Sales is a profession in flux, as firms that manufacture products are increasingly turning to e-commerce to get their goods to customers.
While selling online can be an inexpensive alternative to more traditional distribution channels, in many cases, the relationships built between sellers and buyers by sales representatives are still vital.
“The sales people that are going to be successful in the future are the ones who are highly trained and leveraging technology, and they are truly becoming consultants to their clients,” said Peter Irwin, president of the Canadian Professional Sales Association (CPSA).
The CPSA, an organization that represents the sales profession in Canada, supports a consultative approach to sales—working with clients to find solutions to problems—over a transactional approach—selling products or services solely on their features and price.
“Rather than being an order taker, they (customers) expect the salesperson to be able to provide a broader range of knowledge and understanding of their business,” Irwin said.
In a transactional sale, the value rests with the goods, whereas a consultative approach places value on the salesperson as a partner who actively works with the customer to both fulfill pressing needs and develop new strategies for their business.
By adapting a consultative approach, salespeople can establish themselves in a vitally important position within corporate supply chain chains.
Technology, like customer relations management software (CRM) and social media, helps sales professionals maintain their edge.
CRM gives salespeople logs of conversations with prospective or current customers, and allows them to chart the business relationships with those individuals. This software can also predict future outcomes based on the past behaviours of customers, and these can be used to map out sales strategies.
“CRM can be an incredibly powerful tool,” Irwin said.
When it comes to social media, salespeople are researching potential customers on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
While previous generations of sales professionals were armed only with a phone book or a rolodex when attempting to win business from strangers, it’s now possible to approach customers with knowledge of their professional needs and personal preferences—making it easier to build relationships.
A new CPSA study, “The New Sales DNA Report”, found that 60 per cent of commercial sales teams are using social media to research clients, and that social media used in conjunction with CRM data is the most popular approach to sales research.
Irwin says that these tools, if used correctly, can vastly improve the way salespeople do their jobs, but their effective adoption requires a full commitment from firms.
“It really in the end becomes dependent upon the organization in terms of how they’re embracing technology,” he said. “If the senior management hasn’t embraced that technology, it’s difficult to get the front lines to use it to its full potential.”
While social technologies, predictive intelligence and automated systems are making life easier for salespeople, they do pose a threat as well.
The CPSA’s latest study says 31 per cent of salespeople think sales functions will be lost to artificial intelligence and automation in the next 12 months. A similar number believe there are fewer jobs in sales than existed a year ago, and 37 per cent feel there are less pay and benefits in the jobs that do exist.
Despite pessimism in the profession, 23 per cent of professionals surveyed by the CPSA believe humans will never be fully replaced by digital technology in the sales process. If salespeople continue to carve out new roles, through harnessing new technologies and demonstrating specialized expertise, this could certainly be the case.
For its part, the CPSA is building base-line competency models for sales training, and working with post-secondary institutions and other organizations to build training programs, ensuring that current and future sales professionals have the tools they need to continue to adapt to new circumstances.
The shift towards online sales channels may be seismic, but Irwin asserts that the value provided by a strong sales team cannot be overstated.
“A high-performing, well-trained, competent salesperson is worth a great deal of money, and a big piece of the profitability equation of any company in this country,” Irwin said. “If I was a manufacturer looking for a way to truly develop an edge, I would take a few extra dollars and I would invest them in my team.”