It’s no news. Things have changed a great deal since Arthur Miller wrote his play Death of a Salesman. In the intervening years the world and our lives, have been transformed immeasurably by digital technology.

It reaches into every area of our lives making the previously impossible or impractical perfectly do-able and speeding everything up beyond anything we could have imagined twenty or even ten years ago.

Meanwhile generations of new consumers with no experience of a world without computers and for whom digital technology is the default, have left us with a generation gap way wider than that of the sixties.

Older generations dad-dance the digital paradigm, but those born into a world of tech have a relationship with it that it’s impossible for anyone over forty to share, whatever they may believe.

If you have teenage kids, you’ll be used to them spending hours interacting only with screens. Younger generations have told us they don’t want conversations. 61% of Gen-X are explicit — the last thing they want is to be engaged by a salesperson.

And why should they? All the information they need to make any kind of decision or purchase is available on-line. Most of it is easily accessible and all younger age-groups want is for that information to be even simpler to access.

Traditional sales people may be hanging on to the faint hope that it’s a phase and “normal” service will eventually be resumed.  The problem is there is no sign of this happening. Quite the reverse in fact. Researches show the momentum is in the opposite direction. All the evidence points to later generations being more adamant. They simply don’t want salespeople, so if this is the career you have in mind, it’s time for some personal re-branding.

Part of this is the fault of salespeople themselves.

When you think about it, the role of a sales person emerged only because manufacturers had to convince people that they really needed their products. But this would never have been necessary if producers had offered products and services that met genuine need.

Consumers’ needs have always been identifiable. The problem has been that businesses servicing those needs have lacked the resources, or sometimes the inclination, to deliver. Firms have created the closest they could get to what people wanted and filled in the gap with smart selling techniques. Many have even been able to sell products and services for which there was no real need at all. That’s when salespeople really came into their own. That is, until digital technology changed everything and revealed the compromises that most products and services really represented. 

In the minds of most people the term “salesman” conjures images of Jordon Belfort (The Wolf of Wall Street) or Del Trotter (Only Fools and Horses). Salespeople are certainly not trusted and why should they be. We know what their job is — persuade people to buy stuff, regardless of their need. Salespeople are incentivised to shift the units and they get paid by volume, not customer satisfaction metrics. It’s not hard to see why most salespeople could do with personal re-branding.

However, the tables have turned …

Information is power and that’s now in the hands of consumers. The lines between what is needed and what is desirable may have blurred for a while and swathes of society may not have been very discerning, but responsible consumption is increasingly replacing the conspicuous consumption that resulted from this and, these days, consumers know as much, if not more than salespeople do, about available products.

Digital technology delivers consumer intelligence to firms and product information to customers, probably in equal part in a single click of a mouse (although few businesses are very good at collecting and analysing it). There are no longer any excuses, suppliers can now create and deliver exactly what people need — thoughtfully designed products, better made, more readily available, with less hassle and at a lower price. 

We are living in the “more for less” era. Consumers are in the driving seat and they know it. There simply is no place for the kind of compromises our purchases have represented in the past. Consumers know exactly what they want. More significantly, they can be sure someone out there will deliver it. They don’t need a salesperson trying to fob them off with a near miss they just need to find their way to the source of that perfect solution.

If you are a salesperson, it’s time for personal re-branding.

Luckily, there is still a need in the business world for some of the traits that made salespeople successful. The ability to be able to win trust is a case in point. Building relationships like this is important to the success of any business these days and as things are now moving so quickly anything that will help the sales process keep up, is valuable.

Now that the sales process is pretty well digital, instead of trying to justify what is clearly an obsolete function, people with skills like these should be examining the current business environment to find areas where they now apply. This is, after all, exactly what businesses everywhere are having to do right now. We call it “business transformation”, but the same process applies whether you are an individual or an organisation.

I start the business transformation process by defining the brand with a “brand model” that adopts twelve “coordinates”. These include things like “character traits”, “values and beliefs” and “purpose” and that’s exactly where personal re-branding should start. Once you are clear who you are, you can start to consider where you fit in to today’s world. That in turn sets you on the road to community building — gathering around you the people whose support you’ll need to go to market. This dictates your strategy and the perpetual process of filling in the gaps in your skills-set, so you can maintain your usefulness in our ever-changing society.

Honesty is the best policy

There’s nothing wrong with personal re-branding. Transformation, for any business it’s the tenet of the digital era. However, you have to be organised about it to make any kind of progress. Above all you must be truthful, both with yourself and with your stakeholders. When deceit is revealed (and it is “when” not “if”), it will inevitably destroy the trust that’s essential to business or personal success.

We’ve always spoken of “helping” customers, but the truth is businesses have tended to manipulate them and salespeople have been their primary tool. Now is the time to right past wrongs. One of the buzz-words of the digital era is “transparency”. The truth is out there and the internet places it within reach of anyone with the patience to look. 

While we often hear about scams and the Internet’s power to deceive, it’s biggest strength by far is it’s ability to reveal. This can be in the form of advice and instructions, but it’s also been responsible for bringing businesses around the world to their knees, exposing them as frauds, revealing their lies. As hard as they may try to operate beneath a cloak of deceit, the truth can’t be buried so deep that it won’t surface at some point. Witness the auto industry’s “dieselgate” where global manufacturers have been shown as guilty of “massaging” emission figures.

Businesses rely less on manipulation these days, simply because the back-lash from having been found guilty of deceit is far greater than any business can afford. Honesty is definitely the best policy. Transparent businesses and brands also achieve more because they aren’t distracted by their efforts to maintain a facade. Their resources can be more profitably applied to the pursuit of “purpose” and it’s the same with individuals.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are, but be sure to apply your talent to something relevant to the digital age and remain keen to learn. Reveal and fill those gaps in your personal proposition, acknowledge and correct your faults and weaknesses to ensure you are always useful to society.

Today salespeople must shift to a more consultative role. Automated sales process will only become more efficient and, ultimately, I can’t think of a sector where businesses will need traditional salespeople. However, customers and prospects still need advice and guidance and they will seek out sources they feel they can trust, although it will rarely be face-to-face.

The Internet, has proved it’s worth again by revealing the self-serving motives of paid “influencers. As a consequence buyers have become even more discerning. They seek out reviewers who don’t have a connection to the manufacturers and have turned to instructive YouTube channels and on-line publications with advisory videos and articles that caveat their connection with manufacturers. Emerging media like these represent new opportunities for people who might otherwise have embarked on a traditional sales career. Their combination of extroversion, knowledge and those important abilities to establish trust and communicate, makes them ideal content presenters and writers.

The aim of every business these days is to create an automated business pipeline and the first step in nearly all of these is content. This points to just one of a number of obvious alternative career paths for people with the skills that would otherwise have taken them to a sales role.

However, it’s not for everyone and they are not the only show in town, which is why you need to go through your own Brand Discovery process, as would any business, to identify the opportunities, measure your capability against them and develop your personal re-branding strategy.

Phil Darby
May 12, 2022

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