Are Sales People Still Necessary?

Within the last few years there has been an alarming number of business leaders who have made the bold declaration that soon sales people will be no longer needed.  They contend that because of the internet, the buying process has been transformed to such an extent that in the coming years sales people will not be required.

Now there is no denying that the internet has radically changed the selling landscape.  Buyers are conducting research about a company and the company’s product or service before ever interacting with a sales person.  There is also no doubt that technology has augmented a sales person’s activities and further blurred the lines between sales and marketing.  However, has technology actually negated the very role of a sales person to such an extent that the number of sales jobs will drastically shrink in the coming years?

This is no small matter because according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 1 out of every 9 people who is employed in the United States is in the profession of sales.[2]  Yet, is it true that sales jobs are on the decline?   Will many sales people be forced to transition into another line of work?  The answer is “No.”  I do not believe that within the coming years most sales jobs will be eliminated.  In fact, the evidence shows the contrary.  Jobs in sales are actually expected to increase.

Economists are predicting that jobs for sales managers and sales people will grow by 10% and 12% respectively, over the next 10 years.[3]  Likewise, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the need for sales positions are growing and that by the year 2020 there will be roughly two million more sales jobs then there are currently.[4] 

The notion that because of technology, sales people will no longer be necessary, may sound new and novel, but it is an idea that has been recycled numerous times over the last century.  For example, on June 18th, 1916 the New York Times published an article which posed the question, “Are salesman necessary?”[5]  The piece asserted that the railroad was turning “farms into cities” and this would negate the need for sales people.  In the 1930’s the technology of the telephone was so widespread that many business leaders affirmed that it would render the role of a sales person obsolete.  Even the famous 1949 play, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, predicts the demise of sales people when the lead character Willy Lowman states, “Selling is dead; there was respect, and courtship, and gratitude in it.  Today it’s all cut and dried.”[6]   In 1962, E.B. Weiss’s book The Vanishing Salesman asserted that sales people were costly and ineffective and that marketing would eliminate the need for them.[7]  Even in 2010, Neil Rackham, creator of SPIN Selling asserts that by 2015 the number of sales jobs will be reduced from 18 million to only 10 million.  In fact, with almost every new major advancement in technology, sales people have been promised that they will soon no longer be needed.  Although, it is apparent that this has never been the case because currently sales is the second largest occupation in the United States.[8] 

As vital as technology is, what is apparent, in both our present time and throughout history, is that it does not negate or lessen the need for sales people.  The reality is that information alone will rarely persuade a person to act.  Within the human decision making process, relational influence is a necessity.  There has been an ocean of research in the field of behavioral science that has confirmed that the persuasiveness of an appeal is enhanced when it is done through interpersonal relationships.[9] [10] [11] [12]  Sales people are necessary because they create the interpersonal relationships that inspire prospects to become customers. 

Furthermore, sales people are and will continue to be a business imperative because though prospects may form an initial opinion of a company or a product or service from information gleaned online, for larger purchases this information is insufficient to generate a positive buying decision.  Prospects will rarely make purchases based solely upon information provided over the internet, unless the product or service is a low priced, low risk item.  In higher priced, higher risk purchases, prospects need interaction with a sales person.  For example, the Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing published the outcome of a survey which asked prospects how the internet has changed their purchasing behaviors.  The survey showed that prospects still consider sales people a more significant source of information than the internet.[13]   The Harvard Business Review also published the results of surveys which examined the buying behaviors of over 100,000 prospects.[14]  These surveys revealed that often a decision to purchase is based not on the features, quality or even price of a product or service, but upon the sales person.  Consequently, sales people are indispensable.   

In today’s technologically advanced, hyper-competitive marketplace highly skilled sales people are essential.  Yet, technology is also something that a sales person cannot ignore.  It is where prospects are going to find out information about a company, a product or service and even a sales person.  It can also speed up sales cycles, improve lead generation and provide in-depth, relevant information about prospects that will facilitate effective selling.  Nevertheless, people still buy from people.  The danger with any new technology is that sales people will either blindly ignore it or recklessly embrace it to such an extreme that they neglect the human element in selling.  Both options, though widespread, are ultimately unproductive.  As Harvard Business School’s Ben Shapiro and John J. Sviokla aptly wrote, “Despite the tremendous contributions of information and communications technology, selling is still largely a function of interpersonal relations, which are guided by the artful ability to recognize motivations, needs, and perceptions.”[15] 

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[1] Gerhard Gschwandtner.  Six Reasons “Sales 2.0” Will Grow Your Business.  Selling Power Blog, March 17, 2001.
[2] C. Brett Lockard and Michael Wolf.  “Occupational Employment Projections to 2020.”  Monthly Labor Review, 135, no. 1, January, 2012.  p. 89.
[3] Donna Rosato, Beth Braverman and Alexis Jeffries.  “The 50 Best Jobs in America,”  Money Magazine, November, 2009.  p. 93.
[4] C. Brett Lockard and Michael Wolf.  “Occupational Employment Projections to 2020.”  Monthly Labor Review, 135, no. 1, January, 2012.  p. 89.
[5] New York Times, June 18, 1916.  p. E8.
[6] Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (New York: The Viking Press, 1949, p. 81.
[7] E.B. Weiss.  The Vanishing Salesman.  (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1962).
[8] C. Brett Lockard and Michael Wolf.  “Occupational Employment Projections to 2020.”  Monthly Labor Review, 135, no. 1, January, 2012.  p. 89.
[9] J. Wenburg and W. Wilmot.  The Personal Communication Process.  (New York:  John Wiley & Sons, 1973).
[10] J.S. Seiter.  “Ingratiation and gratuity:  The effect of complimenting customers on tipping behavior in restaurants.”  Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37, 2007.  p. 487 – 485.
[11] J. M. Burger, S. Soroka, K. Gonzago , E. Murphy and E. Somervell.  “The effect of fleeting attraction on compliance to requests.”  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 2001.  p. 1578 – 1586.
[12] Jonathan K. Frenzen and Harry L. Davis.  “Purchasing Behavior in Embedded Markets.” Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 17, 1990.  p. 1 – 12.
[13] Dawn R. Deeter-Schmelz and Karen N. Kennedy.  “Buyer-Seller Relationships and Information Source in E-Commerce World.”  Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing 19, no 3, 2004.  p. 188 – 201.
[14] Suzanne Fogel, David Hoffmeister, Richard Rocco and Daniel P. Struck.  “Teaching Sales.”  Harvard Business Review, July – August, 2012.  p. 94.
[15] Benson P. Shapiro and John J. Sviokla.  Seeking Customers.  (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 1993).  p. 6.