If you're a B2B salesperson, there is a good chance your job will be at risk in the not too distant future as business customers opt to self-serve and bypass the sales team. That is according to analyst Forrester, which said that in the US alone, one million B2B sales jobs will be wiped out by 2020 as DIY sales take hold.
"B2B buyers now favour do-it-yourself online options for researching and buying products and services, and they are demanding that B2B sellers fully enable those digital paths to purchase," said Forrester analyst Andy Hoar on the firm's blog. "Yet too many of today's B2B companies still insist that B2B buyers interact with sales reps in order to complete a purchase."
B2B companies that want to stay ahead of the game must reshape their channel and distribution strategies and "fundamentally rethink" the role of their sales teams, he added.
He conceded that there will still be some need to talk to salespeople when buying complex kit, but he stressed these cases would be rare.
"For a minority of customers who are buying complex and expensive products and services, talking to a sales rep can be a value-added experience," he said.
"But for the majority of B2B buyers who are self-educating online about products and services, or who already know what they want, the diversion is inconvenient and unwelcome."
But as a DIY enthusiast might attempt to put up a shelf or paint a living room on their own, when it comes to more complex tasks such as building an extension, few would not consider bringing in the professionals for help and advice. That is the view of IT recruiter Paul Davis, managing director of Merlin Corp, who could not disagree more with Forrester and insisted expert help from IT sales staff will be a necessity, not a rarity, in the future.
He was quick to speak out against Forrester's claims and said the IT industry - which is now geared towards selling complex services and not necessarily off-the-shelf products - relies heavily on its knowledgeable salespeople.
"There are certain products in B2B where if you are just reordering or if you understand your product, it is not that difficult to bypass the need to have a salesperson," he said. "However, [bearing in mind] that the industry is now focused on solutions, what's happening is the client wants to say ‘this is my problem, these are my challenges, this is the direction I want to go in - please can you sort it?'.
"IT firms are focused on annuity-based revenue because that keeps them alive for years to come, so it is predominantly services or outsourcing [that they focus on]. So for the salespeople selling services, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It is not as easy as saying ‘that'll do the job'."
Merlin Corp specialises in recruitment in the software-asset management (SAM) space, which Davis claims is booming at the moment. He said in such a specialist field, a DIY approach is simply not enough for customers.
"In the licensing and SAM arena, you have a push-pull going on," he said. "The vendors want to audit the end user to make sure they are paying for what they are using and the end user, nine times out of 10, doesn't know they are illegally using a licence. The last thing a CIO wants is for an audit from a vendor to find that half of next year's budget is to be used just to satisfy the position you're in at the moment. Therefore they are paying people to come in and offer them a ‘get out of jail free' card."
One IT vendor which is very familiar with the self-service vs sales staff debate is Amazon Web Services (AWS). The company's partner network is home to its AWS Marketplace offering, an online store for B2B IT customers which allows them to buy IT services on their own - without necessarily liaising with an AWS partner or salesperson - and begin using them immediately. The Marketplace was launched three years ago and operates a "one-click deployment" model which allows customers to launch preconfigured services which they can pay for by the hour or month.
At the AWS Summit, which was held in London earlier this month, the vendor defended the self-service method and insisted it was not cutting the channel out of sales.
Barry Russell, head of global business development for AWS Marketplace, said vendor partners offering their wares on the Marketplace are now welcoming the channel with open arms.
"We have a number of ISVs which have listed products on the Marketplace over the last three years which are now leaning in," he told CRN at the event.
"What I mean by that is they are compensating their field [sales staff] and their partners that sell the software. They are engaging consulting partners in helping the customer manage and configure the software. They are using us as a sales channel to reach a new set of customers that want to procure quickly and self-deploy in some cases. [They want to] have as much reduced friction as possible in the procurement process."
Russell insisted that AWS does not have conflicting interests when it comes to the channel and its own Marketplace offering, adding that partners can cash in by offering extra consultancy on top of the services.
"So instead of seeing us as a conflict - I have had this conversation with hundreds of ISVs as well as their partners - [vendor partners] really view us as a new route to market," he said. "Many of their channel executives and sales executives are really looking at us as a new sales channel - a true sales channel - that allows the customers that already have a procurement vehicle to point and click and buy the software. Once they have deployed, they can then get assistance from a partner to help configure, manage and customise and so on."
Forrester is a strong proponent of consumerisation of the entire B2B sales process and on top of its recent claims about the potential drying up of work in B2B sales, it has encouraged business-focused companies to adopt a more personal approach when selling to enterprises.
Back in March, the analyst proposed that B2B companies ought to adopt consumer-style customer-loyalty schemes which reward good customers with points which can stack up to bigger rewards. It said B2B buyers are people too and should not be left out by business-focused marketers.
"Sure, customer loyalty programmes are most frequently associated with consumer-facing rewards schemes, but earning customer loyalty is very important for B2B companies too," said Forrester researcher Emily Collins. "After all, loyal and satisfied B2B customers provide testimonials, case studies and referrals that result in a fuller and more qualified pipeline of new business.
"It can be easy for B2B marketers to dismiss consumer loyalty models as inapplicable to their complex business relationships, but there is a lot more to consumer loyalty than points and discounts."
And Forrester is not alone in talking up the personalisation of the sales process. Last autumn, HP, IBM and O2 launched huge advertising campaigns for their business technology via consumer channels such as primetime TV adverts, billboards and newspaper and magazine adverts.
The mastermind behind HP's consumer-style campaign, Miguel Adao, HP's Enterprise Group marketing director, told CRN at the time that the lines between B2B and B2C marketing were becoming increasingly blurred and said similar campaigns will become more commonplace in the future.
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