"People buy from People" is a much loved mantra for B2B salespeople but it is increasingly untrue. Indeed, if the tectonic shifts in buyer behaviours over the past twenty years have proved anything, it could be that people prefer to buy from machines. Nonetheless, within Business-to-Business markets and particularly in Professional Services there is still a huge role to be played by People, for the very good reason that, in Professional Services, people are the product.
However, that does not mean that Professional Services sales and marketing have any chance of staying analogue, just that the People part of the product needs to be represented in the marketing.
Tom made a good point recently about the evolution of buying since the "Big Bang" in London first brought electronic trading to the stock market. These first products were highly-regulated and very well understood. So much so that a trader could execute a trade through a computer with just the stock Ticker Symbol and a price.
Some years later, online commerce arrived and Amazon showed the world how simple products could be sold - these required a product description be delivered before a purchase could be made with confidence. From here the evolution to complex products has been so complete that people now buy cars and other very high-value products entirely online.
However, the next shoe to drop was simple services with Uber and Airbnb creating sufficient trust that people will now get into a stranger's car at night or let them stay in their home. To do this, it was necessary to build trust online. People don't want to have to build a relationship with every car-driver or B&B owner, they prefer to make a pragmatic choice based around knowledge and trust.
Professional services are simply the next step in this continuum from simple services to complex ones, just as products have moved from books to, well frankly everything.
Being high-value complex services delivered by individuals, Professional Services require that the trust with the service provider be built on an individual basis. However, people will still want to educate themselves and decide on what they want online; to make an educated and pragmatic choice, in advance of meeting their chosen provider (and increasingly, without ever meeting that provider).
From this stand-point the idea that any professional should not have a robust professional presence online because they work for a large firm with a strong brand and plenty of work is much like a bookseller in 2000 saying that the internet won't affect them because they have a great spot on the high street.
Unfortunately, the idea that people will choose to work with a Professional because they know your firm or they like them is simply not true. People want to learn about your experts and their experience online. They want to make informed, sensible choices about whether you can help them, then they might, perhaps give you a bell.
So, how should salespeople move forward? First, it’s important to realize relationship selling is not a sustainable competitive advantage. People sometimes buy from people, but not because they want to -- usually, it’s because they have to. Second, you must accept technology is the preferred buying channel -- and it’s an ally not an enemy. Use it to your advantage and stop trying to resist it.