The Death of Field Sales: Have We Seen It All Before?

You may have noticed that field sales are on the wane; at least, that’s how it looks.

Technologies such as video conferencing, VOIP, email and mobile phones have certainly reduced the need for the many face-to-face meetings we once had. That said, instead of freeing up our time, we now try to cram more things into our day than we did before. Instead of giving us a break, we’re trying to run twice as fast.

The old sales model consisted largely of phone calls we used to set up face-to-face meetings and follow-up calls after them. The groundwork was laid during those meetings, and the deal was often agreed on the golf course.

The so-called “new” sales model, to the extent possible, reduces or eliminates the face-to-face meetings. A conference video call makes an acceptable substitute to flying attendees in from the four corners of the world. Time and money are both saved as a result, though some people have redder eyes than others.

Contract details can be transmitted, signed, and finalised in real time without the parties ever actually meeting face-to-face. This is how it’s intended to work in theory and, to a certain extent, though the process gets smoother with practise.


New sales model

The new sales model, like most things, makes a significant departure from the old one. For example, those following the new sales model are encouraged to think of sales teams as an internal, rather than an external activity, and to look for the benefits of doing so.

They should focus solely on selling and not on the attendant administration that comes with the customer service that they’ve been doing. They should use their time for more business development meetings, rather than allowing themselves to get distracted by non-sales related tasks.

After all, sales people sell. Why should they do anything else?

Some of this makes sense.


Education - an example

You only have to look at education in this country to discover what the results can be if people who go into a profession to do one thing find that they’re dragged into something else.

Teachers become teachers to teach and to help students, not administer every conceivable test that the Government can dream up. If students learn the material, then they’ll do well on the tests; but there have been so many tests in recent years - and there’s no sign that they’ll be letting up - that teachers have had to teach them. As the act of teaching has become less important, a shortage of personnel has developed, and it’s gathering pace.


Customer service

Now in the same way, sales people have been drawn away from selling. As long as commission plays some part in their compensation, those who sell primarily feel that their opportunities are being thwarted whenever they have to engage in activities that keep them from doing what they took the job to do.

The thing is that at least some of what is not direct selling does have an impact on sales.

Take customer service, for example.

If a sales person accepts responsibility for making sure that customers are happy with the product, then those to whom they sell will feel that they have direct contact with someone who can help if things don’t work the way the should - no matter what they reason.

If, however, customer service is passed to a third party, whether it’s inside or outside of the organisation, then clients will feel that the company which sold them the product is only interested in getting their money. That’s because sub-contracted customer service departments - call centres, in other words - lack the same compassion that the “parent” company has for the original product.

You will know this from your personal experience with services such as your home Internet connection.

When sales people own the customer follow-up, then promises that can’t be kept decrease. That’s because sales people are accountable to their customers for what they tell them, and they’re unlikely to say things that they can’t back-up.


This current push to separate the selling of products from the servicing of them is reminiscent of the separation of policy-making from implementation that occurred in the now-famous reorganisation of General Motors in the 1920s.

Until then, chains-of-command tended to look like a pyramid, with the head at the top and everyone else feeding in from the bottom.

Alfred P Sloan, the then CEO, reorganised the company so that policy was made by a group of executives, and then implemented by the much larger group of employees.

This model has been in use in most private and public sector companies in first world countries ever since. Only the dramatic reduction in hierarchical levels, what one author calls the horizontal revolution, has changed that. The flattening of hierarchies has brought policy-making and implementation closer together, to the point of overlap much of the time.

The new sales model looks very much like Sloan’s model.

It argues for a customer service function that is separate from the sales people. The problem is that the client is the coal face.

When you move the people who know more about the product and the problem away from the customers and give it to those who aren’t even in your chain-of-command, you make it more difficult for your clients to get the help that they need.

That means that your attempts to make sales people more efficient actually works against them. Instead of being able to solve a problem straightaway, customers are forced into a customer service department with a chain-of-command that’s different from the one in which the product was sold.

Call centres are nothing more than external customer service departments.

They are rarely in the UK.

What that means is that those who work in them probably have very little knowledge about the products themselves. Instead, they have a “laundry list” of likely problems to work through. What they don’t have is the specialised knowledge to deal with issues that aren’t on that list or the authority to do anything about it.

You may feel that this is an efficient use of people; but how do you feel when you need help and you can only get it from one of these call centres?

Put yourself in your customers’ shoes.

You know from your own experience that when customer service is handled by anyone other than the sales person, then the person who took the order or persuaded you to buy won’t be held accountable for anything that goes wrong.

When there’s no accountability to the customer, service deteriorates.


Core business

Although the new sales model copies the old organisational style, it also shares a more recent approach, which is to focus on core business.

Core business is what your customers pay you for. Everything else is incidental to it. And so when sales people focus on selling, they are in effect thinking only about their core business. They are outsourcing everything else to other people, whether they’re inside or outside of their organisation.

The challenge - and it will be different for everyone - is to work out which of the things under the old model are part of their core business.

The tendency is to discard everything that they don’t like in favour of those things that they do; but selling isn’t as simple as that. If it was, then everyone would be doing it.


What do sales people do?

It has been suggested that the old model prevented sales people from doing what they should. Prospecting was one such activity that critics said was lacking. Their belief was that sales people tended to spend a lot of time with some clients, but not nearly enough with others.

Proponents of the new model blame the old one.

That’s one possible explanation.

Another one is that they simply did what most people do: Choose the line of least resistance. They worked with the clients who were the easiest and most fun to work with and ignored the ones that ate up their time and gave little in return or gave them the most grief. You do exactly the same thing on your daily commute, if you have one, or when you drive to see a client.

When was the last time you took a longer, more scenic route?

Other drivers think exactly the same way you do. That’s why the main roads are clogged. You’d be amazed at how much traffic you could avoid if you stayed off of the motorways, for example.

This digression is important because it illustrates what sales people do. Whether this is under the new model or the old one, all of us prefer to spend our time with those who make our lives easier.

So the fact that some don’t get the attention they should probably is unrelated to the model itself.


Other departments

Some have criticised the old model because of friction that occurred with other departments. This is to confuse the issue. Correlation is not synonymous with cause. There are other factors at work.

When friction occurs, the kind that keeps departments from working together, it’s because they have different agendas. When expressed like that, it’s easy to see that the problem is caused by something going on at the top of the organisation.

Departments should never have different agendas. Instead, they should both be working toward the same end - the organisation’s objectives.

So, if there’s an internal problem going on then it’s probably because of structural problems.

For example, executives are fond of referring to their employees collectively as a team; yet, they treat them as if they were all working separately - toward their own agendas.

If your sales people are competing against one another, then they can’t be working together as a team which, by definition, is a group of people who are working together toward the same end.

What would happen, for example, if they rewarded people on the basis of how well they helped others to achieve their goals? Wouldn’t that engender an unprecedented spirit of cooperation?

Why don’t we see that kind of mutual enthusiasm? It’s because organisations aren’t structured to promote it.

Now when a new sales model is implemented everything is “reengineered”; and when that happens, something of a spirit of cooperation is introduced, and so the friction decreases, at least temporarily. But any change is likely to produce that in the short term.


Should sales teams be autonomous

This is one of the criticisms of the old model, that salespeople owned their accounts, which were independent of the organisation. The perceived result was that because they were independent, no one else got involved with them.

The new model assumes that sales is largely an inside function because clients have been invited in via private phone lines, email, VOIP, etc.

And it’s not as if they want you to visit them either. The truth is that they’d rather you sent an email or, if you must, rang them. But a personal visit? They’d rather not because they’re too busy. If they can buy your product online with a minimum of fuss, why would they want to take time out of their day to meet with a sales person?

If they really have a problem, they’d rather “talk” to you on live chat.  You do have live chat; right?

Not only that, but apps like WooCommerce, for example, enable customers to see what your inventory is, too.

So, here’s the bottom line: Depending on the industry, your customers may know more about your products than you do. Have you ever built a computer or a car online? If you have, then you know better than any salesperson why you’ve chosen the functions and features that you have.


Have we seen it all before?

Have we seen the new sales model before?

Yes, and no.

We’ve seen the centralisation of the executive role and the decentralisation of the strategies that it creates. And now we’re seeing the centralisation of sales, but the decentralisation of the customer service function. That said, the Internet is little more than 25 years old, and so the capabilities that it has given us are different.

There’s no question that less field work is necessary. Not only because you prefer to limit your site visits, but so do your customers.

The thing that you must remember, however, is that what goes around, comes around. We’ve seen this across the management disciplines in the past 100 years, and you’ve probably experienced the effects of them to a greater or lesser extent yourself.

What that means is that you must not assume that the field sales have died. More likely, they’re going into hibernation.

The change will be temporary. That’s because selling from within has not been fully developed. We’re just at the beginning.

As it matures, sales people will get a feel for what should be done from within, and what needs to be done in the field. A hybrid will be created; many hybrids in fact. Each one will contain a different combination of field and non-field elements.

And that’s the way you want to look at this new model.

Model A was the old sales model - field sales. Model B is the new sales model - from within the organisation. It’s only a matter of time before the hybrids - Models C to Z emerge.

You could start working on yours now…



If you need some external input – you could worse than send an email to me

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