Is the Sales Professional Becoming Obsolete?

I’ve worked in client-facing roles for most of my professional career. Always choosing to stay as close as possible to the intersection of technology, sales, and innovation.  It’s how I make a living and I thoroughly enjoy it.  So you can imagine this quote from Forrester discussing the future of B2B sales professionals caught my attention:

Forrester forecasts 1 million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service eCommerce by 2020, accounting for 20% of the B2B sales force.”

 That’s a really bold prediction.  I used to work for a competitor to Forrester and I understand making these types of bold statements, supported by evidence, is in part how the research industry proves its value to drive sales.  It works.  Forrester states, “B2B buyers are living in a 2015 digital-first world, but B2B sellers are still living in a 1965 salesman-first world.”  This statement is interesting, but does a misalignment of buyers and sellers render the seller group expendable?  I don’t think so, but I can see how we can use logic to make such predictions.  I lean more towards the sentiment shared in this HBR article written by Andris Zoltners:

 “…hundreds of B2B sales jobs will get eliminated as e-commerce plays a larger role in straightforward buying steps and for well-understood products. But as complexity and uncertainty decline in some situations, new complexity and uncertainty get introduced elsewhere.”

 Professor Zoltners (he was my business school professor at Northwestern University) and his colleagues do a fantastic job providing a historical perspective of this type of doomsday prediction as it relates to the sales profession.  He argues that the sales professionals numbers have always fluctuated as a result of innovation.  Sales professionals were at one time (early 20th Century) the primary communication channel to carry new product information to buyers.  Innovations such as TV, radio and later the internet eventually led to salespeople not being solely responsible for communicating new products to prospective buyers.  As more advanced technology come to market, sales professionals are needed to help buyers make purchase decisions.  In essence, we’ll see sales staff reductions for mature technological products that are well understood by buyers and the sales force will transition to selling more complex offerings where the Buyer needs to be educated about the value of the product.

 So if we’ve witnessed how innovation, especially technological innovation, has impacted the sales profession over time, then why do we continue to see bold predictions about technology eliminating the need for sales people?  I believe the answer is that we’re beginning to see innovative advanced technology such as artificial intelligence and machine learning finally being applied to the sales profession.  This coupled with statements like “software is eating the world” could definitely make you feel uneasy if you’re sales professional.  But rest assured sales pro, I think bringing AI to our profession is a fantastic trend.  I’ll share in another post what’s happening and why you should be excited. 

 Hang in there, your profession will change a bit but as long as the world continues to innovate, there will be a need for the B2B sales professional to deliver real value by helping clients acquire solutions that truly impact their business.

Jamail Carter