Despite Dire Predictions, Salespeople Aren’t Going Away
The death of the salesman has been greatly exaggerated
This article was originally published by the Harvard Business Review on March 31, 2016.
By Andris A. Zoltners, PK Sinha and Sally E. Lorimer
One hundred years ago, an article in the New York Times asked a provocative question: “Are salesmen needless?” In the article, a marketing expert explains why societal shifts would render the door-to-door salesman obsolete. “Advertising is producing better results than the old method of personal solicitation,” the article reported. “Things were different once upon a time before the railroads turned farms into cities… The traveling [sales]man is a middleman and the evolution of business is gradually eliminating the middle man.”
That 1916 prediction didn’t prove true. Over the next fifty years, sales force numbers kept expanding—but even as they did, pundits kept predicting the field of sales would soon enter a decline. In the 1962 book “The Vanishing Salesman,” author E.B. Weiss wrote about the “new age of self-selection and self-service” and how pre-selling, branding, and advertising would eliminate the need for traditional salesmen. (To his credit, Weiss also predicted that sales roles would not die, but would change in some industries.) Yet the number of salespeople continued to grow.
Fast forward to 2015. Forrester Research predicted that one million B2B salespeople will become obsolete by 2020, lost to e-commerce. Is this another doomed prediction? Or are things fundamentally different this time? Will there really be fewer B2B salespeople in 2020?
No doubt, some companies will have fewer salespeople four years from now. But other companies will have more salespeople–and history helps explain why.
Buyers have relied on salespeople to help them through their buying journey for centuries. In the early days of the United States, buyers (often farmers) in need of household goods relied on traveling salesmen for every step of buying. Buyers usually first became aware of new products when a traveling salesman showed up at the door. Buyers used the salesman’s help to evaluate what products to purchase, especially for new technologies like clocks and sewing machines. Buyers would purchase directly from the salesman, and relied on the salesman to fulfill the order by delivering the goods on wagon or horseback.
Over the years, innovations in distribution, media, and technology have enabled buyers to use non-sales force channels for various steps of their buying journey. In the early 20th century, advances in transportation, storage, and distribution largely took the task of physical fulfilment of goods away from salespeople. In the late 20th century, a proliferation of media options made buyers aware of products before talking to a salesperson, more so in B2C, but also in B2B markets. Innovation eliminated certain responsibilities for salespeople; yet at the same time, new responsibilities emerged, and entirely new kinds of companies and industries formed.
Today, buyers increasingly use the web to evaluate purchase options in both B2C and B2B markets. Specifically in B2B, buyers will reference web pages, online articles, videos, whitepapers, blogs, and social media resources (both inside and outside of their own company). Enabled by the Internet, corporate buyers can understand and compare products and decide what to buy, often without the help of a salesperson.
But this doesn’t mean there will be fewer B2B salespeople. As certain buying steps move from salespeople to online and other channels, new complexities and uncertainties for buyers will emerge. As in the past, innovation within companies and across entire industries will continue to produce new offerings and new ways to buy that are not yet apparent to buyers. This knowledge gap will create a need for salespeople to help buyers navigate unknown waters, even in today’s environment.
For example, between 1995 and 2013, the top five pharmaceutical companies shed more than 55% of their salespeople in the US. But in that same time period, new companies added salespeople. Google created thousands of sales jobs, including a huge inside sales team to sell locally-targeted online advertising to small businesses. Dell added thousands of salespeople as well, as it sought to help customers understand the changing world of technology and make complex purchases involving hardware, software and services. The total number of B2B sales jobs did not shrink.
We expect this dynamic to continue between now and 2020. Yes, hundreds of B2B sales jobs will get eliminated as e-commerce plays a larger role in straightforward buying steps and for well-understood products. But as complexity and uncertainty decline in some situations, new complexity and uncertainty get introduced elsewhere. Especially for business-critical buying decisions, this elevates the importance of salespeople. Companies such as Facebook, industries such as cloud services, and the many hundreds of B2B SAAS (software as a service) startups are furiously adding salespeople.
With the accelerated pace of innovation and new venture formation today, we believe that barring a significant economic downturn, the total number of B2B sales jobs is more likely to grow than shrink over the next several years. In the modern economy, complexity and uncertainty aren’t going away.
- Andris A. Zoltners is a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.