It has come to my attention that the profession as I’ve experienced it for the past 25 years is disappearing and possibly on the verge of extinction.  Every day we read about:

  • The changing nature of the buyer’s journey as it becomes more self-service.
  • The growing role of marketing in the age of digital commerce.
  • The potential of marketing automation, big data and marketing technology to deliver a superior customer experience.

While many rejoice these so-called advances, I can’t help thinking, with apologies to Mark Twain, that reports of the sales profession’s death may actually be greatly underrated. Let me don my mourning suit and explain.

First, it’s the profession I see becoming moribund. Sales people still abound, but are they professionals with intent on helping buyers make the right purchases? Or are they merely selling what’s in their bag?

Second, I have to wonder if marketing technology is lulling sales into a false sense of security that social media and content marketing will bring a more educated buyer into the sales funnel. And that marketing automation will nurture prospects and deliver sales-ready customers.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m an ardent advocate for technology. I’ve sold technology for most of my career, but statistics like this from McKinsey—that 70 percent of buying experience is based on how customers feel they are treated—made me think about two phone calls I recently had on the same day.

Calls That Give Me Pause

On the first call, a sales rep from a major software vendor called to discuss my organization’s entry into their partner program. The 30-minute call, scheduled a month in advance, was to pick up on our previous conversation and provide new information.

On the day of the call, the rep was 8 minutes late phoning. Then he started right in on his pitch. After five minutes, I turned the tables and asked him a few questions:

“Do you understand what my company does?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

“Did you do any pre-call planning before the meeting?”

“No.”

“Have you been to our website?”

“No.”

I was about to hang up, but I asked one more question, “Two months ago you said you had three new and different things we’d find evolutionary. What are they?”

He didn’t remember that conversation and hadn’t taken notes. And if any of my information was in his CRM, he didn’t have it in front of him. It was as if he had dementia. The earlier discussion had no bearing on how he planned to steer our conversation. A conversation, by the way, that was important to me. He wanted me to get on the treadmill and fall in to how his company sold, regardless of how I wanted to buy. And I wanted to buy, I’d given him 30 minutes to advance our conversation. Instead, I hung up.

Later that day I got on a call with a gentleman looking to buy our product. He listed eight vendors from whom he buys, which enabled me to diagnose his business and make recommendations. After 15 minutes he said, “I’ve never spoken with someone who understands the business the way you do. All these marketing people are trying to tell me what their product does, and their sales reps are regurgitating their product slicks, but no one can differentiate their product from the competition. They can’t help me buy.”

So, Is A Self-Service Buyer’s Journey What Customers Really Want?

Yes…and no. Every buyer needs answers. They want to be educated. And if they feel they must seek out the information on their own to get a clear answer…if they feel the sales process is all selling and no helping…then they’ll look for alternatives.

While we’ve all seen Garter’s prediction that by 2020 buyers will manage 85 percent of the sales process without interaction with a sales representative, consider that 70 percent of people in a 2011 American Express survey reported they would spend more for excellent customer service.

Today’s buyers may be empowered, but it may be because they’ve found alternatives to getting on the sales rep’s hard-sell treadmill. Consider these:

Peer-Based Ecosystems

Aka crowdsourcing. Buyers are going to sites like LinkedIn, Quora, G2Crowd, or any dozens of industry and domain-specific forums to ask questions and receive crowdsourced feedback. These are not without problems as vendors sometimes game the system with self-serving content. Once people start to combine crowdsourcing with built-in hygiene to make sure the crowd is fair and accurate this will become a powerful alternative.

Personal Network

Like others, I have a network of domain experts upon whom I rely. Although it’s taken 20 years to develop my network of trusted resources, I use them to help build my buying process. I don’t go to websites or download content; I just call someone who knows the space better than I do and buy sight unseen on their recommendations. Similarly, I am the domain expert for others.

Consulting Organizations

Third-party service providers and value-added resellers have stepped into the consultative role. It’s an entire ecosystem of consulting organizations that represent multiple companies in an industry and function as domain experts who can consult with clients. Because they are not on the payroll of these companies, they can bring a degree of objectivity.

While we’ve all developed ways to get the information we need to buy smart, let’s not be so quick to celebrate the death of the salesman.  Bad sales reps – kill ‘em off quick as I have no time for them.  But a true, professional salesperson, I’ll pay a premium to get engaged and take direction from them.

This article was originally published on HG Data’s Blog.