For many years, provocateurs have been able to stir people up by proclaiming the death of the salesperson. Ten years ago, in fact, Marc Miller authored the book Selling is Dead. It must be a lingering death, because I still know lots of salespeople. I sure hope they have their affairs in order, what with their impending demise foreshadowed for so long.
More recently, Forrester Research published a more measured take on the topic of the death of the salesperson: “Death of a (B2B) Salesperson,” and it made some interesting assertions — most notably that e-commerce would eliminate a million sales jobs by 2020, which works out to roughly one in five of the existing sales positions currently in existence.
The Forrester report targets a type of salesperson it calls “an order taker” for extinction. Those are people who simply fulfill customer requests and don’t really do much of what you would call selling. They may get a commission, but they’re doing something that can be automated.
That type of worker isn’t going extinct only in sales — anyone who does a job that can be automated easily is going to be out of a position soon and should start a career path assessment path now.
Many B2B salespeople do much more than tend to order-placers — they’re actually selling. Increasingly, they’re aided by technology that provides them with insights into the buyers they’re trying to reach. However, as the pendulum swings toward technology, salespeople need to exert caution.
The danger is not that they can’t adopt new technology, because the good ones have shown they can. The danger comes in emphasizing technology over traditional sales talent, rather than allowing the two to complement each other. That can result in salespeople who run through the proscribed steps for a sale but never close any business — they’re data-rich but deal-poor. As one wag said, it’s not about the death of sales people, it’s about the dearth of sales talent.
The Human Component
Salespeople need to change with the markets they sell to; this has been true as long as people have been competing to exchange goods, services and money. The order-takers need to change — not the technology they’re using, but their own selling skills across the board.
Consider how the vendors of CRM and SFA software have affected what’s been seen as a priority in the recent past. Starting roughly 10 years ago, the emphasis swung to social selling, using social media data.
There was precious little attention paid to how to use that data most effectively, but a heck of a lot of attention focused on the technologies to glean the data, organize the data, prioritize the data and so on. That attention continues to this day.
However, now we’re in the big data era for sales, and the focus is on collecting, collating and coordinating data from a host of different sources — but, again, there’s not much focus on using that data the right way.
Technology is only part of the solution. People do not buy from technology — they buy from other people. Over the last 15 years, the conversation about improving sales performance often has devolved into a discussion of technology, and that’s left a hole in our awareness of the real needs of sales reps for development of the human sales skills of the kind that maximize technology’s impact on results.
The Right Balance
There is some evidence that the tide may be turning. One task that’s growing in importance for sales managers is coaching. It was cited as the third most impactful thing a sales manager could do in a June 2015 Sales Management Association study, showing that managers are being pressured to get results from their sales teams.
However, that pressure is out of whack with what senior leadership compensates managers for; only 28 percent of companies used coaching objectives in their evaluation of sales manager success, and only 16 percent used coaching objectives in determining sales manager compensation, the same study showed.
Sales reps become profitable in the third year on the job, on average, according to research conducted by Sirius Decisions. Unfortunately, that’s often the exact time they start looking for new opportunities. The culture of the sales department, the compensation, and the perceived sales opportunity presented by the products play a huge role in keeping salespeople — but so does training.
The training content is different for experienced reps than it is for new hires, of course, and training always will battle for a spot on sales reps’ calendars. However, continuing professional development of sales reps gives reps additional abilities to sell, meaning that they close more deals for higher amounts — meaning bigger commissions for them and better revenues for the company.
It also sends an important churn-fighting message: The company cares about continuing professional improvement for its sales reps — they are not mere cogs in a selling machine.
If the balance between technology and training is correct, it will pay off for your business in a host of ways: greater sales performance; happier sales staff; reduced sales staff churn; and a greater payoff on your technology investments.
So, the next time you’re thinking about shoring up a sales shortcoming with technology, think about also reinforcing your sales staff’s skills — building their talents will maximize your return on investment and set you up for more closed deals and higher revenues in the future.