What’s the Future of Selling?

I think about the future — perhaps too much. I recently read Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, and it made me think about the future of work. Rifkin’s thesis, encompassed by this rather cheery title, is that automation is taking on more and more jobs that once were thought to be the province of skilled labor.

That’s not exactly news. Already we’ve seen the elimination or scaling back of all sorts of jobs — from steel making to filing clerks, to manufacturing, and Rifkin believes that professional jobs are in the crosshairs even up to and including professions in medicine and law. What’s to become of us is an open question, and Rifkin suggests that local, social and collaborative will be as important for our kids and grandkids as work has been for us.

Reinventing the Process

All this made me think about the profession of selling. It seems to me that selling is low-hanging automation fruit, with only about 60 percent of reps making quota in a good year, according to CSO Insights.

Only 14 percent of SaaS reps made quota last year, as demonstrated by Xactly’s new benchmark study of the SaaS industry.

A cynic might ask, how is a computer going to make a sales call? There is great validity to that skepticism. However, whenever a paradigm changes, we see some recombination of activities that in many cases does not simply result in the replacement of, say, a file clerk with a machine. Automation eliminates the job altogether by reinventing the process.

So, what gives me some concern is that the path to reinventing the sales process is already upon us if we know what to look at. I don’t worry that machines will begin making sales calls as much as I understand that the need for conventional selling is being pared back by technology.

Will selling ever go all the way to zero human participation? Doubtful in the immediate future, I say. My dentist still has a completely manual filing system, for example.

However, if you look at the confluence of Big Data, crowdsourcing, the Internet, the expansion of online shopping — you realize that information delivery already is automated, and decision processes are largely there too. What’s left for the conventional sales rep is a shrinking territory.

No More Lone Wolves

At the same time, the modern marketer’s future never looked brighter. Understand, though, that a good marketer leveraging average machines and good software will be able to generate the revenue of many sales reps.

It’s hard to say what this means, but I can at least envision a future when marketers and their coworkers in call centers get pay and status bumps that likely will be performance related. Some of those marketers and CSRs will be sales people who reinvented their careers. A big part of the reinvention will center on learning to work in teams, being social and being collaborative, according to Rifkin. I agree.

The days of the lone wolf sales person are ending, I think, and that leaves a nagging question about what to do with the “surplus” talent that automation generates. That’s hard to say, because as Rifkin also points out, automation doesn’t always lead to generating more higher-value jobs elsewhere.

Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, though. We live in a dynamic economy, and we humans are adept at figuring things out when we need to. Still, I think it’s impossible to look at the constellation of forces embodied in the Internet of Things and social media, mobility, Big Data and analytics, and still believe that the change that will affect each of us is not happening right now.

The takeaway is never to become complacent. Never think you’re done — and always be searching for the next self-reinvention.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and website. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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