For as far back as I can remember, it wasn’t enough to have a good product, you also needed a strong sales person to get the customer to actually commit and sign the check. In fact, the lack of skilled sales people was and remains the limiting factor for many companies. As a product person, this has always frustrated me. I never liked having someone between me and my customers, but I understood the need for the sales person to maintain “account ownership.” But it doesn’t mean I liked it. In fact, for me personally, one of the big attractions of consumer internet services over enterprise companies is the free access to my customers. I don’t have to worry about some key influencer deciding he prefers the wining and dining from our competitor’s sales person over our own.

Unfortunately for those in sales, in virtually every market I see their role undergoing significant change. While I don’t really see sales people going away completely any time soon (the relationship component of large purchases is too entrenched in our culture, and there are too many situations where customers want someone to hold their hands through the process), I do see the role of human sales people continuing to decline and change dramatically. Customers now begin by educating themselves on the company’s products and services through the company’s web site, third-party product reviews, and discussion forums. Then they expect some form of online trial or self-guided demo. They expect online purchasing options, and online account tracking and customer service tools.

We already know there are several major customer benefits to shopping online, including convenience, product availability/selection, ease of purchase, and price. But we also know that there are some very real reasons why many people still prefer to buy offline. Let’s discuss these main barriers and consider what some leading companies are doing about these issues:

Fear – it wasn’t long ago that the press was filled with stories of users too scared to provide their payment/credit/debit card info online. Today, while there is still a segment of the population that feels this way, it is no longer a barrier in most developed countries. In fact, people now not only trust that established companies like Gap or Amazon will protect their payment info and deliver the goods they promise, but they also routinely trust individuals and small businesses, as personified by eBay and especially the contribution of their reputation system.

Immediate Gratification – often when we decide we want a product, we want it right now. For some types of products – likes music and movies – the online version can in fact provide even more immediate gratification than the offline options. It doesn’t get much faster than picking the songs you want on iTunes and immediately downloading them to your iPod. Certainly faster than it was to go to the neighborhood Tower Records. In other areas, with physical goods, sites have improved this with services like Amazon’s Prime, and in-store pickup (see www.circuitcity.com among others).

Need to Touch – one of the more difficult challenges is that for some types of products, customers really want to touch and feel the product before they take the plunge. Customer reviews help somewhat here, but part of the solution for some companies has been to make the product so easy to return that it really isn’t a bother to “try it on at home.” If you haven’t heard of Zappos yet you probably will soon (see www.zappos.com). They’ve lowered the barrier so much that it’s not unusual for a customer to order two or three pairs of the same shoes in different sizes and just send the ones that don’t fit back – or all of them if they decide they don’t like the style. Other sites have invested in user interfaces that provide improved ability to view the products and see what they might look like on you, or what the product would look like with the options you’ve selected (see www.bmw.com).

Returns – this relates directly to the fear that customers have that returns will be difficult. With certain offline retailers, customers know that they can just take the product back to the store for a refund or an exchange. But many customers still worry if they’ll get the same service online. Some retailers, like Zappos and REI (see www.rei.com), have made the ease of return one of their competitive differentiators, and central to their customer experience.

Customer Service – most of us that have bought online in any quantity have experienced just how bad customer service can be online. Especially when you encounter the perfect storm of poor site, poor product and poor customer service. But others are recognizing the customer loyalty that competent customer service can create, and are working hard on the overall customer experience.

All of these elements contribute to the overall customer experience. Some retailers in the offline world like Costco and Wal-Mart clearly focus on price and selection and believe that many customers will forgo most elements of the customer experience if they believe they are saving significant money. But when you go into a retailer like Starbucks, REI or Nordstrom, there’s an overall customer experience that they work hard to convey, as it’s a big part of the product or service that they offer.

Even products that are very difficult to sell online like cars and homes now have significant components of the buying process very well supported online, like research and pricing (check out www.consumerreports.org and www.zillow.com). So at the very least customers can arm themselves like never before in preparation for facing down the dreaded car salesman or timeshare sales rep.

I fully expect the barriers to continue to fall. I love watching smart people at leading companies take on each and every one of these obstacles. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, buying an ERP system or a car won’t be so influenced by the talents and persistence of the sales person and instead will be driven by the capabilities and fit of the product.

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