Are outside salespeople obsolete?


One of my clients recently asked me: “Are outside salespeople obsolete?” He is the CEO of a distributor that specializes in automation equipment. He had just lost three field salespeople and was thinking about replacing them.

“What kind of person should I look for,” he asked, “in light of the recent and radical changes in the economy?”

While his need for a solution was urgent, the question he asked is one that every B2B sales leader should be asking in the next few months.

For generations, outside salespeople thrived on face-to-face relationships. Their approach to the job was to get in the car and go see people. The world is full of businesses that have grown on that sales model.

For the last couple of decades, however, there has been a trend to enhance the role of the inside salesperson to complement and, in some cases, supplant that of the outside salesperson. Leading companies have been involved in slowly making these changes for some time. And, while the trend has been to move authority and accountability from outside to in, very few companies saw that as an all-or-nothing strategy. It was generally seen as an incremental approach, and almost no one considered that the function of the outside salesperson might be done away with completely.

Until recently.

The COVID lockdown has turned the world of outside salespeople upside down. All at once, field salespeople found themselves locked out of their customers’ buildings. They couldn’t see their customers face-to-face. Those who were resourceful fell back on the phone and embraced video technology to attempt to stay in contact with their customers. They discovered that they needed to acquire an almost entirely new skillset, with new rules and new processes.

Now, the shock is over, and the new reality is settling on the world of B2B sales like a fog rolling in from the ocean. The new reality contains these elements:

Both sides of the sale — salespeople and customers — have discovered that phone and video technology is far more efficient than face-to-face live visits. The economics of the equation are unassailable. The typical outside sales call costs a company somewhere between $150-$300 per call, whereas the typical inside, proactive phone call costs a fraction of that — about $5.

A decades-long trend has just accelerated. There has been a trend for purchasers to make decisions on the basis of internet information without a live sales visit. Fifteen years ago, for example, one survey reported that 70% of surveyed purchasers said they would rather have a good catalogue and knowledgeable inside contact than a traditional outside salesperson. That tendency has been around of a long time, but now it has been given a figurative shot of steroids.

A certain percentage of purchasers are going to insist on remote technology use by their vendor’s salesperson as a means of adding efficiencies to the buying process in two ways: reductions of time spent during a sales call and communicating with fewer salespeople.

In remote technology (phone and video), the initiator of the call must be far more organized and on point than what was traditionally expected in a live sales call. While it was always a practice of the best to be organized and prepared for a sales call, in many industries the salespeople could “wing it” and use their “thinking on their feet skills” to finesse a sales call with little preparation. Those days are done.

Add all this up and you’ve got to ask, “Is the traditional role of the outside salesperson obsolete?” In some industries, yes. In others less so.

Here are three variables that will make the difference:

Size of the purchase. Specifically, where the purchase is a big-ticket item, the chances of the purchaser making that decision without a live relationship with the seller is less likely. Where the purchase decision is smaller, the likelihood of a salesperson-less decision is far greater.

Intricacy of the sales process. Where the sales process is involved and complex, the role of the live outside salesperson will continue to be required. Where the sales process is simple and straightforward, field salespeople will not be necessary.

So, take for example, an automotive manufacturer deciding on the vendor for a couple of components to a new automobile. Lots of engineers must sign off on the deal, as do multiple levels of purchasing people. It is an involved, heavily hands-on buying process. While the cost of the individual item may be pennies, the risk of making a mistake is huge, and purchasers reduce the risk with multiple layers of buying requirements.

Sophistication of the customer. This one works in the opposite direction. Where the customer is sophisticated the likelihood of them utilizing a vendor’s field salesperson is less likely. Where the customer is less sophisticated, the likelihood of a field salesperson being a necessary part of the buying decision is enhanced.

The bottom line is this: There are very few absolute answers. It is a matter of degree. The degree to which your field salesforce is obsolete depends on your customers.

So, if your customer is relatively unsophisticated, your product is relatively expensive, and your sales process more involved, your outside salespeople will probably only feel some pressure to do more of their work — rather than all of it — remotely.

If, however, your customer is relatively sophisticated, your product relatively inexpensive, and your sales process simpler, your traditional outside salespeople are probably obsolete.

A caveat

Most of the discussion above assumes a prior relationship with your customers. What about the circumstances where you must regularly acquire new customers? This throws a monkey wrench into the works.

While the three criteria mentioned above remain operational, the difficulty of the sales task is multiplied when you must sell to people who don’t know you.

Whereas before you could rely on field salespeople to prospect and create relationships, that is less likely to happen in the new environment. This can be huge — a make-or-break challenge for many companies that relied on the proactive field salesperson to unearth new customers. The companies that successfully meet this challenge will understand that they must develop a new approach to customer acquisition.

They’ll need to re-think customer acquisition and develop systems that make heavy use of electronic communications, borrowing from the models developed in many of the B2C sales models. It will no longer be the individual’s responsibility to acquire new customers. Instead, the newly designed system will do it.

Where does this leave sales leaders?

Honestly, it is one of the biggest challenges of your career. You will not survive if you defend the status quo in the face of transformational change in your industry. Allowing a change-resistant salesforce to influence your approach will be a ticket to market irrelevance. It is time to step up and lead. Here’s a recommended game plan:

  1. Analyze your selling situation in light of your customers. What do they want from vendors like you?
  2. Based on that information, envision a tentative role for the outside salesperson. You may find that they should become hybrid combinations of inside and outside sales: spending four days a week working remotely from a home office, for example, and one day actually seeing people who want to see them. You may find that a good percentage of the customers can be efficiently serviced by a competent inside salesperson. You may find that some may need to transition 100% from outside to inside, while others will not adjust to the new selling requirements.
  3. Create a new set of expectations for the salespeople. Whereas before you might have expected 20 sales calls per week, now you may expect 20 per half-day!
  4. Train them in the new skills and competencies they’ll need to survive and thrive and meet your expectations. A lot of salespeople will need to be more organized, better prepared and more disciplined.
  5. Measure your progress, understanding that you may have missed the mark and must make significant changes to some of the new things you just put into place. Flexibility informed by objective measurements will be the key. Keep a close eye on the salespeople who are transitioning from one role to another. Many may not make the transition. The sooner you can uncover that and fix it, the better for both you and the salesperson involved.

For 20 years, when asked about the future of the outside salesperson, I always replied, “Fewer and better.” That future scenario is here.

The question of the role of the outside salesperson may present you with the biggest challenge of your career. It is time to lead in ways that you never had before. The future is yours to create.

Dave Kahle is an author, consultant and speaker who has presented in 47 states and 11 countries, improved the performance of thousands of B2B salespeople and authored 13 books. Receive his insights on a regular basis here:

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