Only a few short years ago high-tech analysts were touting the notion that companies would sell to one another across the Web, in much the same way consumers buy products on Amazon and eBay. As a result of using the Internet, it was envisioned that companies would be able to lower the cost of sales by eliminating the need for sales reps or resellers.
That vision, however, turned out to be fatally flawed because of fundamental differences between consumer and business sales. Consumer e-commerce automates the purchasing of commodity products that typically are sold by clerks in stores. The consumer knows exactly what he or she wants, making the presence of a trained clerk an expensive redundancy in online sales.
That’s not the case with most business-to-business sales because, with the exception of commodities such as office supplies, the products and services businesses buy from other businesses require human-to-human communication in the form of solution-building, price negotiation and ongoing account management. As a result, CRM technology must be designed to assist sales reps who perform the human aspects of this process.
Early SFA systems tried to get customers to build their own solutions using a Web-based interface, rather than depending on the expertise of sales reps. That proved ineffective because such systems were not only asking customers to learn the interface to a new system, but also to wrestle with the different options and elements that might go into a solution.
Rather than asking customers to do the work of sales reps, a better approach is to offer customers desirable services that previously were unavailable. For example, many CRM systems allow customers to use the Internet to check the status of a particular order. Such features not only give customers what they want in the form of immediate gratification, but also reduce the amount of time sales reps must spend answering inquiries such as: When will I actually get the product?
The key principle is that you must offer customers something better online than what was available without the Internet. Companies that ignore that principle risk losing customers who feel they’re being directed to the Internet because your company no longer cares about keeping their business. This is not to say that using the Web shouldn’t save your company money, only that the savings shouldn’t come at the expense of your customers.
Ideally, you want customers interacting with both your sales reps and your Website. When customers want and need to talk to a human, sales reps should be available. When customers just want general information, order status or quick troubleshooting advice, they may prefer to use the Web.
This hybrid sales communications approach not only leverages your sales resources, but also allows you to constantly gather useful information about your customers. For example, a well-designed CRM system might send a red flag to sales reps when important customers repeatedly access the self-service support feature. Similarly, a customer who spends a lot of time browsing an online product catalog might be identified as someone who might be receptive to a sales call from a rep.
The above is based on a conversation with Erin Kinikin, a vice president of research at Forrester, a market research firm headquartered in Cambridge, MA.