Is B2B E-Commerce Driving Workforce Extinction?

It’s hardly a surprise that the increasing automation in the B2B sales industry is raising employment concerns. Since the digital revolution began, workers in nearly every sector realized the threat of machinery replacing human hands. While we’ve made it to 2015 without losing the entire workforce to robots, automation and new technology are likely to post a significant threat to employees in the B2B industry, according to Forrester Research analyst Andy Hoar.

As sales platform HubSpot reported, Hoar recently spoke at the firm’s 2015 Sales Enablement Forum to discuss the impact of B2B e-commerce on the sales force, revealing some shocking predictions.

1 Million Jobs in Jeopardy

According to Hoar, the rise of B2B e-commerce could displace up to 1 million sales jobs by 2020 – representing more than 20 percent of the total B2B sales force today. Buyers are becoming more digitally savvy, researching products online and turning to third-party vendors if supplier websites are inadequate in the purchasing process.

This online shopping process, Forrester’s research shows, has the potential to overhaul several major aspects of the procurement journey, from product research to price negotiation, all of which are moving toward automated processes.

But these revelations, Hoar notes, do not mean that the job of the sales person in B2B procurement will fall by the wayside entirely. Instead, the evolution of B2B buying will lead to a new breed of salesperson.

At-Risk Groups

Forrester analysis suggests that the most at-risk group in the B2B sales force is the order-taking position. “Order takers are in the cross hairs, because if [a buyer] knows what they want and they’re ready to buy it, just give it to them,” Hoar said. “Enable them to buy it – don’t create friction.”

Self-service portals for online B2B shoppers, he added, allow buyers to place the order themselves online, rendering an order-taker essentially useless and, even worse, a source of unnecessary friction for the buying process.

The second most at-risk group, Hoar explained, is what he describes as the “explainers” – salespeople who act as a source of information and education on a product for buyers. But as procurement officials research and shop online, company websites will increasingly do the explaining for them. “If you look at really compelling websites,” he said, “they provide things like how-to videos, detailed facts, and user-generated content. So as technology gets better at explaining things, we don’t need humans to explain any more.”

The state of jeopardy for these positions might be attributed to the fact that buyers almost always know more about their suppliers than suppliers know about their buyers. According to recent research on the state of B2B sales in 2015, conducted by HubSpot, this gap created an unnecessary barrier in facilitating sales. “Beyond the basics of name, phone number, and email address, reps don’t have a lot of information about their prospects the first time they make a call,” the study concluded. “But the trend is completely opposite for prospects.”

Positions Safe from Extinction

On the bright side, not all sales positions will implode, Hoar said. “Navigators” – salespeople who negotiate a buyer with complex requirements and an intricate procurement process – will take only a small hit. Forrester research shows that the rise of software and technology to facilitate the buying process for these types of procurement officials will make some of these jobs unnecessary. For example, the research shows algorithms are facilitating price negotiations. Still, a recent Forrester survey showed that 91 percent of B2B buyers still want to interact with a salesperson to negotiate price.

The fourth and final category of salesperson, the “consultant,” will largely be saved from the e-commerce effect, Hoar said. “Consultants are a qualitatively different bunch of people. They can explain abstract concepts; they can solution sell; they can build relationships.” This type of service, Hoar explained, cannot easily be replaced with technology.

Safeguarding For The Future

There are ways suppliers can safeguard their sales operations from this shift, Hoar added, and mold their operations to work with the growing e-commerce trend, not against it.

For example, reducing field sales for online vetting, as well as embracing new technological services like online storefront platforms and digital invoicing will help suppliers adjust their sales techniques to become more efficient in a digitized era. Still, for some suppliers, this e-commerce shift could mean changing their entire business model to selling services, not products.

Regardless of how they do it, businesses will need to adapt their sales techniques. HubSpot’s recent report reveals potential weak spots in the ways suppliers adapt to online methods. For example, the research revealed that only 7 percent of respondents cited “social sales” – using social media to find leads – as a priority.

Additionally, HubSpot found that suppliers are largely unsatisfied with the available software technology intended to facilitate sales, and that sales teams “feel the technology is not designed around a modern sales force’s needs.”

While suppliers are increasingly using client relationship management software to update their tactics, respondents revealed that their largest concern regarding this technology is the requirement to manually enter data, and the research found that 60 percent of sales executives are only somewhat confident in the data coming out of their CRM.

Looking ahead, while the changing B2B procurement environment will likely weed out inefficient and unnecessary sales positions, suppliers seem willing to adapt and facilitate e-commerce. HubSpot, for example, found that 15 percent of B2B businesses will prioritize social sales in 2015, compared with just 7 percent of B2C businesses. But research suggests technology services providers will need to adapt, too, to solve issues of manual data entry, data inaccuracy and other roadblocks faced by suppliers looking to technologically evolve.