Back in Oct’19, I asked the question Are Field Sales Feeling a Squeeze? This question came about from observations of some growing trends:
- Inside sales were capturing more and more of the smaller, field accounts.
- Key account programs were gaining investments to become more efficient so they can cost-effectively capture some of the largest field accounts.
Since posing that question, I believe we have an answer. YES – field sales IS being squeezed for a variety of reasons.
Reason #1 – COVID-19
The pandemic has accelerated the “field sales squeeze” trend as CSOs were forced into a pilot of inside – now often referred to as “virtual” – selling. Repeatedly, CSOs are reporting promising signs of selling effectiveness despite being in a no- or low-travel scenario. As both sellers and buyers become more accustomed to this new normal, more B2B commerce will be through digital channels, virtual engagements, and low-travel selling.
Reason #2 – Generational Shifts in Sellers
Currently, a third of B2B buyers prefer a rep-free experience. This is not to say that they are executing without a rep. It’s just a signal of their preference. When analyzed by generation, millennials are more likely to favor being “rep-free” as compared to their older counterparts. As a result, it’s fair to conclude that as millennials graduate to leading more buying decisions and baby boomers move into retirement, this trend will not only continue but increase. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the majority of B2B transactions will be without a rep. Instead, I’m suggesting that this preference may be used as a proxy to show the diminishing returns of high travel sellers.
Reason #3 – Innovation and Digital Dexterity
Digital transformations and sales technology continue to evolve at a rapid pace. Plus, funding and adoption continue to rise. In one survey, CSOs indicated they were expanding budgets in digital marketing, technology and enablement while reducing budgets in headcount, live events and outsourcing. Innovation and ongoing investments, along with improving seller and buyer digital dexterity will continue to transform the B2B marketplace.
These are just a few triggers tightening the squeeze of field sales. As this continues to happen, we will continue to see an impact on customer accounts and sellers.
Impact on Account Assignments and Sellers
As this graphic suggests, customer accounts were traditionally assigned to the field first. This field-first mentality is changing. Today, we see an increasing number of customer accounts shifting to either lower-touch or higher-touch sales teams. When I asked one CSO about the potential concerns for customers feeling less supported, he suggested that his customers were already favoring digital self-service and that he was not concerned.
As the accounts continue to shift, so will seller deployment. In a series of Gartner pulse surveys, nearly 40% of CSOs suggested that they will permanently move some field sellers to virtual selling roles. Of those CSOs making this change, they plan to move 28% of field sellers, on average.
Field sales are not going away. However, field sellers must continually evolve to meet the needs of their customers while conforming to new sales modalities. The squeeze is on, but it’s not yet an existential threat.