Sales rep vs Self-service – let’s end the debate

One common theme in most of my conversations with wholesalers and distributors these days is the evolving role of sales reps. It’s hard to count the number of times someone has told me that they don’t see sales reps as the future; instead, self-service is the future. The debate often tilts towards extremes, but I’ve learned from numerous conversations with industry insiders that the truth lies somewhere in between.

The Balancing Act

This subject requires a more intricate and thoughtful analysis, as adopting extreme strategies could adversely affect wholesalers. A carefully considered approach is necessary to structure sales operations effectively, invest wisely in technology, and enhance sales channel efficiency. It’s crucial to balance different elements in the strategy, ensuring that the operational design, technology adoption, and sales channel management are well-aligned with the evolving market demands and business goals.

Today’s customers prefer an omnichannel buying experience; they want to buy from you online, they also want to visit the showroom and look at products, and they also require sales assistance to complete some of those transactions. By 2025, Gartner expects 80% of B2B sales interactions between suppliers and buyers to occur in digital channels.

Another way to think of this problem is by asking, “Is my business ready to run entirely via digital commerce? “

To answer this question, we need to apply the “Complexity Framework.”

The complexity framework

A practical approach to evaluate the need for sales reps in your business is through the ‘complexity framework.’ This involves assessing the percentage of revenue coming from complex sales versus straightforward ones. Complexity here encompasses the product, logistics, and after-sales service.

The more complex the sale, the more the customer will find it hard to complete the transaction completely online and will require assistance from a sales representative.

The lower the complexity, the higher the likelihood that customers can proceed with the order themselves with minimal to no intervention.

For instance, industries like construction often deal with high-complexity sales, necessitating a more hands-on approach. In contrast, lifestyle products like apparel or jewelry typically involve lower complexity, lending themselves more readily to self-service models.

Investing in Digital Technology

For the lower complexity segments of your business, investing in robust digital platforms is essential. Provide your customers a streamlined process for placing orders, settling invoices, and monitoring their order statuses.’

To stay competitive in the era of modern marketplaces, it’s crucial to not only streamline the purchasing process but also to enhance your delivery efficiency and simplify the return process for your customers.

Evolving the Role of Sales Reps

Once your digital infrastructure is in place, redefining the role of your customer-facing teams is crucial.

Kristina Harrington of GenAlpha Technologies, as cited by Digital Commerce 360, emphasizes that.

There’s no reason for ecommerce to threaten a sales team―they’re still just as important as they’ve always been―they just need to see the benefit of working with commerce, and to believe it.
You must reassure your sales team and make them champions of your e-commerce adoption.

But before you do that you need to understand your sales reps fears and why the resist ecommerce adoption.

  • Apprehension About Customer Relationship Autonomy: Sales representatives often have apprehensions about relinquishing their direct influence over customer relationships. They are protective of their client accounts and are wary of the idea of a digital system or another colleague potentially disrupting their established client connections.
  • Concerns Over Sharing Sales Information: In the world of sales, information is a key asset, and sales reps frequently view their customer data as exclusive to them. There’s a reluctance to share this valuable data with others in the organization who might use it more effectively, thereby diluting their perceived advantage.
  • Worries Regarding Potential Income Reduction: There’s a prevalent concern among salespeople that adopting an order management system might lead to reduced earnings. They fear being pushed into unfamiliar product or service territories and facing challenges in competing against more knowledgeable colleagues within the same territory.Now that you know the reason of your sales reps fear and resistance work to alleviate them so that they drive ecommerce adoption and not resist it. Here’s how :
  • Create Transparency: Ensure reps are aware of online orders to alleviate fears of being replaced.
  • Create a culture of acceptance and change: Make sure to create a culture of acceptance among various team members, showing them why change is essential, involving them in decision-making, and letting them know their contributions matter.
  • Incentivize Tech Adoption: Consider offering higher commissions or bonuses for reps who successfully onboard customers to your digital platforms. Also offer them commission when the leads they brought in buys from the storefront.
  • Coach more—and more often – Sales leaders should implement formal mentoring and training programs for both new and seasoned sales representatives. Mentorship should become a mandatory aspect of the roles for all leaders and experienced sales staff. Each salesperson is paired with a coach, and incentives are offered for consistent one-on-one interactions. These include participating in simulated sales call observations and informal online meetings for casual updates. Such focused strategies enable sales representatives to enhance their skills and performance more efficiently and make them feel more connected to the organization.
    Remember, a robust e-commerce platform is not just a cost but a revenue generator. It offers customers the convenience of placing orders anytime, potentially increasing sales volume.

From Sales Reps to Consultants

Transform your sales reps into consultants and make them focus more on complex projects and closing those transactions.

It could be helping a customer working on a project to put together a proposal that encompasses all their needs or working on the more complex part of your business which buyer’s can’t place orders themselves.

For example if you are in LED lights, and a good chunk of business is from hospitality projects, its not always easy for those customers to understand how to go from their project to a bill of materials of what they’ll need from you, train your reps and give them tools and knowledge to help customers answer those questions.

Focusing on Large Customers

Your sales force should concentrate on nurturing relationships with large customers, while an inside sales team could cater to smaller businesses with simpler needs. This approach ensures that all customer segments receive appropriate attention, enhancing overall satisfaction and technological adoption.


The future of wholesaling isn’t about choosing between sales reps and self-service; it’s about integrating both into a cohesive strategy. This approach acknowledges the varying needs and complexities of different sales scenarios, ensuring that your business remains adaptable, customer-centric, and competitive in a rapidly changing marketplace.

In conclusion, the debate between sales reps and self-service in the wholesale and distribution industry isn’t about one replacing the other. It’s about leveraging the strengths of both to create a seamless, efficient, and customer-friendly buying experience. By adopting a nuanced approach that considers the complexity of your products and services, you can develop a strategy that not only meets but exceeds the evolving expectations of your customers.

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