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Death of a Salesman: The Sequel

Much like Mark Twain said, reports predicting the death of the sales profession have been greatly exaggerated.

But in the five years since IA first posed the question “Death of a Salesman?” in our January 2014 issue, there’s no doubt that the pace of change and the evolution of the role of professional salespeople has increased exponentially.

So IA decided to revisit this fundamental question: Where is sales headed—and what does it mean for independent agents?

Here’s what four experts have to say.

Martyn Lewis

Martin Lewis, author of “How Customers Buy...& Why They Don't: Mapping and Managing the Buying Journey DNA,” released earlier this year, consults with Fortune 500 companies in 44 countries. His work has influenced more than 85,000 sales professionals.

IA: With the rapid pace of change in consumer behavior and technology, how do sales professionals need to adapt in order to thrive?

Lewis: We are in what we call the third generation of buyers. These buyers have all—and maybe too much—information at their fingertips thanks to technology. They no longer need to talk to salespeople to get basic information.

In fact, the buying process has become disconnected from the selling process, with buyers going far deeper into their buying journey before ever having to talk to a salesperson. Salespeople who simply pitch their product like a walking, talking brochure will find their days very numbered.

In today’s world, salespeople have to manage the entire buying journey. They have to bring the customer knowledge of not just their offering, but all the things the buyer may require or need. For example, they may need to help overcome issues such as financing or implementation. Salespeople should anticipate and support everything a buyer is likely to face in their end-to-end buying journey.

What does the B2B and B2C sales process look like today compared to in the past? 

There shouldn’t even be a sales process. The buyer is king. Nothing happens as a result of a sales process—it only happens as a result of a buyer going through a buying process. Thinking of the old traditional sales process only gets in the way and focuses on the wrong thing.

The only process that matters is the buying journey. For example, whether the salesperson has delivered a proposal actually means nothing at all. The salesperson has to recognize where their prospect is in their buying journey—or if they are even on a buying journey.

How will sales be different five years from now?

We should see the use of real-time analytics to help determine what the optimal selling and marketing activities should be based upon where customers are in their buying journey, and based on their specific needs and wants. Artificial intelligence will be used to quickly respond to a buyer’s needs—in many cases, providing information before the buyer even knows that they need it.

AI will not replace good professional selling. But it will take over a lot of the activities and act as a support tool to enable the salesperson to be at the right virtual or physical place, at the right time, with the right information. AI will monitor the real-time performance of sales and marketing activities to provide dynamic responses to customer queries and prompts for sales conversations.

Overall, in the next five years, we will see the buying process far more understood by selling organizations and far more carefully monitored, managed and measured.

Dr. John Riggs

Dr. John Riggs, director of the Centurion Sales Program at Stetson University, is an international speaker on evidence-based business practices in professional selling, sales management and translational research in business.

IA: How is the academic world attempting to understand the evolution of sales in recent years?

Riggs: There has been an explosion in peer-reviewed publications specifically looking at “sales and consumer behavior.” There has been a 268% increase in published academic research studying various aspects of consumer behavior and “sales.”

Much of the change in consumer behavior is directly related to e-commerce; electronic word of mouth (eWOM), such as consumer reviews, online reviews and consumer behavior on social networking sites; and, lastly, the idea of capturing consumer location data for analyzing consumer behavior.

There are obviously pros and cons for the salesperson related to the impact technology has on consumer behavior. On the positive side, the large volume of consumer data can really help a salesperson’s efforts related to prospecting, identifying potential customer leads and more.

It’s quite interesting to assess how technology impacts each step of the selling process. Early in the selling process, technology has a huge impact on activities like customer prospecting and pre-call planning. Technology plays a big role with respect to building relationships with customers, developing rapport and trust, via social media, for example.

Another interesting, and possibly provocative, position related to technology and salesperson impact is the conscious effort to limit or avoid use of technology. A rather robust debate is happening with respect to the misinformation that exists related to consumer reviews and social media posts. Large selling organizations are beginning to shift back to the personal contact and personal validation of consumer information.

What will the B2B and B2C sales process look like five years from now?

Salesperson roles and skills are already beginning to change, and many believe the trend will only accelerate in the coming years. Here are a few of the ongoing changes:

  • Changes in customer prospecting platforms

  • Decrease in face-to-face client meetings

  • Required increase in proficiency using online platforms with clients, such as Zoom, webinar platforms and GoToMeetings

  • Dramatic decrease in commission-only compensation plans

  • More sales specialists with particular areas of expertise

Alycia Sutor

Alycia Sutor is a managing director at GrowthPlay, a sales training and consulting company.

IA: How do sales professionals need to adapt in order to thrive in today’s world?

Sutor: As technology makes information easier and cheaper to access, buyers are well-educated and informed about what’s available to them. Sellers, therefore, need to shift from being just consultative order-takers to becoming curators, advisers and innovators.

It’s essential that sales professionals know how to help buyers think clearly and strategically about the need they’re trying to meet or the problem they’re trying to solve, working with them to connect the dots to the best solution. Salespeople who thrive are those who work with buyers collaboratively toward a desired outcome.

What will the B2B and B2C sales process look like a year from now? Five years from now?

We are seeing an increasing demand for accountability and transparency at all levels. Sellers who will win market opportunity are those who authentically embrace sales as an act of service, rather than self-interest.

Being motivated to help a buyer achieve an outcome will guide sellers’ behavior throughout the sales process. Successful sales will be rooted in generosity, authenticity and “other-centricness.”

More and more of the buying process will happen before a seller ever steps into the picture, so the opportunity for a seller to add value comes in how they behave and use the buyer’s time once they are part of the process. Sellers will need to know how to successfully connect with a greater diversity of interests, demographics and needs as people demand choice, respect and recognition of their differences, needs and desires.

Peter Gillett

Peter Gillett, CEO of Zuant, is a sales and marketing guru who developed the world’s first web-based CRM system funded by Lucent Technologies in the 1990s.

IA: How do sales professionals need to adapt in order to thrive in today’s world?

Gillett: The sales process now starts with a digital search. Using AI to monitor this activity and support people moving into the buying phase will be crucial to engage good salespeople at exactly the right moment.

What will the B2B sales process look like five years from now?

The old disconnected marketing and sales activities—and the appointment of new account managers with no previous knowledge of the relationship with a client—will hopefully disappear. What can emerge instead is a closer partnership between buyer and seller, with a much greater understanding of what’s required.

Of course, AI will be used to deliver more strategic and detailed sales proposals based on a better understanding of what the customer is actually looking for.

Oracle CEO Mark Hurd has referred to “Sales 3.0” thinking. How would you define Sales 3.0, and how is it different from 2.0?

From where I sit, Sales 3.0 seems to be about using technology to advise sales executives on who to call on, what the pitch to the customer should be to maximize the chance of closing the sale, and, finally, what the follow-up actions should be.

Frankly, I haven’t seen this in operation yet, and most of our clients are way off even Sales 2.0, where dashboards and reports provide this information for human interpretation and action. AI is really the key to enabling Sales 3.0 to happen efficiently for the sales team, and for sales management to review the team’s activity levels and map that against actual sales performance.

What will sales professionals need to do to achieve sales success now and in the future?

It’s really a numbers game. To achieve that, sales executives will need to have all the latest tech at their disposal, hard-wired with inside sales to ensure the flow of new sales leads and AI working on a daily basis to confirm the mix of phone calls, video messages and even good old face-to-face meetings. 

Written by Katie Butler, this article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of IA Magazine.

Sarah Labban