Death for the Traveling Salesman

Cloud technologies and other Internet-based tech will make it unnecessary for sales reps to visit buyers for product demos and pitches. Pro or con?

Pro: Time Is Money

"Time is money." That aphorism is truer than ever—and is the biggest single reason traditional sales are dying.

With restricted budgets and extended sales cycles, the idea of selling over an afternoon round of golf and a three-martini lunch seems quaint to most modern professionals, like smoking jackets and finned automobiles. Successful businesses are those that cut costs and increase productivity, and technology has always been the path to that goal.

To that point, the traveling salesperson now looks more like a shut-in as businesses find new ways to sell products virtually, and themselves, reducing the often costly and time-consuming product trials and demo stages of the sales process. Consider what WebEx did for conference calls and product demos—many technology sales professionals today consciously minimize drive time and flight time, preferring Skype video conferences and webinars.

Now the same is being done for sales engineers via a new class of cloud technologies focused on IT as a service. Using the cloud for easy product demos, proof of concepts, and training, sales engineers radically increase productivity with cooperation from us prospective buyers—better an hour spent trying the product virtually than sitting through an in-person sales pitch on vaporware.

Combine the brutal, raw facts of today’s economic climate with the increasing sophistication of buyers, availability of comparative information on the Internet, and social tendencies toward a desire for immediate gratification on all fronts, and the demise of traditional sales seems clear. Long live virtual try and buy, because golf and sell is dead.

Con: Customers Buy Trust, Not Just Products

There will always be a place for the traditional, in-person sales call. It just looks a lot different today.

In this challenging economic climate, salespeople are pressured to close deals quickly, and competition is fierce. I know from my own experiences that the larger the customer investment, the more trust comes into play. And trust is still earned face-to-face.

What has changed is the nature of the in-person sales meeting. Given today’s premium on efficiency, both parties want to keep meetings focused and productive rather than linger over a long lunch. Today’s cloud-based technology and mobile devices are making these meetings more productive than ever by automating meeting preparation activities and the delivery of sale information to the customer in a compelling manner. The fact that sales people can still meet face-to-face but at the same time make the meeting an efficient one gives companies a distinct competitive advantage.

When meeting with a prospect, a salesperson no longer wants to waste time firing up his or her laptop and fiddling with the projector to give a canned PowerPoint presentation that could have been given just as effectively over a Web meeting system such as WebEx. Instead, the salesperson might pull out an iPad (AAPL) and using cloud-based technology, present a pitch using an interactive sales aid that is loaded with product information, demos, images, and videos that he or she can navigate through based on the conversation flow or even sign a contract on the spot using digital signature capture technology.

Companies know that customers are worth investing in, and that means face time. With the increased productivity made possible today by technological advancements, there is no reason to give up tried-and-true sales tactics and the personal touch for cost reasons. And in the end, you might still have time to squeeze in a quick round of golf.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg Businessweek, Businessweek.com, or Bloomberg LP.

Reader Comments

Nate Odell

Time is money, and I have to agree with Mr. Guterman. As stated, restricted budgets and prolonged more competitive sales cycles are forcing organizations to make better and smarter business decisions. With highly cost effective and time efficient cloud-based sales demo and POC solutions available such as Skytap (Skytap.com), companies can engage prospects and close more new business faster. Long gone are the days of wine me dine me. Embrace the cloud.

Peb

The less you personally touch your prospective customers, the lower your sales price will be. This may open up sales opportunities at certain price points, but overall, I think it means less revenue for the industry.

A typical SaaS company is tiny compared to a traditional software company like Oracle or SAP.

irv silverman

Biff and Willy Lohman would roll over in their graves if they were flies on the wall and viewing the "clouds" roll in that are currently roiling sales and marketing.

I will give you some observations and from the perspective of 30 years as a marketing executive, field sales person, and director of sales training, and organizational development.

Currently I am in the ivory tower of academia, but the facts are clear; companies have always wanted their sales persons to tell their particular story accurately and precisely as to performance, pricing, and delivery.

That is at the root of why C-suite executives and above are in love with technology,

How and when you tell the story is not relevant. What is relevant is that the story be told jut the way the CEO wants it to be told. That is it, and that will always be the bottom line.

IP Silver
Yangcheng Teachers University
Peoples Republic of China

P.A. Herbig

Technology will help, but it is the person to person, face to face interface that will close the deal. Trust is the key. You are agreeing to a relationship with people, not things. The higher the deal, the more it is essential that you know the people you are dealing with and what they are really like. No, technology is there to help clinch the deal, but it is the people on the ground that will sign the papers.

Tim Flowers

Technology is not the only thing being sold out there...but tech people seem to think it is. For the tens of thousands of business people buying produce, shelving, gasoline pumps, vehicle parts, copiers, kitchen equipment, and countless other things, an in-person demonstration from a trusted sales rep is still the way to go. No matter how big some of the online services (like WebEx) may seem, the fact is that the vast majority of businesses don't use them.

Bob Laskey

Frankly, having been both on the sell and buy side for initial sale (the trust initiating sale) I would not buy from a sales call over electronic media. After trust is built, then a media sales call will likely be effective.

Bill Odum

Modern technology has made it possible for sales and marketing people to increase their productivity, if they use it effectively. And, it is impossible to cover the vast array of products and services opportunities. Especially, in technical sales, a sales rep. can find out more about a company before an initial sales call, and perhaps more accurately target a decision maker, embed an e-mail with an introductory film clip, etc. Ultimately, as one goes up the value chain, the talented sales rep. who uses communication technology appropriately will be more successful than one that doesn't. Most have a favorite story of that chance call that resulted in a big order; technology can improve the odds.

sue

There is no substitute for talking to people face to face. An in-person meeting can't be clicked off like an online presentation.

Mats Karlsson

I find the cloud-based solutions to be complementary to the in-person, face-to-face interactions.

Call me old-fashioned, but I strongly believe that business relations are based on a common trust between people. Once the relationship is up and running, a lot can be done virtually, but make no mistake, the human relations, as imperfect and biased as they may be, play a huge part.

Allan L. Cerf

Both are correct. It is absolutely indisputable that not only is online 'everything,' displacing storefronts and outside sales calls, but we are all left wondering: "How is anybody ever going to make any money, again?" However, I digress.

The "con" side of the coin also has merit: Name one huge initial deal in business that was concluded without a face to face meeting at some level. Yeah, subsequent sales, possibly. No initial huge deal.

Pat Shaughnessy

Thought provoking post, thanks!

Today prospects can get most of the information they need without ever contacting sales. In fact, in the name of efficiency, many companies are trying to do more and more "selling" with online media.

Thankfully, until AI is reality, no amount of information will be able to replace a good sales person's ability to communicate with a prospect, react to what they say (and their body language), and to persuade them to buy.

Mike

A cloud-based presentation over the web is fine for lower-priced solutions, but once a deal goes enterprise wide, a face to face is still required and necessary.

Despite all the technology hype, people still purchase from vendors that they know and trust. The best way to quickly build that trust (for better or worse) is still face to face.

Gene

I've sold millions and millions to Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, Lowes, Costco and many, many others. In this industry more leverage has gone to the buyer every decade, particularly in their ability to buy directly in China and cut out the manufacturer who may have just outsourced 5 to 10 years earlier to China. This is in fact a new source of American unemployment--closed and shuttered import firms who thought it was smart to get out of manufacturing. The loss of interpersonal selling has been one of the more recent power shifts as these global retailers put their vendors through on-line reverse auctions and automated 'line' reviews. It then all comes down to price and terms and the product eventually becomes so cheap--it's almost unrecognizable to your parents. Take a look at household products that barely work with such lightweight plastics & anemic motors. Yuck, bring back the lunch and dinner schmooze and let's get it done.

JoeWil

It is almost impossible to get to know your client, talk to the people on the floor that modify your tools to be better for their applications, and see on site-bottlenecks that you can help resolve with a redesign of a product line.

If you're selling 20-lb bond paper, paperclips, or back office equipment, use a virtual meeting. If you're gaining the trust of an important client, or can customize a solution to assist them, nothing beats feet on the ground, eyes on the operation, and the trust developed from a face to face call.

Squeezebox

The art of selling is convincing the customer that your product will solve the problems that they didn't even realize that they had. If the customer knows what they need, they can go online, investigate the various products and buy the solution they want in the manner that they want. The salesman's job is to go around to potential customers and show them that the product they didn't know existed can improve their company's bottom line. Personal sales is about getting the customer's attention, and nothing gets it better than a free lunch!

sdlfkj

I think it depends on the product as to whether or not technology can completely displace the traditional salesman, and at the same time, technology will never be able to replicate the power and loyalty forged through the establishment of personal relationships created through face to face meetings. Loyalty matters

Ryan Mbita Silutongwe

I have to agree with Ped, Tim, and Adam, that making a physical sales call or physically going into the trade to prospects carries more weight than sending emails to prospects.

I have been in the FMCG industry for 7 years and you won't believe it, but I still have customers that I dealt with as far back as 5 years ago calling me--I--must have made some sort of impact.

Obviously times are changing. I'm for the idea of the two merging.

All Together

Face to face, face to face, face to face, let me say it one more time. Face to face! In person eye contact will give you an advantage over any cloud or Skype meeting. Clients in the US are yearning for people to meet them and present good ideas and not just send something over the Internet. When meeting in person it established trust and both sides can get a good feel if their future partnership is going to work. Not meeting face to face would be like meeting someone on an online dating site, talking on the phone a couple of times and then calling them your girlfriend or boyfriend before you met them in person.

Abubakar Mohamud

Remarkably these new internet-based technologies are doing well and have solved inevitable drowsiness, so perfect development is quite indispensible

Brett

The fact that we are having this debate should alert sales professionals of the coming movement to cloud type sales.

Remember: Where there is a bottom line there is a way.

Join the Debate

 

Participate More!

Please send us your ideas for new Debate Room topics. If you're an academic, association officer, or other industry expert and would like to write a Debate Room essay, send us a query. Questions? See the

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!