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Social Media And The Disintermediation Of Sales People

by David Brock on September 27th, 2010

Recently, I have been in many conversations with people claiming, social media reduces the need to have sales people.  Some going so far as to declare the extinction of the sales person.  I don’t buy this, in fact, I think it is just the opposite, I think it increases the need for strong sales people engaging their customers in new ways. 

Social media changes the role of the sales professional, it doesn’t eliminate it.  At least in B2B Sales, I believe the role of sales professionals is even more important.

Traditionally, sales people served a role of informing and educating customers about solutions.  Today, the customer gets much of that information from the web.  Some claim the sales person no longer needs to educate the customer.  I think that’s wrong, just because it’s on the web, doesn’t mean it’s accurate.  The sales person may have to spend a lot of time re-educating the customer, correcting misunderstandings.  Additionally, many of our solutions are very complex, so while the customer gets a lot of information from the web, they still need to solve THEIR problem.  The sales person still has the role of showing specifically how their solutions should be implemented to meet the customer’s specific situation.  They bridge the gap from the experience of others to the specific and unique needs and priorities of the customer.

The change in the sales person’s role goes far beyond this.  Some claim, with social media, the sales person gets involved later in the buying process than traditionally.  Some would way, the customer has already done their needs assessment, narrowed their solution alternatives and engage sales people for those solutions that have been “short-listed.”

I think this is dead wrong, bordering on dangerous!  This assumes the customer is perfectly knowledgeable about how to analyze their needs and narrow the solutions to those that best fit their needs.  It assumes the customer has taken the time to research alternatives and apply them to their own business improvement.

To be honest, customers are prisoners of their own experiences (we all are).  They will look at their business in a certain way—best on their own experience.  Research on the web may broaden that perspective, but it will not address their specific situation.  They still have to bridge that gap.  Additionally, solving problems with your business starts with asking the right questions—to make sure you are solving the right problems. 

Too often, because we are prisoners of our own experience, we may not be asking ourselves the right questions.  One of the great roles of the sales person is that because they see many other customers, they can ask different questions, they can help the customer to reconsider how they are viewing the problem. 

So far, we’ve focused on the role of the sales person in “the last mile,” the value they create by helping the customer understand solve problems or address opportunities the customer has already recognized.  Rather than educating the customer about their products, they focus on the application of the product to solving the customer problems (but I always thought that was what great sales professionals do).

I’ve always thought great sales people don’t just help their customers solve problems, they don’t wait until the customer has a problem then propose great solutions.  Great sales people help their customers consider new opportunities to grow their businesses, they help them understand new opportunities to improve performance.

Great sales people bridge the gap our marketing materials can never bridge.  They can bridge a gap, that social media has difficulty in addressing.  Great sales people know the customer’s specific strategies and priorities.  They know how the customer works, they know how to make things happen within the customer.  Knowing this, they are in a great position to go to their customer saying, “I’m seeing a lot of discussion about this…., have you ever considered what might happen if you tried doing this…. ?” 

Great sales people are constantly working on behalf of their customers, finding them ideas about how to improve their businesses.

This is why I think it’s so important for sales people to be engaged in social media.  As I’ve mentioned in other articles, I strongly believe sales people need to be listening—they need to see what their customers are doing, what their customers’ customers are doing, what their customers’ competitors are doing.  They need to use social media as a source of ideas, opportunities, and possibilities for the customer to improve their business.  They need to engage their customers before the customers are searching for solutions to help the customers understand new opportunities for their businesses.  It may be pointing them to provocative blogs or news articles on the web, it may be a quick phone conversation to alert them about new possibilities.

Social media is not disintermediating the great sales people.  It provides them the vehicle to be a more important contributor to their customers’ success.  It changes the role of the sales person.  Great sales people recognize this and are embracing it.  Are you?

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  1. connie johnson permalink

    Interesting, I just left a presentation in the nonprofit world where major gift officers were defending their role in fundraising, against the onslaught of social media reacting to the perception that facebook will put them out of a job. Your points apply equally well in that space.

    • Connie, interesting observations. You are absolutely right, it applies in the not for profit sector as well as in the profit sector. The Gift Officers need to leverage social media heavily—the concept of community is perhaps stronger in not for profit/mission oriented organizations than it is in commercial organizations. Gift officers need to leverage the tools heavily, they need to recognize their role changes.

      Those that feel threatened by the likes of Facebook, will probably lose their jobs, but not for the reasons they think.

      Thanks for adding this dimension to the discussion. I really appreciate it. Regards, Dave

  2. David,

    As always…. great points. I think the message for sales professionals is that in order to continue to be relevant, helpful and add value we MUST use the channels of communications and engagement that our customers and stakeholders use.

    Our customers now have thousands of media channels through which to learn, make decisions and look for resources — they’re smarter than they used to be. As sales professionals we have to use all of these tools and more to keep our finger on the pulse of the marketplace and nano-markets we are targeting.

    Once again — thanks and great insights.

    • Shane, it’s great to see you joining the discussion. Social media profoundly changes the role of the sales person–I think for the better. Just as customers are informing and educating themselves, the web is tremendous for sales people, not only in listening, learning and researching, but also for extending the manner in which they engage customers.

      Thanks for contributing, hope to see you here again. Regards, Dave

  3. In a recent article posted in SLATE, James Ledbetter wrote that the “impact of Internet selling on sales jobs is hard to quantify, but it’s a big contributor and it’s irreversible”.
    The journalist’s point is that sellers are big contributors to the America’s middle class and as a consequence of the changes in society in the last years, both the middle class and the traditional occupation of sales are expected to shrink.
    New professions will show up and new skills but not as we imagine the traditional salesman.
    The post that is thought provoking can be find at

    • Enrique thanks for your comment and citing Ledbetter’s article. He’s primarily focused on B2C sales, but even then, I think he overstates the death of the sales person, though the numbers of sales people in B2C may decline. In B2B, I actually think the role of the sales professional becomes even stronger, though very different than it has been in the past. First, the fact there is greater quantity of information available through the web doesn’t mean there is a greater quality of information available to buyers. In fact the overwhelming volume of information can increase the confusion of buyers, creating great opportunities for sales people to help customers sort through and determine what’s relevant and meaningful to them. I think we now have new ways of engaging our customers and creating value for our customers, partially based on web based tools and delivery. For the sales professional that recognizes the shift in role, the future is bright. For those that continue to cling to the old and traditional view of B2B selling, I think they will struggle for survival. I think much of the same might be said about B2C sales, though I have less expertise in that area. There are still vast areas of financial and professional services, where B2C sales people will be needed and create value, I think at retail there will be a need for sales people to facilitate the point of purchase for someone walking into the store.

      Frankly, I think Ledbetter’s examples are a little contrived. Walking in the store to by a sweater, a CD, a small appliance or piece of electronic equipment–many of those sales have been traditionally supported by strong point of purchase merchandising and less so by sales. We have seen some B2C industries transformed, but new one’s demanding sales emerge. The very simplest of B2C transactions have not been supported by sales for many years before social media was even part of the vocabulary.

      As you are, I am very positive about the profession, many opportunities will disappear, but new one’s will emerge—isn’t that the way things have always been? Ledbetter’s article has interesting points and is important to read. Thanks for linking us to that.

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