Is It Farewell To The B2B Sales Rep?

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For many decades the so-called field sales rep has dominated the way B2B sales functions have been organised. Some high-value industries like pharmaceuticals have invested many billions in training and maintaining hordes of sales professionals to fulfil the in-person role of building relationships, explaining new products and taking orders.

Smaller companies know that to have an impact in their chosen market they need to carve up the geography of the country and appoint a regional sales rep to drive out each day and meet people on a regular basis.

There’s an often-quoted maxim, commonly voiced by sales folk, that “people buy from people” and they, people, like it that way. But what if either that’s plain wrong or simply not true anymore and that while, yes, we are social animals who like to interact, in reality, quite a lot of B2B purchasing could be done quietly and alone while interacting with technology in the form of a web site and potentially backed up by some Artificial Intelligence (AI)?

Self-service B2B is preferred

Well, this self-service model of online purchasing is precisely what has been happening in much greater volume, according to a set of stunning new conclusions from McKinsey, a management consultancy. In a globally researched report delivered at the end of 2020, they produced a set of charts supporting the bold claim that COVID-19 has changed B2B sales forever.

“More than three quarters of buyers and sellers say they now prefer digital self-serve and remote human engagement over face-to-face interactions—a sentiment that has steadily intensified even after lockdowns have ended.” Source: McKinsey

This is a big turning point in how B2B sales are conducted. While B2B commerce has always adopted new ways to transact using technology, e.g. electronic data interchange (EDI), reverse auctions etc., the rate of adoption has always been slowed down by vested departmental interests or “not invented here” counter-arguments. In 2020, almost universally where economies have locked down, sales reps have been grounded with only internet-based video meetings and eCommerce platforms to sell from.

It’s true that enforced travel bans and health security is a major factor in the rapid switch to online interactions of all kinds and continues to determine how people can interact. But the benefits of conducting more business online have been experienced first hand such that they are better understood and now welcomed. According to the Mckinsey research, only 20% of buyers said they wanted a return to in-person sales.

Order values are higher

The fact is that buyers have for some time been happily using self-service B2B eCommerce to get what they want more efficiently. The B2B future shopper report from Wunderman Thompson, an advertising agency, highlights why self-serve B2B makes sense to buyers. B2B eCommerce sites can provide real-time inventory availability and clear fulfilment and shipping information.

In B2B where the sourcing maybe for parts in an OEM supply chain, the absolute cast-iron guarantee of stock and delivery is critical. The events of 2020 have certainly given B2B purchasing a boost with a rise of 24% to the point where 46% of purchases were made online. And it may also be surprising to learn that

average order values are high. It seems that B2B buyers are very comfortable placing high-value orders and reorders when serving themselves online. It had been previously assumed that B2B eCommerce was best suited to fast-moving commodity products at low price points. Not so it would appear.

And let’s face it, the buyers are the ones who call the shots. They are the custodians of their appointments diary and their gatekeepers are the ones who can protect them from the cold call approach or the regular sales account manager looking to book a meeting. If they want to stay online for their purchasing dialogues and self-serve their way to sourcing the products they need then sales roles will have to respond and change accordingly.

Re-organising the sales function is required

Digital channels for B2B companies were already growing significantly and have rapidly increased since the pandemic began. According to the Wunderman Thompson research, the number of purchases being made directly from sales reps had fallen to 16% in 2020 – down from 44% previously.

McKinsey also reported that Sales leaders in the UK rate digital channels close to triple their previous importance. Customers’ expressing a preference for digitally-enabled sales interactions are not all intent solely on self-serving. For example, a third of buyers surveyed rated live-chat during the research stage of their buying journey as a key requirement.

Re-organising the B2B customer experience and the related sales processes now needs to be at the top of the list for business leaders. Where sales teams, formerly on the frontline, have had to adjust their activities to virtual meetings, there is still an important role for them in working with buyers and using digital systems to coordinate information gathering and purchase decision making.


Responding successfully to the pandemic crisis requires making the best of the current situation, looking forward to the recovery phase, and understanding what a post-pandemic normal will look like. Fundamental to that journey will be the quality and state of your eCommerce platform because that is the hub around which delivering a positive customer experience will be organised. If you are looking to move more of your B2B sales online with an upgraded site then this guide to choosing the best B2B platform is helpful.

Because, making things simple and frictionless for a buyer actually requires a great deal of thought, time, and effort. When McKinsey asked their sample of decision-makers to select the top-three most frustrating issues with B2B suppliers’ websites, 36% cited the length of the ordering process, 34% the difficulty of finding products, and 33% technical glitches with ordering.

Other concerns were confusing websites, poor information on delivery and technical support, and unnecessary obstacles to setting up payments. So researching vendors and defining what success looks like is crucial before investing in the new phase of B2B sales.

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