The new B2B sales force

Adapt your workforce for digital marketplaces to increase success

Laura Wilber
30 July 2018

3 min read

B2B industry marketplaces are disrupting traditional supply chains, including conventional sales and distribution models. For sales professionals, thriving in this new environment requires shifting some types of selling to digitalized self-service channels, while also using these same platforms to deepen customer engagement and generate higher revenue in more complex sales situations.

In February 2018, PT&R Manufacturing, a maker of machining products in San Jose, California, celebrated as a top sales leader reached US$1 million (€855,000) in sales while helping the company expand into multiple industries. But, this “sales leader“ isn’t actually a person. PT&R’s sales star is Xometry, a digital B2B marketplace for custom manufacturing.

PT&R is a small company that doesn’t have a dedicated sales team, and it’s typical of many Xometry clients. Bill Cronin, senior vice president of Sales and Marketing at Xometry, points out that more than 75% of all manufacturing firms in the US – Xometry’s target supplier market – have fewer than 20 employees.

“Most of them don’t have sales and marketing people at all,” he said. “Participating in a marketplace like Xometry, where the matchmaking and transactional processes are automated, helps them reach new prospects and grow their business in spite of that.”

While small companies may not have sales teams, what about those that do? It’s a question many are asking as buyers and sellers increasingly bypass traditional sales and distribution channels to conduct trade directly though digital marketplaces – to the tune of US$7.7 trillion (€6.4 trillion) worldwide in 2017, according to Hamburg, Germany-based market research company Statista. That’s a 30% increase from 2013, and triple the size of the B2C e-commerce market.


Market research and business consulting firm Forrester Research addressed this question directly in a 2015 report entitled “Death of a (B2B) Salesman.” Its analysis indicated that 1 million B2B sales people in the US (1 out of 5) would be displaced by 2020 as more customers followed a digital path-to-purchase.

According to the lead analyst on that report, Andy Hoar, now CEO of B2B e-commerce strategy firm Paradigm B2B in Chicago, “there are millions of ‘order taker’ sales people out there who literally and merely book transactions for clients. We see rapidly diminishing value added in that process, as B2B buyers increasingly prefer to place those orders online on their own. In many ways, the self-service experience is now superior to interacting with a sales rep because self-service now includes features that full-service interactions do not, such as hyperpersonalization, inventory and pricing transparency, etc.

“And yet, many B2B companies are still forcing customers to go through their sales people to make purchases,” Hoar said. “It’s the same problem we see with B2B brands forcing customers to go through wholesalers and distributors when research clearly shows that at least 40% of B2B buyers want to engage directly with brands. Fighting against these desires just alienates customers and leaves money on the table.”


That doesn’t mean, however, that sales people can’t come out as winners if their roles and strategies are adapted as B2B e-commerce expands. Hoar said that while buyers seeking simple products and working within simple buying environments are going to adopt end-to-end self-service, sales people can transition to a high-value consulting role for more complex scenarios, where the richness of multi-channel engagement can work to their advantage.



“Whether you’re a manufacturer or a distributor, digital commerce can be an amazing force multiplier for your sales team,” said Brian Beck, senior vice president of E-Commerce and Omni-Channel Strategy at Guidance Solutions, a B2B and B2C e-commerce services company in Marina Del Rey, California, and a frequent speaker at B2B e-commerce events. “As the B2B world shifts to e-commerce, you need to give your sales and marketing people the technology they need to compete. They need e-commerce, and you need e-commerce. Get your sales force involved in the transition early and keep them involved, and you’ll both win.”


Scot Wingo, founder and chairman of ChannelAdvisor, a platform that helps companies manage multi-channel selling, agrees that digital commerce can be both disruptive and empowering.

“Sales people may need to acquire new competencies to engage customers in a multi-channel environment, but there are lots of benefits to doing so,” he said. “It can be like the clouds parting. Digital channels can provide sales teams with direct customer feedback. They can help shorten sales cycles as customers become better educated. And platform analytics can help sales teams see and respond faster to shifts in demand.”

The view that digital B2B commerce is, in essence, an opportunity for sales, is captured in multinational professional services firm Ernst & Young’s report “Digital Selling: Reinventing Sales to Stay Relevant to Changing B2B Buyers.” The authors found that sales teams who embrace digital selling and meet today’s B2B buyer on their own turf are much more successful than those clinging to legacy practices. They enjoy more leads, bigger pipelines, higher conversion rates and larger average deal sizes.

For smaller companies like PT&R, digital marketplaces may help them grow and afford to add sales talent. It’s a good bet that when they do, they’ll hire a digitally savvy professional who will help them further grow their business by working through marketplaces, rather than against them.

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