The future of the outside sales representative
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the way distributors sell. This disruption has most profoundly affected the functioning of external sales representatives (OSRs): Over 90% of B2B companies have moved to a virtual or hybrid sales model, according to a recent McKinsey report. This raises a difficult question: do OSRs have a future in distribution?
Being “prematurely” removed from the field is the best thing that could have happened to OSR. In recent years, inside sales reps (ISRs) have eclipsed these traveling sales reps. However, this massive market disruption gives distributors an opportunity to reinvent the OSR workflow and toolkit.
These representatives are now able to play a key role in distributors’ revenue recovery plans. This change may not have been planned, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be beneficial for distributors and SROs.
OSR in danger
SROs have been under pressure throughout the past decade. In 2013, the Harvard Business Review published a series of articles explaining why companies prefer SRI to OSR.
In 2017, a Forbes article revealed that big companies were still trying to reshape their workforces. While internal sales already accounted for 28.8% of sales, companies aimed to increase SRI jobs to more than 40%. As companies created more and more SRI positions, many SROs were taken out of the field.
Even existing OSR jobs were changing. The same Forbes article also revealed that OSRs were spending 45% of their time selling remotely, an 89% increase from their time selling remotely in 2013. Forbes attributes this change to technology, explaining: “The technology and automation that rules the world of inside sales can streamline and accelerate sales interactions that leverage the power of face-to-face communication. When the right tools are used to facilitate conversations, RSOs can consistently serve customers and drive sales remotely.
In short, the elimination or recasting of the role of the OSR is not a new phenomenon. Distributors have redesigned their sales structures to offer more inside sales and fewer outside sales. Additionally, the remaining outside sales teams are increasingly turning to distance selling. So when COVID-19 recently forced SROs out of the field, it wasn’t so much about building new market strength as it was about completing a transition already underway. For distributors, this can be very good news.
Respond to new customer requests
COVID-19 hasn’t just changed the way retailers sell, it’s also changed how their customers buy. While many customers may have previously preferred face-to-face selling, COVID-19 has forced most buyers to accept remote conversations as a viable method of purchase.
Plus, this unintended shift to distance selling may actually help distributors connect with their future customers. In recent years, distributors have struggled to meet the diverse needs of baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials.
For example, in a 2014 IBM Institute for Business Value Survey, 69% of millennials said they had attended face-to-face meetings during a sales cycle. However, only 24% of millennials said they would favorite buy through face-to-face interactions. At the same time, millennials indicated that while email and phone calls were involved in 37% and 22% of sales cycles, they would prefer these channels to be used 69% and 62% of the time, respectively.
Millennials – a demographic group that constitutes more and more of the distributor’s clientele every day – have a clear preference for distance purchasing. Yet distributors have clearly not evolved enough to meet the needs of these customers. While COVID-19 has certainly hurt distributors in many ways, its huge the silver lining is that it can provide enough of a push for distributors to finally change. By making OSRs truly relevant to customers, distributors can connect with an underserved generation and create critical customer relationships that will pay off for decades.
The new OSR
In order to effectively pass on OSRs, distributors will reinvent their toolkits. When looking for effective OSR tools, marketers need to get greedy and demand that the tools do two things. First, allow CSOs to have more interactions with customers. And second, sell more with each of those remote interactions.
One of the most exciting aspects of the transition to distance selling is the new opportunities it opens up. In the old world, OSRs spent hours and hours each week traveling to meet with clients. But today’s OSRs don’t need to spend valuable time on the road or at the airport. Instead, they can take that wasted time and turn it into more customer conversations.
Distributors, however, need to be strategic about how that time is spent. If field reps need to take on more customers and more calls, they’ll need new tools to help them. The best technology for the job is a customer data platform (CDP). CDPs can streamline the data tracking process to significantly reduce administrative effort per representative. So, in addition to travel time, representatives equipped with CDPs will also save tons of administrative time.
Additionally, CDPs move reps well beyond the passive tracking of CRMs or ERPs, and actively help reps structure workflows. Using customer data and advanced AI, CDPs can tell sales reps who to call and when. This ensures that reps will not only save time with customers, but that they know how to use that time well.
Beyond improving OSR workflows, CDPs can also improve the quality of one-on-one customer contact. Today, top CDPs have AI recommendations and automated tracking systems that can help sales reps succeed in orders, upsells, and cross-sells. When you combine the great interpersonal skills of trained OSRs and the analytical capabilities of AI, you get happy customers and strong sales.
COVID-19 has disrupted the way distributors sell and put OSRs in the hot seat. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A quick transition to distance selling can help distributors reconnect with their audience and gain market share. But only if they have the right tools. Today’s OSRs need advanced AI assistants to increase both the quality and quantity of customer contact.
If this transition is done correctly, everyone should benefit: SSOs will perform better and earn higher commission, customers will happily accept improved service, and distributors will gain short-term revenue and long-term loyalty. term.
Benj Cohen founded Proton.ai to help retailers harness advanced artificial intelligence. He learned about distribution firsthand at Benco Dental, a company started by his great-grandfather. Later, while studying Applied Mathematics and Data Science at Harvard University, Cohen saw an opportunity to bring his two worlds together. Its mission is to provide retailers with the innovative technology they need to thrive in modern markets.