Are Outside Sales Reps Obsolete?

Are Sales Reps Obsolete?Customers in the U.S. bought $197.3 billion (USD) of goods and services online in 2011.

Web-based marketing generates qualified leads that funnel down to squeeze pages that convert into sales. Internet marketers are data driven and can use live chat, phone and web meetings to seal the deal.

So, what value does an outside sales rep bring that can’t be done more efficiently, remotely with live chat, phone, video conferencing and web meetings? Are outside sales reps obsolete?

I’ve just started a discussion in the open group Sales Best Practices at LinkedIn. Go over and post up your thoughts but then come back here. There’s a key takeaway at the bottom of this post that’s not in my LinkedIn discussion.

Trick Question

Outside sales reps are not obsolete but as we’ve taken it for granted, we’ve likely forgotten the reasons why they are needed.

To answer the “obsolete” question we’re forced to figure out what sales reps really do. And that knowledge helps us get better at selling.

Any answer must first and only focus on the customer; what do they get out of it? Not a justification that sales reps need a job (they do) or income (they do), but how sales reps add value to customers’ buying.

5 Reasons Outside Reps are Not Obsolete

Here are five reasons why reps won’t have to look for a new career. These are mine but feel free to post your comments at our blog, or here at  the discussion open group at LinkedIn.

Outside Sales Reps are needed when Customers…

#1) Fear making a buying mistake

When customers buy something expensive or important, they worry they will make a mistake and buy the wrong thing, blow their money and look stupid. This fear exists even with 100% money-back, no-questions-asked guarantees.

Customers look for emotional hand-holding and reassurance they’re making the right decision. This is true buying a house, a car and even more true when buying large complex B2B purchases. Even though Procurement can use online auctions and buying services, most customers don’t “feel” right unless they’re buying through a human element on the sell side.

#2) Don’t know what they need

When customers buy highly customized solutions, they often know the outcomes they want but not how to put the solution together.

That’s when they call in the experts, who should be the outside sales reps. In this function, sales reps do the fact finding, due diligence and analysis that only Subject Matter Experts can perform. They help design the solution, then present it in the sales presentation.

However, when Procurement believes it can capture all the solution’s specifications in a Statement of Work (SOW), they feel free to buy through online auctions and leave outside sales reps out in the cold.

#3) Didn’t know they had a need

Some customers just don’t know they have a problem. It’s not uncommon. Outside sales reps can help customers become aware of industry trends that are, or will affect them. They can also lead customers through benchmarking comparisons or review performance data and find areas that customers want fixed or at the least improved.

#4) Can’t buy online

When customers can’t get what they want online, like an ice cream cone, there’s got to be someone to sell it to them.

#5) Can’t access the web

There are some customers without Internet access, as in rural areas of developing countries.

Key Takeaway: It’s the Emotion Thing, Again

The one thing that jumps out from these five reasons is this: Customers buy on emotion. They need a human connection to overcome their innate fears, to feel good about their choices and champion their decision to others.

All the other reasons on the list above can, and will eventually, be performed online. That new web selling will be focused on larger purchases and will include a longer marketing-to-sales process, and it will incorporate more high-touch, live interactions through video conferencing and web meetings.

In that not too distant future outside sales reps will still be around, holding hands, cheer-leading, coaching and leading customers through the emotional side of buying that can never be replaced by technology.

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