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Do We Need Sales People Any Longer?

by David Brock on August 6th, 2019

Recently, I was at a meeting hosted by my friends at Gartner. Scott Gillum made a provocative suggestion, “Do we need outbound sales any longer?” He followed that with a post.

As I reflected on the question, I think we can only discover the answer by changing the question, “Why do customers need sales people any more?”

Increasingly, the answer appears to be “They don’t!” We see all sorts of evidence supporting this. Customers are relying, increasingly, on other sources of information. They have solution provider web sites, influencers, referral sources, and other sorts of channels to learn about new solutions and how different supplier solutions might fit.

We also see customers voting with their time, they are becoming increasingly difficult to reach, they guard their time. Gartner data shows buying groups allocate roughly 17%* of their time to meeting with sales people (that’s not each person, that’s total).

We have all sorts of data showing how unhappy customers are with sales people: “They only talk about what they want to talk about,” “They don’t understand me and my business,” “They don’t understand their products,” or, “They waste my time.”

Sales leaders/managers are also doing things that seem to reduce the need for sales people–or perhaps SDRs. As they adopt strategies that, increasingly, try to make the buying process more transactional, one wonders, can there be a more effective way, further reducing the need for sales people, or at least SDRs. I wrote “What do Uber drivers and SDRs have in common,” as speculation about the future with fewer or no SDRs.

All of this seems to indicate the future of sales roles/jobs is pretty bleak. And it probably is unless sales people (driven by sales leaders/managers) change how we sell.

Stated differently, what the majority of sales people currently do creates little value to the customer. Unless we change significantly, customers will find other alternatives to help them buy.

After this very bleak set up, I’m extremely optimistic about the future of sales and selling! I think the demand for high value creating sales people will sky rocket, as a result the number of jobs for people that can fulfill this role will increase dramatically.

So the future is bright — but only for those sales people/leaders that can adapt to doing those things that create the greatest value for customers!

Here are some of my arguments:

  1. We’ve long known that customers struggle to buy. Gartner data shows 53% of buying decisions end in no decision made. These are customers that have an established problem and a need to buy, and funding. But they fail to navigate their buying group to a decision. The underlying reasons have little to do with selecting a soluton, but more to do in aligning the priorities, agendas, needs of the buying group and getting support up the management food chain. Great sales people, facilitating the customer buying process can help more of these people successfully complete their buying journey. Think of it, we (collectively) have the opportunity to nearly double our revenues, not by finding more deals but by helping customers successfully navigate their buying journey.
  2. With the introduction of Challenger, Insight Selling, Provocative Selling, we’ve learned the greatest opportunity is, perhaps, customers that need to change, but don’t yet recognize there may be better ways of achieving their goals. Sales people can play a tremendous role in driving new opportunity development by inciting prospect to change. But the skills, capabilities, and expertise to do this is very different than that which we seem to be developing. Not long ago, I suggested we change how we think of SDRs, in my post “My $500K SDRs.
  3. More recent Gartner data shows customers struggling to make sense of information they look at in the buying process. The good news is the volume of high quality information about alternative solutions is abundant. Marketing has done a fantastic job (I can’t believe I’m writing those words) in developing high quality, relevant content. The bad news, is customers are even more confused, even slightly skeptical with the information they are receiving. They struggle to make sense of this information overwhelm, sorting through those things that are most important, relevant to them. The emerging opportunity for sales people in creating value with customers is to serve as “sensemakers,” helping customers sort through the information, understanding what’s most relevant to them. Gartner will be providing much more information on the sales person as sensemaking, but Nick Toman, provides a great starting point with his post: How Challenger Sales Organizations Should Make Sense Of Sense Making.
  4. Along a parallel path with the folks at Gartner, I’ve been looking at the sales person as sensemaker, as well. As I look at the increasing complexity, rapid pace of change, overload, overwhelm, risk, and so forth, customers struggle with understanding and figuring out how best to achieve their goals. The sales person as sensemaker helps the customer better understand an cope with the complexity our buyers face. I’ve written about this a number of times, but the best starting points are: Turbulence and Fear of Buying, and Salesperson as Sensemaker.

The bottom line, is, our customers are struggling. They need help in understanding what they face in doing their jobs, identifying opportunities to grow and succeed, identifying threats they need to address, identifying things that enable them to improve and drive performance, or to just cope.

Those people who help customers do those things, those people who can create value with the customer in finding answers, those people who help customers make sense of what they face will be in high demand and highly valued by customers.

Customers urgently need sales people who can help!

The opportunity for both customers and sellers is phenomenal–it’s just different from what too many do now. Those sales people and organizations that make this transition will be those customers most value.

  1. Excellent article David. You do a great job of articulating why the future can be bright for sales reps who choose to serve in a new way. I especially agree with your point #3 – the salesperson as sense-maker. Information overload and too many choices causes prospects to freeze and often leads to a no-decision. Today’s successful reps see themselves as guides, not directors and coaches, not closers.

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