A Study of Selling

Over the winter, in the (hopefully) waning days of the pandemic, we at Beagle Research did a study of selling. Oracle sponsored the study and it included responses from more than 500 sales professionals and their managers.

The responses gave us good insights into selling in the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. For example, quota attainment dropped by just over 20 percentage points from 2019 to 2020, from 72% to 51%, before rebounding to 64% in 2021. This was no surprise. But what did surprise us is that the pandemic exposed shortcomings that have been present in selling for many years

For instance, one third of sellers admit not having adequate technology and training to support their efforts. Most, 54%, also said they didn’t have a sales methodology supported by technology to support their work. Many, 59% said they were engaged in non-revenue generating activities like mentoring new people or outright training them.

The pandemic also surfaced issues for buyers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) literally millions of mid-level white collar workers left their jobs in 2021, 4.36 million in September 2021 and another 4.16 million in October 2021.

This has come to be known as The Great Resignation. Many of these people had budgets and routinely bought things as part of their job responsibilities. So, the combination of over stretched sellers and absent or new buyers created a vacuum.

Sales organizations that had good CRM systems found they were able to provide buyers with information that would be institutional memory in other circumstances. Many they didn’t have such information easily at hand but the sellers with better information were at least potentially able to fill a gap.

Analyzing the Results

The big takeaway for me came in two parts.

First, after decades of promoting SFA, the uptake is seriously short of the mark. After all this time, large percentages of sellers aren’t sold:

  • Only 41% admitted that CRM helped them sell more;
  • 23% said it helps their manager but not them;
  • 33% said it’s great for data entry but not much else, and
  • 20% agreed that it takes too much of their time.

These numbers might seem small but they are huge if you are trying to get your sales team to make quota.

The result is a disinterest in much of CRM by professional sellers. Worse, these sellers find they have to use technologies outside of CRM and they have to keep the disparate data together in their heads. Often there is no integrated view of the customer.

The second takeaway is a real surprise.

While professional sellers may not want to work with conventional CRM, they have some experience with AI-driven systems and they appear ready to take on more. The simple reason for this apparent incongruence is that conventional SFA adds work.

We’ve made a strategic mistake of trying to simplify many processes rather than working to eliminate them. Today though, AI-based systems can offload simple tasks like assembling information to send to customers, assembling reports, qualifying leads, and recommending next best actions.

The net result is that more modern systems offload work while, at least in the minds of sellers, conventional systems add steps to their work.

Sellers Persevered

Interestingly, the CRM experience has not made rank and file sellers entirely skeptical of automation.

Our data shows they simply want systems that reduce the overhead of selling so that they can focus on the work and the demands of the last few years hold this in high relief.

The rank and file seem to be a hardy bunch. At times when offices were closing and people were leaving jobs to rethink their lives and careers, the vast majority of sellers (81%) hunkered down and did their jobs, often from home or other places outside of the office.

Ergo, although we saw a 20-point dip in quota attainment, we can say with some confidence that if there was a deal to be made, someone was trying, under difficult circumstances, to do it.

So, What’s Ahead?

The pandemic exposed some flaws in conventional selling that have existed for a long time. Under normal circumstances, hard work overcame the deficiencies, but we haven’t seen normal times in a while. Until very recently, salespeople did the best they could with systems that many felt did not support them well enough.

Artificial intelligence-based systems are changing how we work and perhaps just in time. AI won’t cure everything, but it comes along at an interesting time when the technology can provide real benefits and the sellers are apparently open to using it.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, some businesses are returning to the office and others continue working from anywhere or adopting hybrid strategies. All can benefit from the advantages of intelligent systems, and all of this is pointing to a paradigm shift once again led by CRM.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is a well-known CRM industry analyst, strategist, writer and speaker. His new book, You Can't Buy Customer Loyalty, But You Can Earn It, is now available on Amazon. His 2015 book, Solve for the Customer, is also available there. Email Denis.

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