The digital transformation of sales

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Paolo Guenzi considers himself a humanist. At university he chose Marketing as his major “because it was one of the subjects that talked about human beings: consumers.” And it is people - with their feelings, their emotions, their moods – who continued to be the focus of his later research, an activity that has gradually expanded to encompass the world of salespeople and sales. But actually, as he says in the introduction of his most recent work, “managing salespeople means being in a position to impact the life of individuals, in flesh and blood.”

La transformazione digitale delle vendite (The Digital Transformation of Sales), published in February 2021 by EGEA, may appear to be a contradiction of the author’s values and interests, but looks can be deceiving.

The book is a clear-eyed reconstruction of what’s been happening in the sales sector in light of the ongoing digitalization processes in recent years. But Prof Guenzi’s analysis does not succumb to singing the praises of digital without reservations. Instead, the book accentuates the central role of salespeople in all the stages of the sales process.

We contacted Paolo Guenzi to talk about some central themes in his latest book.

In the introduction of the book, you say (with a touch of irony) that the digital world is “soulless.” Why did you decide to address this topic from a sales perspective? And what is the value of the human element in this context?

Companies are made up of people, and sales departments are the business units where personal qualities stand out the most. Digitalization is almost unanimously considered an opportunity, but we know that in interpersonal relationships it can also be a threat, because customers are people too, and they do have a soul. If we really want to be customer-centric, we mustn’t forget that. Integrating digital and the human element in market relationships is a difficult, necessary, fascinating challenge.

What are the biggest problems and opportunities for companies that are contending with digital transformation in the sales area?

The main problem is that, like with all new phenomena, there are no consolidated models or tools. Companies often have very strategic, generalized transformation projects, but they have a hard time applying them in individual departments, and in commercial processes in particular. But it’s precisely this difficulty that represents the biggest opportunity, because all competitors are dealing with it. So the one that moves first and moves in the right direction can gain great competitive advantages in terms of innovation.

An entire chapter of the book is dedicated to the use of digital & social selling tools in sales networks. What are the concrete advantages in sales processes?

Many companies see them mainly as useful channels for connecting with new customers. But our research, which we recap in the book, shows that they can also be powerful tools for listening to the market and generating insights. This second aspect is definitely neglected by companies and sales networks, which are often too focused on the short term.

In the many concrete examples we find in your book, what clearly emerges is the need for companies to plan their digital transformation management processes. What are the major obstacles to this?

The first one is being in a rush. The obsession with speed too often leads to being overwhelmed with operational urgency. Instead we need to dedicate all the time it takes to think, analyze, assess, and decide. The second obstacle is the lack of a systemic vision. Hyper-specialization leads to compartmentalized views of problems and opportunities. This is why I suggest adopting a perspective that centers on processes, which are transversal. The third problem is conformity, which we find both in people who are too conservative, and those who unconditionally embrace superficial interpretations of phenomena, uncritical generalizations, questionable ready-made formulas. I call them the “DigiTAlike” and the “DigiTaliban” – and both attitudes are dangerous.

Perhaps more than other corporate functions, the sales sector was pummeled by the Covid-19 pandemic. How have companies reacted? What consequences will this impact have on sales in the long run?

The pandemic has accelerated digitalization, often with regard to quite elementary aspects like managing customer contacts via videoconferencing tools. Of course, these tools were available before too, and it could have been useful for companies to adopt them under normal circumstances. But they didn’t, out of habit. I think in the long term this shock will lead companies and sales networks to reflect more on which processes actually provide added value. And they might be less conservative in modifying these processes when the time is right, regardless of reasons of force majeure.

La trasformazione digitale delle vendite is replete with practical examples inspired by major companies. The book is intended for anyone who wants to delve into a cutting- edge topic like digital transformation in sales: students, salespeople, and sales managers. A useful, interesting, and generous book - in fact all the royalties will be donated to La Gotita Onlus, a non-profit organization with the mission of improving the quality of life for children in need.(www.lagotitaonlus.org).





SDA Bocconi School of Management.

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