Death of a B2B Salesman - at least obsolescence or evolution

Ed Marsh | May 8, 2014

Attention must be paid!

"I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person." Linda,speaking of Willy Loman, Act 1, Death of a Salesman
B2B salespeople used to control business.  Seriously.  At least the good ones.

It was never the buyer, because the buyer was unable to perform even the most rudimentary steps of the buying process absent the sales person.  Information about products, the problems they solved, costs and implications were all channeled through the B2B sales rep.

What's funny, tragic or inexplicable (I guess that selection depends on your perspective) is that while we all recognize this has changed, many fail to connect the logical dots and take the required steps.

So let's put the dots real close together.
  1. the internet
  2. resource pressures (time & money)
The research is clear, consistent & unequivocal.  B2B buyers are now, on average, 70% complete with their buying process before they are willing to speak to a sales rep.  Today a 'traditional' rep, rather than a conduit to information, is a barrier to information.  B2B buying research is conducted by the internet.  Period.

There's no newsflash there.

And yet the owners and VPs of Sales of most of the B2B manufacturing companies with whom I speak are still locked into a biz dev model built on data sheets, brochure websites and direct sales.

As their business stagnates they continue to demand that "Attention must be paid!"  They continue to make cold calls that are ignored with caller ID and persist with what used to be good business - the traditional blocking & tackling of B2B sales.

And business stagnates further......

The dissonance between active new product R&D and ossified B2B business development

There's a striking contrast in most B2B industrial companies.  New products are continuously under development and testing.  Even the most staid companies understand the role of product innovation in their business' viability.

And yet sales is based on cold calls.

I recently had a conversation with a company which had hired staff to boost the number of outgoing cold help sell a sophisticated manufacturing service to high level buyers at F1000 companies.  And doubling down on this strategy, management was requiring field sales reps to commit to certain numbers of dials/week in parallel to internal resources.

When I asked management the last time they had bought something as the result of a cold call the answers varied from "Never" to "I don't remember.  It was years ago."

We don't buy through cold calls, we just sell (try to) through them

Are you shaking your head yet?  But there's more.  They also recently spent many tens of thousands of dollars (and substantial management time) redesigning a website which has limited traffic.  And the redesign reflected essentially none of the current best practices for attracting appropriate traffic and converting visitors to leads. 

We spoke, over the course of several meetings, at length about how they buy, who their real target buyers are, how the buyers buy, what moves the needle for them, etc.  We explored how inbound marketing would fit naturally and powerfully with their sophisticated, complex sell cycle product/service; with their buyers expectations; with the company's particularly strong position of expertise; and with the company's stated management philosophy.

Then we lowered the bar to adoption by mapping out exactly how to minimize the impact on senior management time - to inculcate an inbound marketing culture and shared responsibility without impinging on other tasks.

And we finished with a commitment to decide "yes" or "no" within a week - not to squander each other's time with "think about its."

The answer came back promptly "yes" - we need to do this.  And six weeks later, you can probably guess where the project stands....that's right, lots of silence interspersed with "juggling priorities" excuses....and no progress.

This may be a commentary on their hesitancy, or my sales ability, or both.  But it's a common scenario among B2B manufacturing companies wondering how to regain their growth mojo.

Fear of acknowledging ineptitude

The problem is that breakout growth happens based on certain fundamental steps.  These include a very detailed exploration of who buyers are (have been traditionally and should be going forward) based on extensive relevant business experience.  It then requires a well crafted design for biz dev, extensive preparation and meticulous execution.

And through this process it often becomes painfully apparent that many of the recent "initiatives" and "investments" were well intentioned but without justification.

That's an uncomfortable position for an owner to find themselves in, and one acutely so for VPs of Sales / Marketing.

But is the answer to simply pretend otherwise?

"After all the highways, and the trains, and the appointments, and the years, you end up worth more dead than alive." Willy Loman, Act II, Death of a Salesman
There's really a simple choice.  Moan and lament how things have changed...or understand the change, find folks who understand the universe in which you and your prospects/customers operate AND are facile with the strategies / tactics which are required for success.  Becuase sales and B2B sales reps aren't going away, but the outlook, skills, attributes, strategies and tactics are changing rapidly.  A few will manage the transition individually and as businesses.

Want to fade away, bitter and despondent like Willy?  I'm sorry.  But hang in there.  Maybe it will be OK.  After all, you're the "New England Man" as the saying goes.

Want more insight into how things have changed and how you should adapt your B2B Sales approaches?  Check out our free book

New Call to action