You can say with certainty that the role of a salesperson is not the same as it was twenty years ago. The journey between a salesperson and their buyer was once entirely in person, spanning weeks of back and forth trips to aid a client in the process of buying. Beginning with a client in complete darkness of the details of the product, the salesperson would explain, promote and encourage the procurement, until the deal successfully went through, or, unfortunately, until interest was lost. It is evident that this is not the same today: in the digital world, buying can be finished within the first ten minutes of a customer’s journey, without the need of the guidance of a salesperson. If a customer does meet with a salesperson, it is entirely possible for them to be ninety-five percent of the way through their journey, and for the salesperson to have had their job done for them. And unfortunately, it seems that these changes will only continue to increase as technology continues to advance.
COVID-19 Impact: Accelerating Changes in Sales Practices
When analysing the role of a salesperson in today’s society, it is impossible not to look at the impact of COVID-19 and the global pandemic that confined everyone in their home-built offices. Suddenly, all client meetings were done over Zoom, Teams or Skype; telemarketing grew, as did the number of resources available digitally; and the original, well-taught model of selling and buying had fundamentally altered.
But now, post-pandemic, we have to question if such changes that occurred under lockdown were a direct result of the inability to access in-person meetings, or whether the pandemic merely acted as a catalyst for changes that were already occurring under the surface. Surely, if all was fine with the traditional approach we would have reverted back to it when lockdown lifted? Yet here we are, with a modified process in which buyer behaviour (and thus, the role of salesperson in facilitating these purchases) has changed on a deeper level that would not have been welcomed unless something was happening beforehand. Therefore, we are clearly seeing a significant difference between selling and buying twenty years ago, and the selling and buying of today.
Digital Transformation & Redefining the Sales Process
Firstly and most obviously, sales are no longer dependent on face-to-face, in-person meetings. Most now take place on Zoom, through a webcam and microphone. But with this, there is also no longer a need for a salesperson to know everything about their product. With the digital resources of today, a buyer can determine their own wants and needs, what it is about the product that attracts them, and the internet performs a sales presentation for the client from when the process begins. The technology of today has long been seen as a positive impact, allowing people to have more autonomy, and that is no different here: social media, search engines, hundreds of websites promoting, explaining and evaluating the same product. Traditional processes, even the traditional selling process , are being fundamentally altered. But with that comes the decreasing need for roles such as salespeople.
Secondly, with sales no longer dependent on constant face-to-face meetings, and explicit knowledge of a product, what has increased is the demand for emotional intelligence. Knowing when and where you are needed – and when and where you are not needed – is something that, arguably, is the most important skill a salesperson can learn today. No more are the days of knocking on a door and pushing leaflets into one’s hand, with an explanation ready on your tongue to spew at the unwitting client. In a society where the actual need for a salesperson has decreased so significantly, knowing when you step in and when you should hold back is essential to be able to sustain your career. When is it right to involve yourself? When should you bring in someone else? Will this conversation have value? These are questions of a salesperson today.
Thirdly, it is important to realise that the role of a salesperson and the role of business marketing are becoming inherently intertwined in the business world of today. We now have to question where marketing stops and where selling begins. Arguably, business marketing handles much more the traditional processes than selling does today. Teams of business marketing and sales are already merging together to become one team that can successfully handle all aspects of this ever-growing complex process. There is no longer one way to do anything anymore, and for anything to get done – effectively, successfully, skilfully – people need to accept that they must be flexible and willing to try a number of different methods.
AI & Technological Advances
We have all seen the scary stories about Artificial Intelligence and other technological advances taking over traditional roles, but the truth is that the technology is there to help the process of buying and selling, not hinder it. Change is inevitable and everyone needs to adapt in order to survive – clearly, technology is set to drive efficiency improvements at different stages in the sales process, but there will always be a need for a ‘real person’ to direct the customer journey and play their part at the right time.
One interesting perspective to consider is the convergence of sales and marketing functions in the wake of technological advances. As marketing activities now focus more on digital methods and data-driven techniques to understand buyer behaviour and intent, driving content and sales propositions aligned to customer decision making at different stages in the sales funnel, the question is ‘who is now responsible for prospecting and qualifying new opportunities?’ Many businesses now target and attribute revenue generation to both sales and marketing teams equally, highlighting the importance of online targeting, marketing automation, customer nurturing and effective CRM management in the sales process, all of which are digital activities.
The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Modern Sales
But, as bleak as this may seem for a salesperson, we should not dismiss their role completely. We are not saying that the role of a salesperson is a career of the past, taken over entirely by computers and artificial intelligence; a role for people to read about in history books. The one thing artificial intelligence has not yet been able to conquer is human connection. That is the fundamental skill of a salesperson which cannot be ignored or forgotten.
Yes, it is true that the need for a salesperson to be an expert on their product, to be able to relentlessly promote their product, and to be able to be there for a buyer throughout the entire process, is no longer in high demand. But no, it is not true that a salesperson is a role only for appearances.
To be able to facilitate the buying process, to be able to build a long-term relationship, to be able to understand the ins and outs of how a product is suited to a certain buyer, and to be emotionally intelligent enough to understand when and when you are not needed – these are the necessary skills still needed today.
Social media and the pandemic may have altered the expectations of a client in what they can do to sustain and support their business, but the realism that will bring them back down to earth is only something that can be done through human connection. We still need these salespeople in order to build long-term supports in the business world so that the flame of innovation does not burn out faster than it can grow. Therefore, we are seeing one constant through all these years: everything is client-focused. If the client is not happy, it is the duty of the salesperson to facilitate customer satisfaction. For this reason, we cannot entirely dismiss the role of a salesperson, nor can we say that they are not a necessity in the world of business.
Anticipating Further Changes and Challenges
Now comes the question of what this will all be like in another twenty years. Will we still be debating such concepts as the necessity of salespeople? Or will we have answered the debate? If so, what was the outcome? At the rate of technology now, much of tomorrow is unknown. External product knowledge is continually increasing, as well client independence in the selling process, and we know that there has been a substantial change in the role of salesperson already, but is this all subject to further change?
What about the differentiation between each product and client? We are seemingly headed towards a wide change for the traditional method – but every product and every client is different. Arguably, instead, we should work towards editing the method to fit with the technological advances of the future, but we should not forget the necessity of human connection – something which will never be wholly replicated, even by the most advanced technology. We should not allow technology to overtake roles where real people are the necessary factor of success. But, we cannot entirely ignore it either: we should redirect technology towards data analysis instead, so we can make better decisions. In a similar conclusion as the role of salespeople, we are seeing that we should not ignore technology, only redirect towards a role which would benefit everyone.
Therefore, we must accept changes for they cannot be denied or delayed, but we must not let them have absolute control, for we are seeing that salespeople are still needed in customer journeys and sales processes. Artificial intelligence is already affecting multiple sectors in today’s society, and it will affect the sector of business as well, but it will never be able to replicate the human connection that is needed for each and every different product and client. And for that reason, the role of a salesperson will hopefully remain prominent in all businesses.