndicate profited from supplying the components in your Blackberry or iPhone, why the quesadilla your child ate at school today included calcium pantothenate in the recipe, and why marketing DNA test results to consumers might not be a great idea.

Myth 3: “Customers have largely decided on a solution before getting a salesperson involved,” or “customers are waiting until further in the buying cycle before getting a salesperson involved.”

Truth: The common assumption from these ideas, that salespeople are marginalized, is false. These might not have made the list if we could precisely define when buying cycles start, when they end, and what exactly is meant by “getting a salesperson involved.” We can’t, which makes these assertions hard to prove. Regardless, according to a 2009 McKinsey survey, a cumulative 29% of US and European business buyers selected “lack of industry knowledge” or “lack of product knowledge” as the “most destructive sales behavior.” If the myths were true, salesperson knowledge—or the lack of it—wouldn’t be a blip on the customer’s pain radar. But the McKinsey study suggests that the knowledge that salespeople bring to buyers is both important and valued.

In light of these trends, I probably wouldn’t pull an upcoming college graduate aside and say in an avuncular manner “door-to-door sales” as a career recommendation, but for Sales2.0 and beyond, I’m still bullish on salespeople, the value they bring to buying relationships, and the strategic importance they hold for enterprises of all kinds.


  1. Andy

    What you have uncovered here reminds me of the Wizard of Oz. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” Some marketers are resorting to FUD proliferation around the demise of the sales profession in order to boost sales of internet products and services.
    I wonder – do they really believe that my robot will shop from your robot?

    What’s obvious is that the sales profession is changing, and so is buying behavior, but to say sales people are defunct is a bit of a stretch. If I took the time, I bet I could find a bunch of confirmation of that on the internet to prove my point!

    IMHO The formula that has the best chance remains: good people + clear process + right tools = great sales performance.

    Don F Perkins

  2. Andy: thanks for this post. I agree. The very thing buyers most need, these days, is something they struggle hardest to find: help. Salespeople are so busy they haven’t the time to be helpful. IMO, firms which figure out how to create exceptionally helpful buyer experiences will be stunned with how much more productive their sales teams become. Some related ramblings on the topic are here:

    Trust this adds some value. – John

  3. Andy, thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    Having spent the majority of my 30+ years in “sales” (quota-bearing) positions of one kind or another, I agree that the job title will not disappear. The reason is very simple and has nothing to do with customers: Companies need someone to assign quota to.

    I think you stretch a point with your myth busting. It’s well established that customers now have more information and engage sales later than they used to. Or never, if their initial research and doesn’t put the vendor/solution on a list to be considered. My research last summer confirmed this, and there are numerous other studies that have reached the same conclusion.

    Clearly customers are more empowered with information, although whether it’s the *insight* they really need is another question entirely. To me, this is the opportunity for sales professionals to elevate their profession to add value and not just be an order taker or closer.

    Oh, and by the way, it’s not all about the sales rep anyway. I think there is still the belief that properly trained/supported/tooled rep can “sell ice cubes to Eskimos.” Maybe a few can, but you can’t build a business strategy around this fantasy.

    The actual product/service counts for a lot, around 40% of the value package based on my research. The rep can add value as part of the buying/selling experience — absolutely — but if the product/service is not competitive and priced right, the rep isn’t going to be successful. For this, we can thank/blame the transparency brought on by the Internet and Social Web.

    As a buyer, I want solutions to my business problems. I want help, not a sales pitch or closing gimmicks. Based on some recent experiences interacting with software vendors and their reps, I see two main implications of the empowered “Customer 2.0”

    1. Reps need to find a new and more value-adding game, and management needs to support it, or reps will go the way of secretaries.

    2. The company better produce a quality solution at the right price; don’t expect reps to succeed by sales skill alone

    Some companies are changing, but I’m not optimistic that most will make this shift until the pain level (read: poor sales performance) is much higher. By then, customers will have moved on to other providers.

    Further reading: Free advice to vendors from my real “Customer 2.0” buying experience


  4. @Don, @John, @Bob: thanks for your comments. When was the last time you heard a senior manager say “Our job is to make it as easy as possible for reps to sell?” I’ve heard that sentiment less often than I should.

    Could that idea include, as John said, creating “exceptionally helpful buyer experiences?” I think so. That might include phasing out salespeople, but as Don pointed out, those who champion that idea often have their own interests to promote.

    Bob raises some interesting questions. What happens when selling is all about “getting the rep to make quota?” Could goals be better met when it’s about providing outstanding value to prospects and customers? Would quota achievement be more likely to take care of itself? I don’t have the answer, but I have seen companies achieve significant productivity improvements through focusing on what John describes.

    Customers have always demanded more from their buying experience. Companies that focus on improving their game–and not just on simply pushing higher numbers on the sales force–will more likely succeed.

  5. Like the discussion. Just posted about an interesting development of a sales team that reinvented itself.

    Now While I’m with you on myth one and two – not so on myth No.3
    Not only based on my own experience but based on all I see and hear inside customers on both the sell and the buy side.

    Agree – lack of knowledge is a big pain point and it has two effects:
    1) It solidifies the behavior of just not even asking sales people but people with product experience based on the fact they use it as customer
    2) It is still a pin point as even if I know what I want the sales person may not even be able to come up with the exact product I’d like to purchase. I just went through such an exercise myself when exploring a cloud computing provider.

    Just my 2 cents


  6. Axel: True that today, prospects have more resources than ever before to get opinions and product reviews early in the buying process. The result is that often prospects have formed opinions before a vendor’s sales organization is directly involved in a project. Yet, that has been the case for many years. Prospects networked with peers at trade shows, local business meetings, regional conferences, and many other places in which vendor experiences have been shared.

    What’s most significant about the social-media component of the grapevine is not simply that salespeople are called into the deal late, but that opinions are more likely deeply entrenched, backed by more data, and less likely to be shaped by the sales organization. We can say goodbye to tactics that depended on hollow claims such as “we’re tops in the industry,” or the “we’re the industry-leading solution.” Prospects have formed opinions. The take away is that if ever, salespeople aren’t marginalized, they don’t have the luxury of being average, and they need to be at the top of their game–whenever they have earned access to a buying network.


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