During the dot-com boom many years ago, the then-called "New Economy" magazines boasted thick, 100-page folios chock-full of ads. At the Industry Standard, for example, there was a waiting list to buy advertising space.
Magazine salespeople weren't really selling at all; they were merely well-paid order-takers. Customers already had done their research and knew what they wanted.
In this case, the business-to-business salesperson shared a lot in common with the retail salesperson at the local shopping mall.
When consumers go shopping at the mall -- much like they'll do en masse this Black Friday -- they have pre-conceived ideas before even entering a retail store. They make purchases based on existing notions about brands and also what strikes their fancy. While a retail salesperson might talk up a product's features, the customer is mostly flying solo.
In other words, consumers conduct their own research by reading third-party reviews, talking to friends, leveraging their social networks and weighing pros and cons. Apps allow them to do quick price comparisons. The teenage salesperson trying to earn some cash during the holidays factors little into the decision process.
B2B Beginning to Look a Lot Like B2C
Now Avanade, a managed services provider, has released results from a survey of 1,000 business and IT decision makers that show a blurring line between the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sales process. That is, B2B buyers are starting to act a lot like consumer shoppers.
Sixty-one percent of business decision-makers report third-party sites and feedback from business partners, industry peers or social channels are more important than conversations with a company's sales teams when making a purchasing decision, Avanade reports.
"The 'consumerization of IT' is dramatically transforming the traditional ways companies sell products and services to other businesses and consumers, says Mick Slattery, Avanade executive vice president, Global Service Lines. Businesses have lost control of the sales process, and B2B and B2C buying models are merging."
Is this a modern-day version of a "Death of a Salesman"? The most startling statistic: 70 percent of respondents say they believe technology will primarily replace human interaction with customers in the next 10 years. All of this sounds a lot like an automated self-service and order-taking machine.
That's not to say the customer experience is dead. On the contrary, how a company interacts with business buyers will be even more critical in the future. The company will have to invest in technology to meet customers where they are and where they're doing their research. Think: mobile and social.
Non-sales departments will need to step up, says Avanade. According to the survey, 83 percent of businesses say departments such as IT, marketing and manufacturing will play large roles in directly managing customer experiences than they did three years ago.
Death Reports of Salespeople Premature
To be fair, salespeople aren't going the way of Willy Loman overnight. The Avanade findings are a bit alarmist, a symptom of technology's overzealous love affair with paradigm shifts. Sure, the dot-com boom had its share of over-paid order-takers, but the dot-com bust equally showed the value of great salesmanship.
The few sales pros who survived and rose to the challenge were able to close sales, transition to online sales and keep publishing companies afloat in spite of the constant negative drumbeat sounding in the ears of customers.
While new customer-touching technologies might impact the B2B buying experience, and companies should take note of this, salespeople still form the bedrock of the customer journey in America's corporate culture.
Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at email@example.com