**Editor’s Note: MasterMinds is a biweekly feature in which we invite leading master agents to share information, insights and expert opinions about what’s going on in their agencies, the IT/telecom channel or the business community in general.**
In March, Forrester caused a bit of a stir in some sectors with the publication of its report, “Death of a (B2B) Salesman: Two Years Later.” The report followed up on forecasts made in its 2015 report, “Death of a (B2B) Salesman,” primary among them that 1 million B2B salespeople would be displaced by 2020, due to a shift among buyers to self-service — for both product research and simple purchases — and their demand for higher-quality interactions with salespeople.
The report focuses largely on sales reps vs. e-commerce scenarios of retailers such as Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, MillerCoors and others. But the challenges these industries are facing are nothing new to channel partners in the communications industry and they emanate from the same source: the educated buyer.
According to Forrester, 68 percent of buyers today prefer to research online on their own, up from 53 percent in 2015. As a result, a large part of the sales process takes place without the involvement of a salesperson. And this has created a shift in power from the provider – “Here’s why you need what we have” — to the buyer “Tell me something I don’t already know.”
Channel partners are far ahead of the curve when it comes to making the move from “order-takers” to “skilled consultants.” The transition from straight sales to trusted adviser started in the channel more than a decade ago. Cloud technology and everything as-a-service have made hardware secondary and expertise absolutely vital.
Still, the Forrester report is an important reminder to channel partners about the need to keep their marketing and sales processes in line with the new realities of the educated buyer.
It all starts with using digital content to attract leads. Websites must be structured to be an “always-on” source of information, with scrupulous attention paid to keeping information up to date. A vetting process of sorts is always at work in tandem with the research process, and if your last blog entry is more than two months old or the newest white paper is from last year, prospective clients will move on without a second look. Research the best communication vehicles for your prospective clients and customers. Using a variety of formats for content marketing, from simple blogs to videos and webinars, can help you reach different types of buyers. (Hint: Twitter is a proven effective method of attracting clients to your website.)
The next step: Use digital content to learn about your clients. When educated buyers are ready to talk to a salesperson, they want to deal with someone who knows their business and is ready to offer solutions to their particular circumstances. In other words, the educated buyer wants an educated provider — a trusted adviser. Online research works both ways — use it to find out about your customer. Educate yourself about not only your customer’s industry, but their specific enterprise, everything from how long they’ve been in business to any special reporting or compliance issues that must be considered. According to the Forrester report, B2B buyers said that only 20 percent of meetings with salespeople focused on their specific needs. Learning as much as possible about the client in advance and formulating some ideas about where you can create value for them will make your first meeting much more productive.
And finally, even the consultative portion of the sales process can benefit from digital technology. Online contact is a precursor or supplement to, not a replacement for, personal contact. But in a digital environment, that personal contact doesn’t necessarily have to be in-person. Face-to-face meetings are great, but video conferencing can be effective, too. The more use you make of the technologies you’re promoting to your clients, the stronger the sales case you’ll be making. Stay in contact with email, messages and Twitter. No matter what method you use, keep in mind that the most important element in communicating with the client is listening. There’s no digital substitute for that.
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