January 14, 2013
"Half of Winning Is Just Showing Up": Some thoughts about a plausible future "New Normal" for the sales-buyer relationship in business-to-business transactions
There is no substitute for human contact in business-to-business selling.
As much as each of us have days when we would love some delightful magic that would make people buy our products and services without our having io interact with them, there is no substitute for talking with your customer. Said another way, we must get out there and sell, whether in person or by phone.
(Emphasis in the original.)
The above statement is equally true from the buyer’s side in B2B commerce. Half of winning from the buyer’s perspective -- where winning is defined as reaching a mutually successful conclusion in a B2B transaction -- is being there when a sales rep shows up in person or by phone.
There really is no substitute for human contact. It builds understanding. In our respective “official” roles, we have “good reps” and bad ones. Account managers have “good clients” and bad ones. “Bad” can be characterized as being unable to accept the policies and practices that “the other” must abide by because there is no way to change them. Thus, when I say “I can’t accept that offer” or when a vendor rep says “I can’t accept your offer” we are both saying the people we report to "can’t" or "won't" based on either the vendor's or buyer's business plans. We both, however, agree to the fundamental principle, namely, we are engaged in B2B commerce by way of direct one-on-one human interaction. This interaction can also build mutual trust and respect. It’s good for us as buyers to know something about the business of selling. It is good for vendor reps as sellers to know something about our business of providing resources for our users.
However, I have serious concerns that the days of human interaction in the vendor-buyer relationship are numbered. Just take a look at circa 2012 marketing campaigns and sales platforms -- our major vendors eCommerce sites, our vendors click-to-purchase (read end-around our reps) discounts ads that fill our email in-boxes and our vendors robo pseudo customer-specific emails. Is it not clear that sales and account maintenance increasingly will be conducted online by way of eCommerce? That’s not just for pBook and eBook sales but also, in the future, for lockstep boilerplate licenses including research platform renewals.
While I have embraced technological change during my 30-plus year career, this may be a luddite reaction on my part (and one that eventually may be viewed like reactions that can be found in our professional literature when online legal search was moving to center stage). At the moment, about all an institutional buyer can do is ignore eCommerce and emailed price discount offers by contacting their buyer's account rep. However, B2B sales may be defined by mouse click transactions in the not too distant future with account maintenance issues by way of access to some "customer experience and knowledge base" and with the ultimate resort being "communicate online with one of our (a)live representatives or send us an email using this online fill-in form."
The era of having WEXIS reps who know your institutional past history and current needs may be coming to a close unless your business entity has uber purchasing power. Frankly, I see no long-term future for most sales reps in the “professional legal services” (once known as legal publishing) industry. The future just may be retail sales, not B2B sales.
If I am in the Internet retail business I may be able to achieve sales just by appealing to people who are window shopping online. However, if I am a business-to-business professional selling problem-solving solutions, I must remember that people do not typically become interested in my product offerings until they discover that they have a need (usually with my help), and they will require that I personally advocate my solution, handle their objections, negotiate terms, and plan for implementation.
"With my help." That is the crux of the matter in the B2B buyer-seller relationship. But the retail eCommerce model is designed to out-flank professionals at both ends of the equation by pitching products and services directly to the end-user consumer. In our world of institutional buying which is based on informed evaluations of offerings and terms and conditions of sales, this targeted consumer happens to be end-users we represent with help from vendor reps.
Why? Two reasons come to mind. Sell directly to less well-informed consumers (our end users) and reduce the labor cost of sales (their vendor reps). This is the "free money" our major vendor marketing mavens dream intend to collect by way of converting B2B sales to the "Amazon" eCommerce model to win the lottery.
Is it time for ... yes, it is.
End Note: The source of the above two quotes as well as this post’s title (but not subtitle) is Hawk & Boland's Get-Real Selling (Nova Vista Publishing, 2008; 2010 paperback edition (and now available in a Kindle edition)) at 39. It happens to be a book I give to new vendor reps who show up at my library’s doorstep (but for how long?). I find it to be an excellent foundation to build a successful long-term buyer-seller relationship upon (again, but for how long? -- with field reps as well as in-house reps who communicate by phone and who answer their phone or reply back to an email when I have a problem that needs to be resolved). While the book addresses the art of sales, it is sensitive to the buyer’s perspective as well. That is what it takes to maintain a successful B2B relationship which acknowledges there is an ethical imperative in providing needed legal resources to practitioners. Accordingly, it is a book I also recommend to young law librarians who are now responsible for institutional buyer-side B2B transactions (but for how long?). [JH]