Representor Summer 2020 - Cover Story

Facing disruption at an unprecedented level

The Changing Role of the Traditional Field Sales Position Creates Opportunity

by Steve Cholas

Let’s take a step back for a moment.

Back in late February 2020, little did we know that within a few weeks’ time, we would be thrust into a disruption that — fair to say — none of us have ever experienced. While presented with an opportunity to rise to the occasion, our various strengths and weaknesses would be immediately revealed.

The 2020 ERA Conference breakout presentation panel, “The Disruption Opportunity,” provided a discussion of many topics pertaining to the obsolescence of the traditional field sales position, among them APIs, RPAs, and the Amazon effect and ecommerce.

We discussed how these topics represented opportunity if we would simply take the time to understand and develop a strategy to “make a wise pivot,” which consists of reallocating financial, innovative and talent resources to embrace technologies available today, thus future-proofing our business models.

The idea of an impending “obsolescence of field sales” seems overwrought and sensationalistic at first blush. However, if we’re honest with ourselves, there are a lot of things that can be read into the tea leaves. Many, if not all, questions customers ask can be answered by Siri, Alexa or Google. Most, if not all, reporting and process improvements are now automated on various platforms (APIs, RPAs, ecommerce), and my Rolodex has been replaced by Salesforce. Artificial intelligence (AI), process automation, digitization; these are but three of the many heads of the inevitable “obsolescence” hydra we’ll be battling to keep our jobs. Digitization isn’t happening; it has happened.

Sit back in your chair, close your eyes and think of things you are proud to provide to your customer and/or your company. Here are a few of mine:

1. I am a dependable resource when my customers’ world consists of just the opposite.

2. I have a wide range of skills across a large scope of technologies, allowing for true empathy when customer or company undertakes a new project.

3. I am adaptive and hyper-flexible.

I’m going to bet there is not a single thing on your list that is binary. Nothing about the work in which you take pride is black-and-white. Most importantly, nothing on that list can be automated. Ironically, automation/digitalization is the exact technology that will enable us to get “away from the laptop and to the negotiation table.” Our customers are using the very digital technologies to make more cool stuff faster than ever, and we need to do the same in order to keep up! Automation is a friend, not a foe.

Thus, embrace making the wise pivot.

The original panel topics brought forth some very valued observations and statements from both the panel and attendees. Below are just a few:

  • Intelligent supply chains being powered by AI, analytics and machine-learning bring vital purchasing intelligence immediately to the human — and sometimes bypassing the need for human — intervention.
  • eSourcing brings many new software tools that allow for spend analysis options, enhanced spending habits and assessment of supplier capabilities. In short, it brings sourcing to a single virtual platform for screening customers regardless of location
    or constraints.
  • APIs — possible/probable/happening — enable computer systems within the supply chain to talk to each other. Already, some customers are using APIs to collect pricing and delivery information, make buying decisions and place orders. In the process, buyers are eliminated and the traditional inside salesperson is removed from the equation. In essence, this is computers buying from computers, which means little to no opportunity for a salesperson to influence or guide the purchasing decision. Add next-level AI and this will move from an experimental/fringe activity to the dominant way supply chain transactions occur.
  • RPAs take people out of routine tasks like expediting, confirmations, requests for data and much more, reducing the opportunities for a supplier employee to interact with a customer employee, which in turn reduces the ability of the supplier to develop a personal relationship. I think we should consider breaking this topic into two: 1) routine tasks handled today by administrative types, and 2) requests for expediting tasks and data (product information). In the first group, I don’t observe a lot of additional selling, it involves people gifted at processing data. It seems like both parties have a lot to gain by automating this portion. In the second group, I believe that there is an interim step happening before full machine-to-machine communication, and that is by using AI or ML to serve up information to our teams, which makes them more efficient, more accurate, and with more options — all making them much more valuable to the customer, therefore enabling more human-to-human communication.
  • Ecommerce is being adopted by component manufacturers to contribute disintermediation of channel dependence. The potential of this today is more aligned with the larger enterprise manufacturers, and we will see this become mainstream as companies invest in the new tech platforms that allow quicker, less expensive adoption for ecommerce on their sites.
  • The role of field sales is clearly being compromised and social media selling and other techniques that technology enables are helping keep our sales teams engaged as our targets isolate themselves. Younger people coming into the workforce will only accelerate the trend. Field salespeople tend to be the biggest expense item for many in the component supply chain, and as the ROI on the position diminishes, the herd is likely to be significantly thinned. It is incumbent on all of our field salespeople to use this time to acquire new skills, new tools and adopt a new way of thinking so they are not the ones thinned in the herd.

As we, hopefully, have started to pivot due to the unprecedented time we are experiencing, learn how to seize new opportunities! It’s all about what we do to confront the inevitable forces ahead of us. Don’t wait for another disruption to come to you, disrupt yourself! Companies that seize the opportunity, rather than wait until a performance decline, are forced to change and transform preemptively. How you identify and respond to disruption not only has implications for your business but also your future viability and bottom line.

One thing this pandemic has taught us is that disruption is inevitable and that we can and must learn from it. End of the day this is still a people business; what matters is how we innovate personally to establish value.

A special shout out to the panel members — Heather Fulara, Newark element14; Alex Gabbi, McCombs School of Business, The University of Texas at Austin; Chris Rooney, Tecumseh Consulting; Ali Sebt, IoT consultant; and Mark Zack, TTI, Semiconductor Group — and Michael Knight, TTI, for their early input into the discussion topics.

Steve Cholas
VP Business Development
Big Zeta

As an industry expert in digital engagement, sales and marketing, Steve Cholas has developed strategic programs for distributors and suppliers globally. With over 30 years of experience, Cholas is a marketer companies rely on to develop partnerships and strategies to achieve tangible goals.

Cholas’ passion for the electronic industry has allowed for him to direct leading media, UI/UX and design tool brands in the electronics industry such as EET, EDN, EEWeb, Electronic Products, EBN, 21ic (China) Aspencore and Transim. Cholas can be reached at steve@bigzeta.com.

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