This blog post is based on the book by Graham Hawkins called The Future of the Sales Profession - how to survive the big cull and become one of your industry's most sought after sales professionals.
I have previously written about the situation before in my blog "Grandad, what was a salesperson?" but Hawkins' excellent book takes this to a new level.
Hawkins argues that the sales world is changing – becoming ever more difficult for sales professionals – because the buyer's world has changed:
- markets are maturing, barriers to entry in markets are dropping with new technology and businesses are failing to differentiate, leading to intense competition
- buyers have access to information and can buy without sales people – and actually prefer to do so
- businesses want fewer suppliers and are more risk-averse
- business decisions involve more decision makers – which exponentially impacts the likelihood of anything actually changing.
The sales profession is suffering. "Three out of four sales reps are failing" according to one study cited, and a Harvard Business Review study puts the figure at 63% – almost two thirds.
Hawkins concludes though that the profession has changed more in the last five years than it has in the last 130 and that sales has never been a tougher place to be. The cost to a business of running a sales force is huge and the outlook for many salespeople is uncertain.
Hawkins sites the adoption of lead generation, engagement and nurturing platforms such as technology such as:
- digital marketing and re-marketing
- social media channels
- content marketing
- marketing automation and analytics.
These technologies coupled with AI, machine learning and robotics means the need for a traditional sales force will become "increasingly obsolete".
Hawkins points to a future of "guided selling" and ever more advanced, technology-driven inside sales as an alternative to costly field sales operations in the medium term. Digital sales people with highly evolved digital skills will rapidly replace old school sales people he argues but he concludes that, within 20 years, AI will replace 95% of all sales jobs.
Hawkins goes on to add that customers values are changing too and argues that buyers simply don't value personal relationships in the same way. He quotes research by Forrester that states that 75% of B2B buyers think that buying from a website is more convenient than buying from a salesperson and that the majority of B2B buyers trust reviews online more than they trust advice from salespeople. Examining a typical B2B buyer's journey, it already appears that 60% or more is done without a salesperson involved and that buyers prefer to self-serve where they can.
There are exceptions. Hawkins points to instances where buyers do want to interact with salespeople such as complex, high value purchases or those requiring installation, implementation or services but in the main, he concludes that buyers are playing a different game and if they choose to interact with salespeople it is on their terms.
The cost of running a salesforce is increasingly expensive and employers face huge challenges as salespeople, seeing their role eroded – jump ship ever more frequently – only five per cent staying more than three years.
Hawkins believes that the profession faces a huge cull as the winning of customers becomes a more sophisticated team game. Only A-graders will remain. These people will be genuine experts – the kind of people whom customers would pay to have a conversation with.
Hawkins provides advice for salespeople in five key areas:
- setting a career direction
- selecting an area of specialisation
- developing commercial insights
- cultivating a personal brand
- identifying customer connection channels.
Embracing this change and moving into a new era will take honesty and courage. Conducting a personal SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis may not be something salespeople are familiar with. Finding a place where your personal passions overlap with demand today and growth potential tomorrow will be tough. Becoming digitally savvy and building our own online brand as a well-read and knowledgeable expert will be essential.
This excellent book reflects much of what we talk about at Intergage. For those in sales, marketing and business leadership roles this book is a terrific read and I recommend it wholeheartedly.