Boots on the Ground: Sales In The Information Age
by Matt, on 9 Feb 2021
You’ll frequently hear leaders extolling the value of having “boots on the ground”. It’s a relatively recent idiom, credited to U.S. General, Volney Warner, who coined the term during a 1980 interview about the Iranian hostage crisis.
While the military usage literally refers to troops who are physically present in a war zone as opposed to those providing support from somewhere safer, the expression has made its way into politics, volunteer work, and business.
The phrase has come to mean any group of people who are grinding out the tedious but necessary tasks that keep a business or project moving forwards.
Sales is one area of business where it’s commonly heard. Boots-on-the-ground (BOTG) salespeople are the ones manning booths at trade shows, driving from site to site visiting customers, and calling their way through lists of phone numbers.
However, even before COVID shut down our exhibits and offices, digitization of the buying process was eroding the BOTG salesperson’s influence, if not importance.
As we find ourselves in the information age, with a tsunami of digitization racing across the B2B landscape as it has already done in the B2C world, buyers are increasingly researching and evaluating solutions online.
Their interest in speaking with a salesperson trends ever lower as more and more information is made available via their browser.
So, what does “boots on the ground” sales mean in the information age?
Out With the Old
Let’s first talk about the value that BOTG sales staff have historically contributed and consider whether the same is true in a digitized world.
Before online product information became nearly ubiquitous, prospective customers had to interact with salespeople throughout their buying journey.
Marketing might have triggered the awareness phase – where the buyer gives a name to their challenge and begins to frame it in quantifiable terms – with traditional attention-grabbing tactics like print ads, radio and TV slots, and billboards. But it was a salesperson that followed up and closed the opportunity, getting glory by directly being seen to win revenue.
Tapping into passive potential buyers required getting to them, talking their way past receptionists, phone operators, and personal assistants to get a conversation – and preferably a meeting – with the prospect.
BOTG salespeople manned trade show booths and roamed exhibit floors, schmoozed prospects at restaurants, bars, and sporting events, and drove countless miles from town to town, client location to client location, knocking on doors.
If your salesperson could get to the prospect first and unload your company’s beautifully crafted brochures, spec sheets, and branded goodies on them, it gave you the best shot at winning their business.
Graft aside, taking a personalized interest in the prospect, their interests, and their family and building the relationship over time – in-person – earned loyalty and repeat business. Occasionally doing the client a favor put icing on the cake.
The salesperson was firmly in control. Things moved at the salesperson’s pace, controlling the flow of information, and pushing for decisions in return for beneficial terms and treatment.
“Always be closing” was the successful salesperson’s mantra. Quota was queen.
From the buyer’s perspective, they were beholden to vendors’ marketing and sales teams.
To learn about a challenge and potential solutions, they had to enter the lion’s den, exposing their interest at a trade show, or calling vendors for their ideas.
This unleashed an inevitable onrush of phone calls, snail mail, and visits. The buyer was fresh meat, and the pride was closing in, ready to compete for the prize.
From the vendor’s perspective, effective salespeople were literally worth their weight in gold. Many garnered the highest salaries in the company, with perks, spifs, and bonuses to boot.
They were the company’s eyes and ears, gathering market intelligence, monitoring customer behavior and satisfaction, and picking up the first signals that a new deal might be in the offing.
Those with deeply established relationships could access privileged information and influential people earlier and more easily than their competitors. Business flowed to the trusted advisor before a lesser-known slickster.
The buyer probably got what they needed. The vendor probably sold more than they should have, albeit at a discount that stung a little. It all felt a bit contrived. The buyer took a shower to wash away the slimy sales feeling.
Does any of this still happen in today’s B2B world?
For sure. There’s still a large population of BOTG salespeople using old-school approaches to push product.
There’s a belief in certain circles that high-value B2B sales can only be handled this way. “You simply can’t do this stuff online”.
However, the effectiveness of these approaches is waning.
B2B sales is experiencing an information age transformation, following – slowly, at first – in the footsteps of B2C markets.
B2B buyers are increasingly researching and evaluating solutions online. This is part of the overall digitization of our world, with product information – including features, performance data, and other users’ experience - becoming easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
Capital intensive sectors - including heavy industries like mining, steel, and energy – are slow to change. Their processes carry a lot of inertia. It takes a while to turn a supertanker around, as the saying goes. But changing they are.
Importantly, this is an exponential change.
The confluence of rapid technological evolution (Moore’s Law), changing user demographics (digital from birth), and the blurring boundary between work and home is accelerating buyer’s demand for a process that they control.
Buyers are making a reported 80% of their purchasing decisions before ever contacting a vendor. Salespeople are a long way down the list of people with whom they want to speak or trust.
Apart from losing their role as the custodians of product information, salespeople are no longer the company’s best eyes and ears.
Digital analytics have replaced them as the monitors of buyer behavior and market dynamics, and as the early warning system for trigger events signaling new business opportunities.
In With The New
If buyers can find the information they need online, sufficient to evaluate and select a solution, and vendors can digitally track them, sufficient to attract and engage buyers with relevant information and support, what role does today’s salesperson play?
Fortunately, most B2B purchasing decisions are still made by humans.
More surprisingly, perhaps, research shows that ~90% of B2B decisions are made subconsciously, based on emotion rather than logic.
Earning the buyer’s trust is a key step in closing an emotion-based deal.
This means that, beyond the digital information, there’s a relationship layer that’s still critical to attracting new customers.
Does this necessarily mean human salespeople are indispensable?
Asimov never wrote “The Sales Robot” but there are certainly Asimovian overtones to the rise of chatbots and other emerging tools that apply artificial intelligence.
It’s easy to envision a future where, like Theodore in the movie Her, buyers form legitimate relationships with computer-generated sales representatives.
For the time being, humans are still our best resource for establishing relationships with potential buyers, especially the ones that readily press the button when offered the chance to connect with a human representative (even while knowing that they are probably in a call center many time zones away).
Another area where humans are still actively involved is account-based marketing and sales.
Rather than marketing to a wide audience and waiting to see who reacts, this involves intentionally targeting individuals occupying key buying roles at companies that meet your ideal customer profile (i.e. the right people at the right companies).
In old-school sales, this was known as cold calling and door knocking. But today, it’s an online endeavor, primarily using social media.
A cottage industry has sprung up to help identify those companies and individuals, including LinkedIn Sales Navigator and others.
Does this require human participation?
Well, we’re regularly bombarded by automatically generated messages that are easy to spot. They are often personalized, but they don’t feel personal.
For the time being, humans can still convince each other of their genuineness within a very short exchange of messages.
Once that trust level has been established – you’re real and you seem genuinely interested in my needs – a conversation can begin that reveals information about the buyer and their intentions. This is of value to the vendor, allowing them to support the prospect in progressing through their buyer’s journey.
Will AI and machine learning eventually make online interactions with computer generated avatars indistinguishable from human salespeople? Almost certainly.
Meanwhile, salespeople still provide an essential piece in the marketing-sales-service continuum responsible for the customer experience.
B2B companies that hope to lead (or continue leading) their sectors are adapting their organizations, processes, and technology to the information age.
Those that are slower to change run the risk of being left behind. And because this is an exponential change, as mentioned earlier, it will happen suddenly and dramatically.
B2B marketing, sales, and service is changing exponentially. The information age is heralding a dramatic shift from in-person to online research, evaluation, and selection of products and solutions, even in capital-intensive sectors.
Salespeople continue to play an important role because a majority of B2B purchase decisions are based on emotion, rather than logic. This can still be influenced by building human-to-human relationships – for now.
However, buyers increasingly expect a seamless, low friction experience and companies that are slow to adapt their processes and technology to meet that expectation will quickly lose ground to faster moving competitors.
Rather than traveling between client locations, frequenting trade shows, and cold calling prospects, salespeople should be retraining themselves to be effective on digital channels, especially social media.
As HubSpot’s Dan Tyre has emphasized, salespeople who persist with the traditional “always be closing” mentality are likely to scare buyers away before they get chance to close the deal. Instead, they need to “always be helping”.
This requires close collaboration between sales, marketing, and service teams to figure out how to be most helpful to each prospect, lead, active buyer, and customer.
Boots on the ground still has clear meaning in many service and support situations, where physically visiting, observing, and intervening is necessary to ensure a solution continues meeting the buyer’s needs.
In sales, however, it’s increasingly a game of virtual boots in cyber space. It doesn’t trip off the tongue like “boots on the ground” but perhaps that’s the next phrase we should coin?
Things You Can Do
If you are a shareholder or CEO, ask yourself:
- What does “boots on the ground” mean for my business?
- Are we relying on outdated thinking about sales processes?
- Are we leading the transition to digital marketing and sales?
- What is the risk that we get overtaken by a more agile competitor?
- Are we hiring or retraining salespeople to suit the information age?
If you are a Chief Revenue Office or Chief Commercial Officer:
- Evaluate whether your organization is sufficiently aligned around revenue
- Ask whether customer-facing teams are being trained for and deployed in roles appropriate for the information age
If you are a CMO or Vice President of Sales and Marketing:
- Ask whether your sales team is prepared for the digital transition
- Define what “boots on the ground” means for your marketing and sales team as the digital transition unfolds
- Research your competitors’ approaches and activities to assess their readiness for digital, and where the biggest threat might come from
- Develop a plan for hiring or retraining resources to become your virtual boots in cyber space and discuss it with other members of your leadership team
If you are a traditional salesperson:
- Ask yourself what could happen if your go-to customers suddenly replaced your established contacts with digital-savvy buyers
- Familiarize yourself with the digital channels buyers in your industry are using to research and evaluate products and solutions
- Consider what resources, training, and support you will need to adapt your approach to a digital-first world – and discuss those needs with your peers and leadership
- Be proactive and practice your digital engagement skills