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Zero One: Will B2B Salespeople Survive in the Digital Economy?

The sun may be setting on order takers, inside salespeople, and “solo cowboys.”

It’s Thanksgiving week, and here’s something B2B salespeople should be thankful for: their jobs, at least for now.

Tech trends such as data-fueled marketing automation, a renewed focus on account-based marketing, and the rise of artificial intelligence are taking aim at traditional sales.

In other words, the sun might be setting on certain types of salespeople, namely, order takers, inside sales, and even “solo cowboys” who have plied their trade for years without much oversight.

“The type of person that becomes a salesperson is going to change,” says CEO Manny Medina of Outreach, a sales automation company. “You will see a dent among solo cowboys who make the number based on a recipe.”

Sure, the CEO of a sales automation vendor has an obvious bias, but Medina is far from alone. Forrester was one of the first research firms to call attention to the potential death of the salesman, predicting two-and-a-half years ago that 1 million B2B salespeople would be displaced by 2020.

“Two years ago, B2B buyers indicated that buying online was more convenient than buying from a sales representative,” said Forrester analyst Andy Hoar in a research note earlier this year. “Today, those preferences have intensified. In addition, we’re seeing technologies such as voice-activated search, Amazon Dash Buttons, and the Staples Easy Button beginning to impact the small-business side of B2B at a minimum.”

Related: Zero One: B2B Sales Forces Face Disruption

Order takers are most at risk, Forrester says, as B2B customers take a lesson from their consumer counterparts. They’re researching products, comparing prices, reading reviews, and hitting the “buy” button online.

Inside salespeople at B2B companies are also risk, because they perform tasks such as outbound demand gen, appointment setting and assessing the qualification of inbound leads that marketers armed with marketing automation tools have become increasingly good at.

That is, inside sales appears to be competing with marketing.

“Because the marketing department is tasked with delivering higher qualified leads to the field sales team, then it makes sense for inside sales, which does the same thing, to be in close alignment with – and in some cases report to – marketing,” says Matt Gingerich, vice president of sales and customer success at Bombora, a provider of B2B demographic, firmographic and intent data, in a blog post.

Making inside sales part of marketing is just the beginning.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning inside marketing tech are already analyzing and testing sales playbooks to make them more effective. In the future, artificial intelligence might even perform menial sales tasks such as drafting and sending emails automatically.

Like their western namesake, “solo cowboys” with their secret playbooks and independent ways simply don’t fit in the digital economy, which prizes data-driven learning, process optimization, collaboration and automation.

All of this, however, doesn’t spell doom for the sales profession.

Many B2B sales are expensive and complex requiring price negotiation and installation services, Forrester says. This means the last mile of a B2B sale still needs a consultant-type salesperson who understands the customer’s business problems and can close the deal.

The consultant-type salesperson will be held to a higher standard, Medina says, “because a machine can do a lot more for you. I don’t think the sales job will go away, but it’ll morph into something with more skills than what it is right now.”

The question for order takers, inside sales people, and “solo cowboys” is, will they be able to rise up the value chain and seize one of these consultant-type sales jobs?

Tom Kaneshige writes the Zero One blog covering digital transformation, AI, marketing tech and the Internet of Things for line-of-business executives. He is based in Silicon Valley. You can reach him at [email protected].

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