Funny question, until you think about it a bit more. With all the focus on the changed buyer who finds online or from peers much of what she needs to make a decision, on just about everything, including what to buy, why do we still have salespeople on the payroll?
Because your customers require them.
Funny answer, until you think about it a bit more.
Work with me here. If your company is in the business of converting assets, like a patent, or skilled craftspeople, or molten metal, or a process you understand well, into something of potential value to others, that is step one. Next, you have to communicate that value to other people so they can decide to get some, or not. To do that, you have people crafting all sorts of messages about your value; some of those messages you send out to the world online, some in traditional ads, others on blogs, some into communities, maybe a book, and those messages are the simpler ones. Simpler because these are messages the target recipient must be able to decode, absorb, and assimilate unaided into his or her personal value equation. Does the value I perceive exceed the cost and is the risk to realizing that value manageable and acceptable? "I like what I hear and read about this iPhone well enough, the cost seems worth it, and I think I can figure out how to make it work." Like that.
Then there are more complex messages, to go with more involved decisions, for stuff, the value of which you created to solve more involved problems than retrieving and sending texts or booking a table for dinner.
That is where salespeople come in. Customers require them to decode, absorb, and assimilate complex messages aided by you. Those messages are designed to communicate value that is not so straightforward and possibly enormous — while also costly and more complex to realize. And those messages are best communicated in a conversation that unfolds in two directions. Question, answer, deeper question, rebuttal, example, question and so on.
Let's illustrate with some examples. Back to the phone. A buyer is "sold" on getting an iPhone before hitting the Verizon store. But that's just the phone. Now comes the plan, and the credits you have accumulated, and the new service options for you, the family, and do you want insurance, or a waterproof case? Or do you want an android? (Just asking…) That's a conversation, and in the case of a cell phone, a tight one, a focused one, and a pretty efficient one at that. And you have it with a salesperson who has access to really tight messages (or content and tools) to work with you to go over the options, configurations, features, insurance, and plans — all to facilitate that efficient conversation.
Now how about a power plant? You know you need one, and you can go into a conversation with a preference for gas over coal, but the complexity of the problem, and the complexity of the solution, requires a lot of two way exchanges of information. Again, you need a salesperson, and in this case, a sophisticated one, and also a great deal more substance to and range of messages that person must be able to communicate, empathetically, with a range of people, over a span of time, to establish the perceived value on the part of the buyer, to tip the value equation in your favor, and complete the sale.
Same formula, different mix.
To communicate the value of the iPhone, the bulk of you messages are delivered independently of a salesperson. And those messages are about the thing being sold, and what it can do, for the most part. And the salesperson, or messenger, is there to make things happen efficiently in that last mile of the process. Get that iPhone into your hand and doing its thing fast.
To communicate the value of the power plant, well, your main brand message may be delivered on ads on the Sunday talk shows, as you communicate your green credentials. But the bulk of your messages will be communicated in conversations, lots of them, across multiple stakeholders, who will play a role in filling in the value equation for their company. And the messenger, well she is going to be paid a bit more than the Verizon guy because she knows how to orchestrate a process, navigate your organization, navigate the buyers' organization, and she can hold her own over a nice glass of Pinot Gris.
Which bring us back to the question: Why do YOU have a sales force, and do you have the right messengers, and messages to match the needs of the audiences with whom you hope to communicate your value?
Simple questions yield the best answers.
Don't you think?