Why Encyclopedia Britannica took twenty years to go digital- the sales force angle

1988 Ad Encyclopedia Britannica- StratoServe

Finally, Encyclopedia Britannica has gone digital (Reuters 2012) And it took 20 years for the 200 year old organization to do so.Above is a 1988 TV commercial and you can see the PC in evidence.¬† PC makers were already giving free Grolier Encyclopedia discs alongwith the IBM PC’s that came with Windows DOS. But Britannica managers were in denial. Lots of reasons but primarily¬† disbelief: This can’t be happening to us, we have been around for 200 years , we have world authorities writing on every topic….But there was also the pressure from the sales force at Britannica, a decent sales occupation if there was one.

Well into the 1990’s selling Britannica Encyclopedias was considered a great example in professional sales training classes. And why not? In selling encyclopedias you could make between $300-$4000/week in commissions. The primary role of the salesperson was to explain and inform the prospect at home how to look up stuff in the encyclopedia in presentations that could last two hours. Very much like the roof replacement or air conditioning sales call to home owners today. Getting the encyclopedia was as big a decision like getting a new roof or at least comparable amounts of money were involved. Understandably the sales force was powerful and must have influenced the marketing and advertising folks to continue to nurture leads via television advertising in 1992.  The inexorable march of digital technology, a better Internet with the democratically authored Wikipedia and great search engines finally has compelled the Britannica organization to go entirely digital.

So what does the Britannica story tell professional salespeople who sell high value products? Here are three things:

  • If you are in professional sales, a large part of your job has been to inform and educate the customer. And this applies to diverse categories from real estate and insurance to automobiles.
  • The information search is being taken over by the Internet so your customer (B2B or B2C) will search the Internet and educate herself/himself. So when you get to meet your prospect they are pretty knowledgeable. In fact, they are catching up on your industry as you wait in the lobby- to make that sales call!
  • You need to add value to what your customer already knows. OK check how much research your customer has done and encourage them to do more. And then articulate what value you and your product or service brings to the client.

In other words do an Internet search before your next sales call, and build your pitch beyond what you find.

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