"You don’t understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there's no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back -- that's an earthquake."
-Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
Some historians might look back at these times as the start of the death throes of the B2B salesman. It's a time when data-loving buyers shook generations-old, touchy-feely relationships with salespeople to research, choose and purchase products over the Web. It's a time when digital marketers rose to claim the customer relationship on social networks, shepherding them along the customer journey, including the sales conversion.
"Now that most B2B buyers would rather buy from a website than a salesperson, we estimate that one million B2B sales jobs will disappear in the coming years," writes Forrester analyst Michael Gazala in a blog post.
That's a lot of jobs, and it's a real possibility. We're living in the age of social networking, peer reviews and customer advocacy -- a world where the customer is in charge. They don't want to be "prospected" or "hunted," in the parlance of salespeople, says social selling expert Jill Rowley, formerly a high-powered sales executive at Oracle, Eloqua and Salesforce. "Sales needs a new mindset, skill set, tool kit to find and engage the modern buyer."
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Such a relationship, of course, lasts a lot longer than a quarterly sales quota. It's something marketers are just now realizing. They're beginning to use new marketing tech and content creation techniques to be a part of the discussion over social networks, not merely broadcasting marketing messages. They're gathering and analyzing mountains of data, in order to glean customer insights. They're goal is to reach the right customer with the right message or service at precisely the right time over the right device.
As a marketer's influence over the customer relationship increasingly infringes on a salesperson's territory, turf wars will surely break out. A natural tension has always existed between sales and marketing, but this new digital reality is akin to a match falling on dry leaves.
"Marketing is more sales oriented than ever before," says CEO Eliot Burdett at Peak Sales Recruiting, a B2B sales recruiting firm. "You're also seeing a sales organization that's more marketing oriented, more strategic in developing long-term relationships with customers."
Salespeople are fighting back by becoming more scientific themselves. On the social networking front, they're becoming LinkedIn experts. Salespeople are embracing some of the same customer data and technologies aimed at marketers, Burdett says. While marketers wield marketing automation and lead scoring, sales people are gaining deeper visibility into forecasting and the sales process.
Case-in-point: Predictive enterprise sales software vendor C9 has built in a social-selling component into its analytics engine. "We can see how the rep is using her community to better interact with target customers," says C9 CEO Michael Howard.
Besides, the death of a B2B salesman is greatly exaggerated, say Howard and Burdett. A good chunk of sales -- say, 30 to 40 percent -- never touches marketing, Howard says. These are sales between an enterprise client and a salesperson that depend on personal trust forged over years. Then there's the idea of the big, complex enterprise sale that doesn't lend itself well to an online relationship with a brand marketer rather than a sales expert.
"While in many companies, marketing might be the primary owner of the digital relationship, in companies where the transaction value or complexity is above a certain threshold, the sales organization gets involved fairly early to help shape and develop opportunities," Burdett says. "In the B2B context, outbound sales is still a critically important aspect of overall sales performance, and the sales organization is the key driver of outbound sales."