The future of your sales force

Are sales reps in the channel going the same way of the door-to-door encyclopedia salesman? (123RF)

Online sales platforms have made procurement and order fulfilment infinitely faster, simpler and cheaper for consumers and B2B customers alike. What does this mean for resellers and their sales teams?

Distributors and channel partners have been evolving their models since the arrival of the cloud, so the move to automated sales and self-service comes as no real shock. Cloud solutions drove box-droppers to become service and solutions providers, and self service online ordering systems are turning sales reps into consultants. For those able to adapt, this is good news. For those locked in the traditional box-dropping and targets approach, it’s not.

Across the world, traditional sales forces are being cut. Microsoft recently confirmed internal restructuring of its sales team, with media reports claiming the company would shed between 3 000 to 5 000 jobs. The sales job cuts aren’t just in ICT, though: US-based mobile advertising firm AdColony recently laid off around 100 employees in favour of automated ad sales; cereal maker Kellogg’s is reported to be cutting thousands of jobs – including 1 500 sales reps; pharmaceutical houses such as Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca are terminating scores of sales positions in some countries; and retailers around the world are looking to online sales, mobile apps and self service kiosks to reduce the salary burden of shop assistants and sales people.

In contrast, the CareerJunction Index, monitoring supply and demand in the online labour market in South Africa, reports that while hiring efforts slowed 20% year on year in the ICT sector, sales reps and consultants are currently among the most wanted skills in the country. The report says: “Job
advertising for sales representatives and sales consultants peaked in June 2017. During the first half of 2017, demand strengthened by over 70%. The job market remains competitive for this sector. Salary offerings increased significantly over the last year for travel agents (18% – 23%), telesales and telemarketing consultants (18% – 48%) and sales managers (up to 28%) and decreased significantly for account managers ( -40%).”

Win or lose depends on the sector

For FMCG and simple items, consumers are flocking online to cut middlemen out of the sales process. But in complex B2B and IT arenas, sales won’t die, it will just change shape, says Simon Campbell-Young, CEO, Intact Software Distribution. “From a product distribution perspective, self-fulfilment is certainly the next big thing,” he says. “Entire business models will move online, so channel resellers will buy online. Our organisation is moving online at the moment, with plans to roll out ordering platforms across all our African markets. Online sales platforms give our resellers their own logons where they can manage their orders, view credit limits and so on, and they have the convenience of ordering out of office hours. For us, it gives more reach and quicker access to business, so it’s essentially driving this part of the business away from sales.”

But Campbell-Young says this isn’t all bad news: “What it means is sales can now upskill to drive new business. So they don’t need to grind out routine orders all day; they can focus on new products and drive new business.”

Rather than driving sales reps out of a job, new solutions can actually help them become more effective: for example, advanced CRM tools and mobile stock management systems help reps target prospective clients, close deals and deliver more efficiently.

Sales gets sophisticated

Changing procurement technologies and an increasingly tech-savvy customer base means sales representatives will need more advanced skills, says Campbell-Young. He sees growing demand for in-depth problem-solving ability and technology know-how from company representatives making sales
calls. “Sales is a skill not everyone has, and not everyone enjoys it. But as the industry becomes more sophisticated, there’s a requirement for more sophisticated people to come into the sales role. Interestingly, when technical people get their heads around it, they make the best sales people in this new environment. When they talk passionately, with knowledge and expertise, and they understand how the technology will meet the customer’s requirements, they make a compelling sales case.”

Finding skilled and experienced technical staff, who understand a customer’s business need and can identify technologies to address that need isn’t always easy. However, Campbell-Young believes there will be a strong demand for these high-level skills to represent companies and close deals in the future.

“We think there’s significant potential for high-level, skilled ‘guns for hire’ in the ICT sector. Their skills are rare and expensive, so most companies don’t have them on their books. But there are latent skills for hire across the continent,” he says.

Networks and knowledge still crucial

Fortinet, currently expanding across Africa, believes local networks and market knowledge is invaluable in the sales process and has actively sought sales reps in its new markets. “Understanding local conditions is crucial, so our model is to hire ‘direct touch’ local staff to represent us,” says Paul Williams, country manager: Southern Africa at Fortinet.

Pan-African markets are still renowned for their dependence on ‘who you know’, and companies expanding across the continent can’t simply roll out online
ordering and expect sales to soar. They need representatives who are knowledgeable and connected to the right people to close the deals. In some cases, this can mean months of wining, dining and demonstrations before a major deal is concluded.

IT solutions aren’t like stationery, where a one-click order will suffice, Williams notes. IT solutions are typically complex, they must meet unique business requirements, and they must be configured to integrate into the overall ecosystem. It takes an expert consultant to identify the need, recommend and demonstrate the appropriate solution, and illustrate its return on investment.

“The personal touch and technical skills are crucial when you’re selling something as complex as security. It’s not a thing you can sell over the phone,” says Williams.

“Customers often don’t know what they need, or they want to make comparisons. You need to build trust, develop documentation and design solutions that work for them. You need the sales skills to be able to identify the four sales role-players within the organisation – the ‘supporters’, ‘strategists’, ‘gatekeepers’ and ‘assassins’ who can make or break the deal. And you need the technical competency to become a trusted advisor.”

Harnessed correctly, online methods won’t kill off your sales force, but should be used to augment them in more complex solution sales. Just be sure you have the skilled sales force in place that can benefit from the complementary tools.

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