Big Lie: The Web Makes Selling Obsolete

Last Updated Jun 14, 2011 2:46 PM EDT

Every few days, I run across yet another article declaring that the Internet makes sales reps obsolete. The argument goes like this: because customers are able to configure and order products, and manage the shipment of those products, across the web, there's no need for a human being to perform the selling function.

According to the theory, all products and services will be purchased across the Internet, with the customer driving the process. As a result, the only differentiator between products and services will be price, making a sales professional unnecessary and irrelevant.

It's a big lie.

What's actually happening is that the Internet is creating MORE sales jobs, even inside industries where purchasing takes place across the Internet.

Take the airline industry, for example. It once provided employment for tens of thousands of travel agents, whose main responsibility was booking airline tickets. Today, of course, most people make their reservations directly online, eliminating the need for a human being to provide that function.

You'd think there would be little or no demand for travel agents. But you'd think wrong. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

"The ease of Internet use and the ready availability of travel and airline Web sites that allow people to research and plan their own trips, make their own reservations, and purchase their own tickets will result in less demand for travel agents for routine travel arrangements. However, as more travelers take exotic and customized trips, the demand for some of the specialized services offered by travel agents will grow. Additionally, the increasing number of international visitors to the United States represents a growing market for travel agents who organize and sell tours to these international visitors."
Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition
In other words, the Internet, rather than eliminating the job of the travel agent, has simply forced the function upwards to a higher level. As a result, the new breed of travel agents command higher salaries than the travel agents of the past.

Something similar happened in the computer industry.

Needless to say, a wide variety of computer hardware, software and services are available across the Internet and customers can find whatever basic computer products they want for the lowest price possible. However, the easily availability of the component parts of computer system, far from eliminating the need for sales professionals, has created an enormous demand for higher-level sales activity.

Because basic computers power became so cheap, companies discovered they could use that power in ever-more-complex and interesting ways. Doing so, however, typically requires expertise that the company itself did not current have, or lacked the ability (or interest) to go out and obtain.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of sales professionals in the computer industry. However, rather than selling the basic product, they are managing complex projects that often combine multiple hardware and software technologies, bringing together the capabilities of multiple companies to satisfy customer requirements, and so forth.

There is even a lingering demand for sales professionals to sell commodity products, simply because not every customer is willing to sort through the options available to make the right decision.

The problem, from the perspective of the customer, lies what social psychologists call the "tyranny of choice." In the 2004 book "The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less" author Barry Schwartz argues that too many choices can create buyer anxiety and actually make a purchase less likely. "Though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically," he writes.

Seeing a wealth of choices for every single purchase that a company makes can easily be seen as a liability when once considers the other changes that have taken place, particularly in the pace at which business takes place.

It's easy to imagine that, after a while, harried decision-makers would begin to feel that they're wasting their time trolling around on Internet sites to look for a bargain, when they could simply call an expert (i.e. a sales professional) and just have him or her "take care of it all."

Even though the airline industry and the computer industry could not be more different, there a striking similarities between what happened in terms of how their products and services are sold. The sales effort, which originally consisted of direct sales of all classes of products, bifurcated into two very different sales models.

On the low end, selling becomes transactional, with the Internet providing the capability for customers to purchase directly, with the presence of inside sales personnel (i.e. sales support) to handle cases where customers are unable to transact business purely online.

By contrast, on the high end, selling becomes solution-oriented, where the sales professional takes the basic elements sold at the low end (e.g. tickets or PCs) and combines them into a something that unique addresses the buyer's individual needs.

In short, the Internet has been a huge boon for the sales profession. While it's eliminated some of the control that sales professionals once had over the distribution of information, it's created an environment where a talent sales professional can add value in ways that were once impossible.

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