The Sales Rep is Dead; Long Live the Sales Pro.

Last Updated Jun 28, 2007 2:32 PM EDT

For years, American businesses have treated sales pros as second-class citizens. That's about to end, though, because in the future that's rapidly approaching, solution selling will become the soul of B2B commerce. And that's good news for the selling profession. Let me explain:

The Internet transforms any product or service that can be commoditized into a commodity. Time was that people went to a commissioned sales rep to buy a television or a stereo. No longer. People do their own research online and either buy from a local warehouse or simply get the product drop-shipped. People are even buying automobiles and houses that way, armed with knowledge that used to be proprietary, like the wholesale price of the car and comparative house sales in the target neighborhood.

The same is true of B2B goods and services. It's now incredibly easy, for example, to rent office space, office furniture, office equipment, computers, telephone service, etc., etc. online, without ever speaking to a commissioned sales rep from any of the firms that provide those products and services. There are very few B2B products and services that aren't edging towards becoming commodities.

From the standpoint of the traditional B2B sales rep, commoditization has been a disaster, lowering commissions and eliminating jobs. But from the standpoint of a B2B sales pro, however, the situation couldn't be better. That's because sales reps and sales pros aren't the same at all. A sales rep sells products. A sales pro sells solutions.

While the Internet gives companies the power to purchase B2B commodities, most executives realize that there's overhead connected with putting those commodities together in ways that can help a companies be more successful. At the same time, executives have learned that it's more efficient to outsource everything that isn't part of a company's core competence. So while the Internet turns products into commodities (thereby making sales reps obsolete), it also creates a demand for solution building (thereby making sales pros essential.)

For example, while a CEO is well aware that he (or someone else in the firm) could use the Internet to order all that office space, office furniture, etc., actually setting up a new facility (and making sure all those products work together) would require a major investment in management time and effort. If smart, that CEO would much prefer to hand that function over to somebody else (i.e. a sales pro) who can be trusted to ensure that everything happens on time and on budget. And that CEO is more than willing to pay a premium over the cost of the various products in order to get that "solution."

In other words, solution selling by sales pros is rapidly replacing product selling by sales reps. And that will eventually and inevitably change the way that people outside of sales view the sales function.

Consider: the main reason that sales reps were held in disrepute is that they were basically overhead -- middlemen involved in the sale process purely because they had privileged access to a specialized knowledge (like the price book).

Sales pros, on the other hand, reduce and eliminate overhead. By creating a solution and owning the result, a sales pro allows customers to avoid investing in areas where they'll be inherently inefficient. Companies can thus remain smaller, stay focused, and stay profitable - all because they can depend upon a sales pro to take responsibility for that segment of their business. In other words, sales pros add major value; sales reps didn't.

It's only a matter of time before non-sales personnel begin to realize that, both inside and outside their own firm, they're no longer dealing with sales reps, but with sales pros.

And that brings me to my previous post about dealing with internal idiots who block sales. My advice: give them a couple of years. Eventually even the most clueless "sales prevention police" will figure out that sales pros are the only reason that any firm, anywhere, can still make money on a B2B transaction in a highly commoditized global economy.