Changing Role of Sales

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Introduction
Sales is shifting from a twentieth century “selling products and services” model to a twenty-first century model in which salespeople focus on increasing customer productivity (Leigh and Marshall, 2001). Piercy (2006) categorises this change as the emergence of the strategic sales organization, where sales converges with marketing to take on greater strategic significance to the organization. Harvard Business Review’s special issue on sales (2006, Vol. 84 No. 7/8) argued that sales is becoming a strategic activity in which the sale is made with the intention of building and maintaining a long-term relationship. Thus, the salesperson is increasingly acting as a relationship manager rather than as the traditional order-taker. Our paper examines the change in the role of business-to-business sales, its functions and processes, through four case studies of organizations that have transformed their sales function and improved their performance as a result. This article is structured as follows: first, we discuss literature relating to the changing role of sales, the connection between sales strategy and business strategy, the demands on the sales process, and the interaction between sales and other functions of a firm. Second, we describe our research process and methodology. Third, findings from the case studies are described and discussed. Finally, we discuss the contribution of the article and identify managerial implications and future research opportunities.

The role of sales

Business-to-business marketing is increasingly identified with customer communication, branding, advertising, websites, point of sale materials etc. Sales, in a business-to-business context, is increasingly associated with account management and solution development. With the growth of online business-to-business order processing and replenishment, many transactions are now effectively managed by the marketing or IT function. Thus, order-taking – traditionally a sales preserve – has effectively become a marketing or operational task. The number of customers placing orders over the internet is dwarfed, however, by those who search for product information online before placing orders through other channels. In this way, the role of product knowledge and information specialist, formerly part of the salesperson’s role, has been transferred to marketing or customer service, where the management of the website often resides.

By contrast, the sales function is increasingly taking on a relationship management role. Perhaps the most noticeable manifestation of this in business-to-business selling is in the emergence of key account management (KAM) or strategic account management (SAM) as a strategic sales activity, driven by issues such as increasingly sophisticated customers (McDonald et al., 2000), profit failures in manufacturing (Wise and Baumgartner, 1999) and commoditisation caused by short-termism (Lombardi, 2005). The key account manager has become custodian of the customer relationship, pursuing consultative and solution selling activities. The role of the key account manager is not just to sell new products and services but also to manage the ongoing relationship, to co-ordinate delivery and customer service, and to oversee the profitability (not just the revenues) of the relationship (McDonald et al., 2000). However, with the exception of the KAM area there has been little empirical work exploring the changing role of sales, particularly in respect of the increasingly important role played by sales strategy. There are also implications for the sales process and, through this, for the interface of sales with other business functions.

Sales strategy and business strategy

Darrell Zahorsky from About.com (e.g. New York Times Group) identifies sales strategy as “the planning of sales activities: methods of reaching clients, competitive differences and resources available”. This is similar to common definitions of marketing...
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