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Sales Reps in the Digital Age

Reps Still Play Role but Likely Different

B2B companies are trying to figure out the role of digital marketing for their businesses, but in doing so, they shouldn’t forget the role of sales reps (as well as in-person support).  In most markets sales reps still have an important role to play.  However, it may be a different one for the digital age.

Critical to Get Digital vs. Rep Mix “Right”

Getting this “right” is not only critical for properly allocating resources but also for effectively serving the customer and ultimately winning in the marketplace.  Just look at how B2C companies have struggled to get the “right” mix of digital vs. bricks & mortar, with some succeeding and others failing.

Three observations to help your company figure out the role of sales reps in the digital age:

Customer Needs Drive Marketing Strategy

The design and implementation of your company’s marketing strategy starts with customer needs (including buying behaviors), not by subscribing to the latest digital marketing idea or tool.  This is well-known advice, but it bears repeating given the hype surrounding digital marketing but also its potential impact, which can be positive and significant, and cost.  By understanding customer needs, your company can develop creative solutions for today’s marketplace and make better – and faster – decisions regarding your marketing strategy.

For example, RS Consulting USA evaluated growth opportunities of two business units for an automation components manufacturer.  For one business unit having outbound sales reps that offered a broad assortment of products and could regularly visit the customer’s location was critical and digital marketing less effective.  However, for the other business unit digital marketing was critical since it delivered significant benefits and was strongly preferred by decision-makers, and sales reps played a complementary, less important role.  Two different markets, two different sets of customer needs, and two different answers regarding the role of sales reps vs. digital marketing.

Personal Presence Still Matters

In the McKinsey article, When B2B buyers want to go digital – and when they don’t, the authors show that 96% of the B2B buyers in their survey need/prefer in-person support for one or more purchase scenarios, but the level of need/preference varies by scenario, e.g., much higher when buying a new product or service (76% of those surveyed) and much lower for buying the same product or service (15% of those surveyed).

As the article indicates and our experience confirms, personal presence, including sales reps, still matters.  As we know, the level of sales attention (and in-person support) often differs by customer category (however that may be defined), or as mentioned in the McKinsey article, customers have a stronger preference to buy online for certain purchase scenarios vs. others.

Over the years we have often heard our clients’ customers say, “they don’t want to be bothered with sales rep calls”.  This complaint, we believe, is driven by a disconnect between sales rep activities and customer needs and exacerbated by the availability of digital resources and tools.  Sales reps must deliver value to the customer, but they must also serve a supplier’s business objectives.  It is a balancing act, again raising the question of the sales rep’s role in the digital age?

Sales Rep Role May Change

 In this B2B Marketing Experiences blog, What are new tasks of sales people in the digital world, the author provides interesting insights on this topic, stating sales reps must and will adapt and offering a prescription.  While we certainly agree with the author’s premise, we think his prescription too narrow since it focuses on the sale of more complex products and services where consultative selling is a better fit.  There are other types of supplier – customer relationships and sales rep roles.

For example, we conducted a study for a leading industrial distributor to help them better understand and serve their customers.  We identified different sales rep roles based upon account size, application complexity and use of digital tools.  For some accounts the traditional “account manager” role was still relevant, but others required either a “marketing manager” or “ombudsman” type of rep.

Most, if not all, B2B companies know sales reps (and in-person support) play a role.  However, some companies forget the importance of sales reps given the rush to do something digital and fail to fully use reps’ relationships and expertise, OR they dismiss digital marketing as irrelevant and stick with sales reps doing what they’ve always done as their marketplace changes.  It’s about achieving the “right” mix for your marketing strategy, and as always this starts with customer needs.

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