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Salespeople vs. the Internet: Who Is Winning?

When the Internet exploded onto the scene in the late 20th century, we heard confident predictions from many experts that sales forces would soon become extinct. Buyers would no longer need (nor want) salespeople to educate and inform them — the Internet would perform these functions instead. And smart executives would not continue to employ these expensive order takers — online order forms would do that job just fine.

I guess those arguments made sense at the time, because other roles inside the corporation had already been automated or eliminated by technology. Factory workers, switchboard operators, bookkeepers, administrative pools — they’d all been replaced to some degree by automation. So it seemed completely reasonable that sales forces, too, would meet such a fate. Cost-cutting and headcount reductions would surely reach the sales team. It was just a matter of time.

Well, unfortunately for the doomsday prognosticators that hasn’t actually happened.

I was recently doing some research with the Sales Education Foundation, and I came across some interesting statistics. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1999 there were 12,938,130 workers in sales and sales-related occupations the United States. Impressively, that number represented 10.2% of the total employed workforce.

In May of 2014 (the most recent data available), the BLS asserted that there were 14,248,470 such workers employed in the U.S. or 1,310,340 more than there were 15 years earlier. This total now accounts for 10.5% of the U.S. employed — a slight increase from 1999. Not only does the data not support a doomsday scenario for sales forces, salespeople are in fact holding their own in the workforce. So why has the Internet not replaced our salespeople?

Because the Internet never became a foe of the sales force. Ironically, it became one of the sales force’s dearest friends. Rather than reduce the power of salespeople, it made salespeople more powerful than before. Internet-enabled CRM allowed salespeople to sell more efficiently and effectively anywhere in the world. LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social networks gave sellers unprecedented insights about their customers and prospects. The Internet created an entire industry of sales enablement tools that never existed before. In the end, the Internet stood with the sales force, not against it.

But more fundamentally, the doomsday criers dramatically underestimated the resilience of the sales force. I would argue that sales is the most in-tune and dynamic function inside any company. It feels shifts in the landscape before other parts of the organization, and it reacts to the marketplace the best. It has the strongest motive to succeed, and it adapts to change the fastest. In retrospect, it was a little naive to think sales forces would battle technology rather than embrace it. Sales forces welcomed the Internet with open arms.

The Internet has changed our world more than other any other technology in the 21st century; however, it doesn’t look like it will replace our salespeople. Companies still need them, and customers still want them. It turns out that sales forces are more than just walking, talking brochures and order forms — they add a lot of value. So how will the relationship between the Internet and the sales force evolve over the next 15 years?  I’m not sure, but I bet it makes our sales forces even better than they are now.


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