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Inside the modern salesforce

Updated Monday 12th October 2009

Sales reps are a relic of yesteryear. In their place a smaller, more important, sales force has arisen.

In this week’s The Bottom Line, there was a lot of talk about the demise of the traditional salesperson and how they’ve become obsolete in our online, low-cost world. And there’s a lot of truth in that. In my “civilian” life as a consumer, I rarely deal with salespeople these days. In the past week, I’ve bought a holiday, books, insurance, baby clothes and a DVD, all without even speaking to a living soul. Like many others I find that convenient, cheap and, whilst I might miss some human contact, I don’t miss the traffic jams or the surly young man who doesn’t even know how to smile or make eye-contact when I give him my money.

But in my working life, as a management researcher looking at how firms create and implement strategies, it’s a different story. In particular, B2B (that is, business-to-business) selling is very different from B2C (business-to-consumer) selling. That’s not to say the traditional salesperson has been left untouched by the tsunami of web-based innovation. The firms I study are keen, where they can, to reduce the numbers of costly and, let’s be honest, often hard to manage road-warriors who burn expenses and are often inflexible. Because of these drawbacks, they’ve shed their traditional “order-takers” and replaced them with call-centres and on-line channels, just like in the consumer world.

What’s left, in many B2B sales operations, is a small, better paid and more important sales force. In particular, those salespeople who survived the shake-out now tend to have different titles (almost no-one is called a ‘sales rep’ these days) and have different roles. There are three of these new, super-salesperson roles worth mentioning here.

The first is the technical specialist. Many products that companies or organisations buy are very technically complex. IT, pharmaceuticals and capital equipment are obvious examples, but lots of outsourced services, like maintaining the buildings and recruitment, are more complex than you might think. In these cases, the old-fashioned salesperson has never had much of a role.

Technical specialists have the job of selling these complex products and services and to do it well they need to be well-educated, well trained and at least as much as a consultant as they are a sales rep. These people aren’t under threat of replacement by a website or a call centre and in fact most companies have trouble getting enough good technical specialists. To quote one executive I met “Getting geeks is easy; getting reps is easy; getting geeks who can sell is very hard.”

The second species of salesperson for the modern world is the key account manager or KAM. As is the way of things, companies sometimes re-label ordinary reps with this grand title in order to make them feel more important, but a real KAM is a very different beast. Their task is to make sure large, profitable accounts stay that way in the long run. They spend little of their time actually selling and most of it as a sort of project manager or, as one KAM told me, an orchestra conductor.

In key account selling, contact between buyer and seller is complicated. Our techies talk to their techies, our lawyers speak to their lawyers, our accountants speak to theirs and so on. The job of the KAM is to make sure this happens, that nothing falls through the cracks and that the customer remains happy and a source not just of profit but of market knowledge too. This takes a very different skill set from old-fashioned selling and many more reps aspire to KAM than can actually do it. Like technical specialists, good KAMs are worth their weight in gold.

The final species of super-evolved salesperson is less common and found in markets that are technical and where the buying process is complex. In this sort of market, certain customers become experts and influence the rest of the market. In pharmaceuticals, for example, these might be professors in medical schools. In corporate IT, the IT directors of big multinationals fulfil this role. The industry jargon for these influencers is Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs) and the über-reps that work with them are typically called KOL managers.

Their job begins like a technical specialist, persuading the KOL that their product is best through a very detailed scientific sell. But the KOL manager isn’t measured by his sales figures. Their goal is influence and success is measured by getting the KOL to publish, speak and otherwise endorse the product so that the more mainstream customers will follow. Like the other two kinds of advanced salespeople, good KOL managers are priceless. This is especially true since KOL management is often a team task and a good KOL manager has to combine the technical skills of a specialist and the management skills of a KAM.

So, as with many things in management, the picture is more complex than the headline. The traditional salesperson is fast becoming obsolete, but there’s more to it than that. The best salespeople have become specialists, KAMs and KOL managers. In doing so, they’ve become more important, better paid and much more employable.

Further reading

An introduction to business studies

Myth, reality and requirements in pharmaceutical Key Account Management
by Brian D Smith
in Journal of Medical Marketing 2009

An Exploratory Study of Key Opinion Leadership Management Trends amongst European Pharmaceutical Companies
by Brian D Smith
in Journal of Medical Marketing 2009


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