From Glengarry Glen Ross to Mad Men, we have a media image of sales as requiring a (macho) mix of improvisation, flair, bravado, and gut instincts.
Now that analytics is increasingly taking the guesswork out of the marketing cycle and encouraging data-based decision making, we're continually being told that the salesperson is on the verge of extinction. Just yesterday, I learned from Slashdot not only that the salesman is dead, but that "the geeks" killed him.
The argument is familiar enough:
Traditionally, salespeople identify potential prospects and induce them into consuming a particular item or service. As social networking evolves, it's become a lot easier to apply analytics software to the treasure trove of Big Data repositories in a way that not only improves the identification of potential customers, but also what the latter will actually buy.
Prospective customers, identified by analytics, can be passed directly to customer service representatives. The traditional role of transforming leads into customers dwindles to insignificance.
Now, it's certainly the case that smooth-talking Willy Lomans and Don Drapers have had their day. The connected customer has unprecedented access to independent information about products and services, and is not easily going to be bamboozled on his or her virtual doorstep by an old-school sales spiel.
Nevertheless, traditional sales skills will survive the big-data storm, but appropriately transformed. If anything, the granular knowledge of customers that analytics provides leaves salespeople better equipped -- not just to understand and service customers' current needs, but to predict future consumer behavior.
In fact, as IBM corporate marketing authority John Kennedy says in this video, analytics actually enhances the possibility of salespeople encountering customers as individuals rather than as representatives of defined market segments.
Far from creating an automated marketing cycle in which accurate data simply triggers sales, analytics (together with the social network) should actually be promoting one-on-one engagement between vendor and consumer. Here's where the transformation, rather than the elimination, of the sales role will occur.
Informed consumers will no longer be treated as prospective leads, but as stakeholders engaged with the brand. The "always be closing" mantra will be replaced by "always be engaging." And who better than skilled, but refocused, sales staff to carry on this conversation?
Indeed, conversation -- in all its forms -- is what consumers will increasingly demand; and that's as true for the B2B space as for B2C. If anything is dead, it's not the salesman, it's the sales pitch.