Rumors of the demise of the modern salesperson with the advent of the internet have been greatly exaggerated. With the rise of e-commerce and the mass proliferation of free content and information online, many predicted the death of the salesperson. However, rather than rendering sales extinct, the internet has actually empowered salespeople. This is especially true in B2B (business-to-business) sales.

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Consider the following data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Between 1999 and 2014, the percentage of the U.S. workforce employed in sales and sales-related occupations rose from 10.2% to 10.5%. This increase accounts for a gain of more than 1.3 million jobs over 15 years. What are the driving reasons behind this growing demand for salespeople in the internet age?

A Paradigm Shift in the Customer Journey

From the beginning of the 20th century, sales traditionally followed the AIDA (Attention, Interest, Desire and Action) process as prospects traveled through the funnel towards becoming customers. With the freedom of information and changing realities of modern business, research shows that the customer journey in contemporary sales follows an entirely different model.

According to the Harvard Business Review, today’s buyer engages in four parallel streams of the B2B landscape: exploration, evaluation, engagement, and experience.

  • Exploration: Buyers look for ways to address a need, often via direct interaction with vendors and through online research. SEO, paid search, and other digital initiatives are critical to building awareness in this stream.
  • Evaluation: Once options are identified, buyers do more in-depth analysis of different solutions. In this stream activity takes place through direct interaction with sales, through consumption of online content (i.e. whitepapers, blog posts, etc.)
  • Engagement: In this stream, buyers initiate further contact with solutions providers, request case studies or references, and solicit proposals from individual vendors.
  • Experience: Buyer use a solution on a pilot, trial, or proof-of-concept basis to affirm value based on performance before committing to a more expansive or permanent engagement.

Throughout these parallel streams, the Harvard Business Review suggests that the salesperson retains a critical role in the new B2B landscape:

“The sales force is more important than ever. Regardless of which path customers take, or in which order they take them, they want to deal with people who can help them move toward a purchase decision, be the internal champion at the vendor, and bring it together for that customer. In fact, B2B buyers report that, compared to other sources of information, these interactions are the most influential in their decision-making process.”

Best Practices for B2B Sales in Today’s Landscape

With the importance of salespeople in B2B buying decisions confirmed, how does today’s sales force stand out amongst the competition? An increasing number of sales leaders report that inside sales and superior product knowledge are key.

Inside sales reps do not share the luxury of making a person-to-person connection with their prospect, but they are generally more cost-efficient than outside sales personnel. With improvements in web conferencing and changing buyer behaviors, conducting business online is more palatable for many prospects than in previous years. An inside sales rep can communicate with a greater number of prospects at a much lower cost as a result.

With less reliance on personality and face-to-face rapport with buyers, sales organizations today champion product knowledge as a differentiating factor in buying decisions. Patrick Hogan, CEO of Tenfold, writes on his company blog:

“Having a deep understanding of your product allows reps to tell prospects how your solution will make a difference in their operations; whether it’s going to make their operations more efficient, their employees more productive, or their pipeline fuller and more active.”

Businesses that effectively create, curate, and distribute sales collateral best equip their salespeople to exhibit superior product knowledge. In the changing B2B landscape, the value of the salesperson has not changed, but the factors that make them successful have.