I was recently forwarded an article from Internet Commerce magazine and the headline screamed: A Million B2B Sales Reps Will Lose Their Jobs To E-Commerce by 2020. The subhead was equally stark: Those most likely to lose their jobs take order for commodity products.
The author was citing a recent study, “Death of a (B2B) Salesman,” by Forrester Research which stated that one million B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service e-commerce within the next five years. The study also notes that “while B2B buyers overwhelmingly prefer to research, and increasingly buy products and services via a self-service website, B2B sellers still force buyers to interact with their salespeople as part of the purchase process.”
The report details how and why B2B product and service providers will need to adjust models to a buying environment where “websites, not salespeople, are at the heart of how B2B companies buy and sell.”
Our industry is not immune to shifts in B2B buyer behavior and while slow to the dance, we are stepping up our game. Many of the fastest-growing distributor companies operate exclusively online (or are at least online-order enabled) and suppliers continue to invest in online marketing, sourcing, ordering and inventory management.
But what about the hundreds of thousands of salespeople who earn their living selling promotional products? This is an area that concerns me more. “Traditional” distributors will need to have an effective online presence to keep and attract an increasingly online B2B buyer.
According to Forrester, 75% of B2B buyers say buying online is more convenient than buying from a sales rep and 93% say they prefer buying online when they’ve already decided what to buy.
Forrester also notes that most of the loss will be among sales reps involved in basic order processing. Sales reps who offer higher-end services to buyers ordering complex products and systems will fare better. “Order takers are the ones in trouble. It all comes down to value in the ordering process—whether sales reps add value or not.”
Helping members master consultative sales and provide added value is a critical mission of PPAI. It is woven through education sessions, magazine articles, town halls and Association board meetings. It is the mantra of the national volunteer and regional association community. We’re making progress but there is work to be done.
The research tells us that there’s opportunity for our industry’s focused, informed and consultative sales professional. Forrester’s projected loss of jobs declines in an inverse correlation with the level of service a rep offers, with consultative reps offering the highest value—actually growing by 10%.
Think about that, there is an opportunity to increase the number and revenue of sales reps if they deliver value beyond the transaction.
Conversely, all past- and future-focused research tells us that order takers who add little value will be the most easily and quickly replaced by online ordering.
The fate of the traditional sales representative lies in our own hands. Work to shift the focus from price and product to providing service, consultation and solutions. Take advantage of the professional development offered at the national and regional level. Learn to be an expert in our advertising media rather than just a resource to procure products. And finally, recognize that our industry is not immune to the trends of the broader marketplaces.
Our future is in our own hands.
Paul Bellantone is the President and CEO of Promotional Products Association International (PPAI; ppai.org), the world's largest and oldest not-for-profit association serving more than 11,000 corporate members of the $19.8 billion promotional products industry. PPAI offers education, tradeshows, business products and services, mentoring, technology and legislative support to its members.