strategy+business is published by PwC Strategy& LLC.
or, sign in with:
strategy and business
 / Autumn 2009 / Issue 56(originally published by Booz & Company)


Selling Gets Complex

The Internet, technology, and globalization have changed this age-old game for good.

As a human behavior, selling probably predates recorded history. Anthropologists have noted bartering behavior among nonliterate cultures and even among non-human primates. And as a fundamental mechanism of exchange, selling has naturally become as sophisticated and complex as business itself.

Biologists often describe evolution as a process that occurs in bursts, followed by long periods of calm. That’s certainly true of selling’s changes over the years. Sales behavior, and its prerequisites, can remain static for decades, and then undergo explosive change — usually in response to new technology.

The last great transformation was driven by the telephone, which turned selling from an episodic activity (conducted via letters and face-to-face meetings) into one that involved an ongoing relationship of constant availability with customers. In response, sales professionals were forced to master new skills, like repetitive cold calling and the building of rapport without the comforting presence of a smile and a handshake.

More recently, globalization, the rise of outsourcing, and the Internet — along with a wealth of sales technology tools for generating leads, developing opportunities, and closing deals — have created another, perhaps even more profound, evolutionary leap in professional selling. As a result of the explosion of information and complexity, sales professionals today must help their customers understand and solve problems. This in turn requires a deep comprehension of a customer’s core business issues. Sales professionals must also possess the technological savvy needed to creatively and appropriately use new tools to streamline the sales process and generate profitable transactions.

The Myth of Disintermediation

As recently as a decade ago, sales reps were primarily responsible for the delivery of product information. They spent much of their time traveling to meet their customers, and sales calls involved showing the latest brochure and delivering a presentation that explained the benefits of the product and the advantages of doing business with the salesperson’s company.

The Internet made that “information delivery” role almost entirely obsolete and, in the process, eliminated the need for a salesperson when the product was a commodity that could easily be purchased from more than one vendor. Now, customers can retrieve product information effortlessly, and they can also order, check delivery status, contact customer support, and so forth — all activities that once were within the sales rep’s bailiwick.

The Internet replaced so many traditional sales functions that pundits initially predicted it would “disintermediate” sales, leaving millions of salespeople out of work. Some sales jobs, including many in the travel industry and consumer electronics, did disappear. But in most cases, they did not. Instead, the sales function has become even more important, especially in business-to-business markets, for two reasons.

First, the wealth of information available online creates what social psychologists call the “tyranny of choice.” Too much information makes buying decisions more difficult, particularly when the product or service being purchased is sophisticated or has business implications that require a certain amount of ex­perience to understand. For ex­ample, many business owners would happily order office furniture on­line, but would balk at purchasing enterprise software the same way.

Second, the Internet stimulated globalization and outsourcing, making companies more interdependent. In times past, companies achieved economies of scale by ex­panding the number and scope of the functions that they performed. Problems were solved, and challenges met, internally. Companies today are more likely to achieve economies of scale by defining and refining their core competencies and shedding activities that can be more easily and cheaply accomplished elsewhere.

Thus, companies are now more apt to rely on other firms to perform processes and tasks for them, and it is essential that they make sound decisions when they contract these services.

Follow Us 
Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google Plus YouTube RSS strategy+business Digital and Mobile products App Store


Selling Resources
Works mentioned in this review.

  1. Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon and Schuster, 1936), 288 pages
  2. Walter A. Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America (Harvard University Press, 2004), 368 pages
  3. David Mamet (screenplay), Glengarry Glen Ross (Lionsgate, 1992), 100 minutes
  4. Neil Rackham, SPIN Selling (McGraw-Hill, 1988), 197 pages
  5. Anneke Seley and Brent Holloway, Sales 2.0: Improve Business Results Using Innovative Sales Practices and Technology (Wiley, 2008), 256 pages
  6. Howard Stevens and Theodore Kinni, Achieve Sales Excellence: The 7 Customer Rules for Becoming the New Sales Professional (Platinum Press, 2007), 236 pages
  7. Jeff Thull, Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes Are High! (Wiley, 2003), 220 pages
  8. The University Sales Education Foundation
Sign up to receive s+b newsletters and get a FREE Strategy eBook

You will initially receive up to two newsletters/week. You can unsubscribe from any newsletter by using the link found in each newsletter.