Who Will Win the Battle of Man vs. Machine in Distribution Sales? - Modern Distribution Management

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Who Will Win the Battle of Man vs. Machine in Distribution Sales?

Panelists from Salsify, Dremel, Bloomreach and Waters Corp. debate whether B2B sales interactions will be more human or machine-based going forward. It depends on who owns the sales experience, if machines can manage complexity and which route produces the smoothest sales cycle.
man playing tug of war against a machine with a rope

There’s no doubt that the pandemic kicked digital transformations into a higher gear, but there’s room for debate as to what the future of B2B sales will look like.

During the recent MasterB2B webcast Man vs. Machine, panelists squared off to discuss whether B2B sales interactions would be mostly human and in person or mostly digital and remote going forward. Led by co-moderators Andy Hoar, CEO of Paradigm B2B, and Brian Beck, CEO of Beck Ecommerce, the four panelists were divided up into “team human” and “team machine” for the debate.

Justin King, VP of B2B at Salsify and Dremel Global President Sonesh Shah represented team human. Representing team machine were Waters Corporation’s Laura Brooks, senior director, customer experience marketing, and Bloomreach’s Jason Hein, principal B2B strategist. Beck led team human while Hoar helmed team machine.

The debate took place over three rounds.

Round 1: Who Owns the Sales Experience?

To start round one, Hoar asked, “Have we finally reached the point where you can happily make B2B purchases online without the need for humans?”

“No, it’s not even a question,” Shah said. “What we just experienced in the pandemic was not an e-commerce boom, but everyone just going to Zoom. It’s a bunch of people still talking to each other on a screen, and we haven’t made this process any better. It’s certainly not any fun, because most B2B experiences suck. For B2B to get to the level of B2C, it’s about great experiences, and today great experiences in B2B come from humans.”

Hoar cited a recent Gartner report that says 44% of younger generation respondents were skeptical of salespeople’s claims and preferred to buy online due to a lack of trust, which was backed by team machine’s Brooks. Younger generations are more apt to go to peer groups or social media to find out information.

“If COVID has proven anything, it’s that even the most traditional buyers and sales reps alike are more comfortable than ever buying things online and doing business online,” Brooks said. “Let’s just think about the mere fact that demographics are changing. The younger generation will avoid talking to a human being at all costs until it’s absolutely necessary. And what does that mean? It means they’ll pass on the suppliers, or the companies that don’t cater to their needs. They want self-service. B2B businesses no longer get a pass.”

Even before the pandemic and the advent of e-commerce, Hein said McMaster-Carr, where he started his career, was successful selling products to end users by merchandising the product well and explaining what the feature benefits were to the point that customers didn’t need a salesperson.

“I challenge the statement about whether you really need people,” Hein said.

“I’d like to take that up,” Shah replied. “I think that’s a great point. I’m going to throw a different angle at you though. Salesforce — the company that is basically built to tell you that your sales need to be more efficient — has 10,000 salespeople, and their global organization has 49,000 people.

“So, the company that is trying to eliminate salespeople is the one growing its sales organization. It’s quite ironic that the distributors, the folks that are trying to avoid the commoditization that’s happening in the B2B industry, are getting rid of the experience, and the folks that are trying to get them to do it are the ones investing in the experience.”

Team machine advocates pointed out that software, such as automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence, played important roles in re-ordering and handling less complex purchases. In conclusion, Hoar pointed out that sales reps can be digitally enabled to become hybrid salespeople. Both Hoar and Beck gave round one to team machine.

“I think this was argued well by team machine that it’s the experience that people are loyal to,” Hoar said. “And increasingly, these experiences are created by software. I actually believe that most experiences are now being created by software.”

Round 2: Can Machines Manage Complexity?

The second round focused on whether complex purchases still required human interaction as opposed to machines or software being able to close deals. Salsify’s King said B2B purchases are inherently complex by nature, and therefore require a human touch.

“We’ve got to think about the liability,” King said. “We’re dealing with multiple people here in B2B and they think about liability. A liability happens when I purchase a product that wasn’t meant to be purchased. Many buyers actually want to talk to an inside sales rep to assure them that they’re buying the right product.”

In regard to complex transactions, Hein says that decisions that companies need to make about material compatibility and application suitability could be built into discovery tools using technology.

“The biggest opportunity in B2B right now is in that discovery part of it when it comes to technology and online,” Hein said. “Because B2B companies manage so many products, to try to merchandise each one of them individually is simply a Herculean and impossible task. You have to rely on technology to be able to extend your ability to talk about the products that you sell out into the long tail, and help more of those products bubble up to the surface so that they can be discovered.

“Amazon’s whole flywheel is broken right now because it’s all built off of one point, which is ‘more stuff is better.’ Well, more stuff is only better when you can actually find the thing that matters. At the scale we’re talking about in B2B, you have to have technology to make that work.”

Due in part to the human element that’s needed for complex processes, Hoar and Beck gave team human the win in round two.

Round 3: Which Route Produces the Smoothest Sales Cycle?

Round three centered on the role that digital plays in the buying cycle, which includes a pre-purchase stage, a purchase stage and a post-purchase stage.

“I think digital is affecting more parts of the purchase journey than humans are at this point,” Hoar said. “So not surprising, I think team machine won that one.”

Beck disagreed with Hoar and declared round three was a tie. According to a McKinsey Report earlier this year, 28% of B2B organizations have hybrid sales reps in 2021, but that will increase to 85% by 2024.

“I think it’s really about the journey, and I think the human and the machine are going to be supporting each other all the way through,” Beck said. “To me, it’s not one or the other when we talk about the overall journey.”

MDM is the media partner for MasterB2B’s Un-Webinar series. Click here to listen to this webcast in its entirety and to register for the series. 



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