The Future of Sales

Sales was a very structured, researched and predictable function. Since the late 80s, researchers have been looking into what makes a sales organization great. The progress in these decades was immense: we now understand how commissions should work, what sales collateral is standard and also how specialization is done.

When the first CRMs appeared in the 90s, they digitized a physical book of records, and started increasing the efficiency of teams.

We’ve come a long way since then: in Mark Roberge’s words, technology “turned the buyer-seller relationship completely upside down”.

Technology has reduced people’s attention span, increased access to information, but also increased exponentially the outreach possibilities (think of all the unsolicited emails you receive!), which seemed like the obvious, marginally free way to add leads to your pipeline.

As you’d expect, those tactics rarely work. If sales teams still need to engage with each lead and do data entry, what’s the next step for sales?

“I’d be more worried about being replaced by another salesperson who is empowered by intelligence than by a machine.”

- Peter Schwartz, SVP Strategic Planning, Salesforce

The middle ground is going away. Very fast.

If you think about every sales function today, all of it has been affected by technology, but depending on the complexity and specificity of the sales process, it can mean that that function is becoming more relevant, or going away completely:

The middle ground is disappearing: not adding value to the sales process as you interact with the potential buyer means that your job can and should be automated, i.e. pushed into the bottom of the pyramid.

There’s nothing wrong with automation, but, at least in the foreseeable future, it will not mean high value, so it’s going to be difficult to justify big money spent this way. In other words, you can justify buying a simple tool for $ 20–50 a month, but it gets harder when moving to the hundreds of dollars a month.

That leaves us with the top of pyramid: high touch, highly knowledgeable interactions with your potential buyers. And that’s a great thing: this is where the sales job is more interesting and where you deliver more value to your customers.

How to become a high value sales team

In the past, sales would focus primarily on product and market (competitive landscape). To be high value, you need to unlock the next two sections: know the segment you’re selling to, and know each individual client.

To add to this complexity, in the past you could get all the initial training on two weeks of onboarding, but now, specially for the last two sections, this is an ongoing effort. Not every quarter or every month. Not even every day — the aim should be being on top of the information game in every client interaction.

This means that you’ll spend more time on each client: co-creating a solution, understanding its competitive landscape, researching new opportunities or potential risks.

The current sales dilemma is that teams want to use automated tools to increase sales efficiency, but they actually need a more bespoke approach for each client.

We need to augment the sales work, not replace it.

Huh — this sounds like a lot more work to me!

There are new tasks, for sure, but you get rid of the ones you probably like the least: data entry and manual research! Those two will be the first to be automated in this transition.

You can focus on co-developing a strategy with your client instead of completing their name, company size and email on Salesforce. Which sounds more exciting?

The tools for the job

CRMs, at the end of the day, are static databases with customer data. All of them are evolving to serve the consultant salesperson we are talking about in this article. For Salesforce specifically, they even gave it a name: Salesforce Einstein. This doesn’t mean that the traditional CRM is going away — we actually need to build on top, not in parallel to them. It needs to self-update and self-manage as much as possible, so that the sales consultant can focus on the customer.

Peter Schwartz, Salesforce’s SVP for Strategic Planning (quoted above) prefers the term “augmented intelligence” instead of artificial intelligence, and I think that’s spot on.

Evaluating success

New sales organizations are not going to compensate reps on the binary outcome of turning leads into clients. They will include customer success and NPS for example. Hubspot is already doing this.

Specialization is not going away, though. This one on one, consulting approach doesn’t mean that sales specialization is over: it actually means it’s more important than ever. You should know your region or client segment better than anyone else.

* * *

I’m personally very excited to see and be a part of this transition from pushing products and services to consulting sales. At the end of the day, nobody wants to buy technology for technology’s sake. We want our problems solved, and sometimes we even need help identifying these problems, let alone coming up with the right solution.

That’s why we need an experienced, high value salesperson to work with us and help navigate our current situation. This person’s work is empowered by technology to get a better view of our competitive landscape, product offering and differentiation and efficiency of internal processes.

The sales job becomes more strategic and high value, and it means that your business can capture more of that value too (i.e. charge more!).

Today, having this approach to sales is a differentiation proposition that delivers real results, but in a not-so-distant future, it’ll be a matter of survival.

Would love to hear your thoughts on the future of sales — what do you think? Any area that we missed? Specially if you disagree, please do let us know :)

Further learning

Articles we used when researching for this post

Podcasts we love listening to

Bowery Capital Sales Podcast

The Growth Show

SaaStr Podcast

Masters of Scale

If you care about sales, here’s the books we recommend

Sales Acceleration Formula

From Impossible to Inevitable: How Hyper-Growth Companies Create Predictable Revenue

Play Bigger: How Rebels and Innovators Create New Categories and Dominate Markets

— Reposted from the Attentive Blog.

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