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.