There’s a huge amount of discussion about the digital buying journey and the shifts our customers are making to “Rep-Free” buying. We have plenty of data and anecdotal experience citing customers allocating less time to working with sales people, choosing digital (remember digital is different than automated) channels over working with sales people.
It’s not unreasonable to conclude that customers want to deal with sales people as little as possible.
But, perhaps we need to dive deeper.
Research also shows that customers are relatively agnostic about channels through which they learn and how they buy. They want a great, effective buying experience, regardless of the channel(s) through which they navigate their buying journey. And in their buying process, they want to make a decision in which they have great confidence/low regret.
And maybe, if we reconsider why customers are moving so aggressively to rep-free buying, it may be that sales people are creating a horrible buying experience, not a preference for digital buying.
We’ve seen the leading indicators of this for decades. In survey after survey, we learn from customers:
- Sales people don’t understand me, my company, my industry.
- They focus on their products and what they want to sell, not what I’m trying to achieve.
- At the same time, they don’t understand their products or help me understand how it addresses my issues.
- They are only walking product brochures and don’t help me understand what the solution means to me.
- Sales people aren’t helpful….
None of this is new, we’ve heard it for decades. We have decades of literature about customer focus, creating value, and collaborative problem solving, challenging the customer to think differently. But we consistently fail to do those things which the research shows is most important to customers.
But customers had few alternatives to sales people. Sales people were the primary channel to learn about new solutions, new methods. So they had to deal with sales people.
Fast forward to today. Sales people are doing the same things they have done for decades (perhaps worse, but hold that thought). But customers have alternatives to learning about products, solutions, new ways to improve their business, work, and their own jobs. They just want a great, effective buying experience and since sales people fail to give them that, the choose other channels to create, at least, a better buying experience than sales people do.
So in some sense, we can conclude that sales people are driving customers to other channels through their own failure to understand and connect in ways meaningful to buyers. And as a result, buyers need sales people less.
But it’s worse than that. We continue to focus on the selling experience, not the buying experience. We optimizes how we sell around our own efficiency, not improving the customer buying experience or improving their decision confidence.
We automate the buying journey. We misunderstand and misapply lean manufacturing principles, treating customers like widgets running through our sales manufacturing lines. We standardize our processes, our sequences, we script every conversation. We have driven the human connection out of the process.
While these processes are very efficient for sellers, they still fail to create great buying experiences for customers. They are still confused, they are overwhelmed, they don’t know what they don’t know, they lack confidence, they wander and get lost. Our processes don’t help them, unless they are very experienced and knowledgeable in what they want and are buying.
Through our inability, or perhaps unwillingness, we drive the customer to other channels, trying to get what they need, trying to learn in ways that are more effective than their experience with sellers. If how the customer wants to buy doesn’t align with how we choose to sell, they are forced to look elsewhere.
One can almost conclude, “Selling would be so great if it weren’t for those damn customers!”
One might prognosticate, that we are, in fact trying to kill off selling, driving customers to buy through other processes. And so many of our behaviors seem focused on doing this as quickly as possible, not because that’s what the customers want, but through our failure to respond to what they need, we force them to other channels.
One can imagine something in the not too distant future, where sellers are celebrating the fact that buyers no longer need them. (Hopefully, by that time, managers have adjusted the comp plan.)
Don’t get me wrong, there are many transactional buying processes where 100% digital engagement is best for the customers and for us. These are situations where there are highly knowledgeable buyers, little disruption, low risk.
But then there is all the other buying situations. The complex and complicated buying processes. Situations where there the customer has little experience, they don’t know how to buy, they don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t know what they need to know. If they are trying to buy, they fail more often than the succeed–and not because they can’t select a solution, but because they fail before they even get to that point.
As they look to buy, they are overwhelmed with information. They start their search and they are overwhelmed with high quality information. They struggle to make sense, to understand what is most relevant to them. They need help they need people who care, who have empathy, who understand them, their fears, and what they are trying to achieve. They need help in understanding their problems and making sure they are making choosing well. They need great sales people.
Don’t get me wrong, there is so much that we and our customers can do in leveraging digital channels. And their utilization and value will increase as both they and we learn how to leverage them more effectively. But what that does is frees great sales people up to help the customers where they most need it.
When we understand the real challenges buyers face in complex buying journey, we can come to know conclusion other than great sellers are critical to customer success and decision confidence.
Sadly, I wonder if they will be around because we seem so intent on killing of selling.