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Is The Profession Of Sales At An Inflection Point?

by David Brock on March 30th, 2011

“An Inflection Point is a point on a curve at which the sign of the curvature changes.”

“Think of it [and inflection point] as a turning point….This profound change could be positive or negative.”

In sales, particularly B2B sales, I think we are at an inflection point.  In the past 100 years, I believe there have only been two other inflection points in sales.  But this one is different than the other two.  For those that recognize it and embrace it, the opportunity can be extraordinary.  For some, missing it will mean failure.

Let’s step back a moment.  I believe there have only been two other inflection points in sales in the past 100 years.  The first, probably was driven by the works of Dale Carnegie who started formalizing the role of the sales professional, developing methods, principles, and approaches which, when consistently implemented drove the effectiveness of people who sold.

The second, was driven by the works of Neil Rackham and Mack Hanan in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  Their works shifted the focus of B2B sales people to be more customer focused, value oriented, and consultative in their approaches.  They introduced stronger processes, methodologies, and disciplines associated with this customer focused and consultative approach.  They were the real drivers in putting the customer at the center of sales.  A great number of other thought leaders, like Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman, helped accelerate sales adoption of this change through their works.   Since then, there has been a huge amount of good work.  A lot of great research in the academic world, many important books that have had a great impact on me and millions of other professionals.  But all this work has been primarily derivative of Neil’s and Mack’s works or extensions of it.

These two inflection points have something in common, they were driven from within the profession.  They were fundamentally changes initiated by insightful sales professionals and executives, and have been sustained within the profession.

We are at a new inflection point, something which presents great opportunity.  But this inflection point is different from the previous two.  This is the first inflection point that is not being driven by sales, but rather by customers!  Kind of scary isn’t it?  The most profound change to our profession is being driven from outside our profession.  The rules are changing and we aren’t making them (as if we ever really did).

We’re still trying to understand what this means, we’re struggling to discover new processes, methods, disciplines, skills, roles, and responsibilities.  We have many opinions about what they are, many of those are converging.

Since this inflection point is different, we have the opportunity to address it differently.  Where in the past, the changes were driven within the profession, perhaps this is the opportunity for us to change the way we drive the changes.  Perhaps this is the opportunity not to do it by ourselves, but to embrace the customer in helping us to define the new methods, processes, skills needed to take advantage of this inflection point.

I’m interested in your views on this.  I’ll be writing much more on this.  One of the things I believe is happening simultaneously, is that marketing is at an inflection point.  Couple these together and opportunities abound. 

One thing is certain, there could not be a more exciting time to be in sales!

This coming Monday, April 4,  at 2:00 PM EDT, Dave Stein, Charlie Green, and I will be starting a conversation about this at a Roundtable:  Professional Sales, Are We At An Inflection Point?  Join us, it should be a great discussion.

  1. Hi David,

    Great post. It inspired me to read your “Sales Force Ineffectiveness” series as well, to get a better understanding of the challenges you see the profession facing.

    So I make sure I understand your perspective, the current/third inflection point is the tables-turning, customer-driven, web-powered sales process where the seller is no longer a gate keeper to information?

    It’s a great insight, as so much of the talk about Sales 2.0 is about the tools and communities where sellers can promote themselves. What I hear you saying, though, is that we’re really just trying to keep pace with our prospects and customers.

    I don’t think that the tables will ever turn so fully that salespeople will become order-takers. Time is too precious and the options are too varied on the buy side. But at the very least, everyone needs to know that after a great meeting, the audience is all over the web to read what everyone else thinks about the company, the product, and yes, the salesperson.

    One of the reasons that “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” is because no one could post IBM product reviews in a globally-accessible resource for future buyers. This is a great time to be a salesperson, because no matter what size company you are working for, from IBM on down, your prospects are going to be much more open to your solution… as long as your other customers are talking about how happy they are.

    • Matthew, it’s great to hear from you—thanks for such a thoughtful comment! I would characterize things a little differently (and it may simply be wordsmithing). I think the web and it’s rich research capabilities have facilitated the change in buying behavior and put the customer in charge–but I think the change was happening anyway. I would hate this conversation to be about Sales 2.0 tools and you indicate the same thing. Customers have very different expectations of sales people and it would be mistaken to think that sales people would ever be relagated to order takers–frankly, those jobs have already been lost (with more to come).

      The role of the sales person is very different and much broader. I talk about it in my post of last week called Sales Professional 3.0. What the sales person does, the skills needed, how they work–within their own companies, and with customers. I am convinced you are right—this is a great time to be a sales person, as long as we recognize how our jobs are changing and jump on that curve.

  2. Hi David,
    Great post! As a salesperson in the corporate IT world for some 20+ years, having gone through the gammit of ‘get the sale at any cost’ and ‘always be closing’ through to Solution Selling, Neil Rackham, Tactical Account Selling and all the others, there tended to be some ‘key components’ missing in all the sales training which I think are critical today to provide value, satisfy and meet the needs of our already well educated clients.

    Now that I am training, coaching and speaking to a target market that includes salespeople, they are realising too that there is more and so based on that I believe we are at that point of inflection as well.

    As a result this missing link can make or break the business relationship.
    My belief is that it is not in the mechanics of how the sale is constructed, demonstrated or closed – it is in the intent of the salesperson as a person connecting with another person and truly understanding the purpose of the relationship.

    Cutting through all the fears, uncertainty and doubt that most sales careers are based on and learning to engage at a deeper level, is a huge differentiator for any sales business and therefore I believe the inflection point is moving more toward personal leadership skills, knowhow and development for the salesperson to have them grow and contribute and truly connect with internal and external clients. I think that is a component of the difference that makes the difference.

    • Bernadette: Great insights! I think the personal leadership skills are critical in the new world of selling. Sales people will have to lead informal teams of people from within their organizations, partners, and even customers. Knowing how to lead, align, and get people to collaborated will be a critical skill. Thanks for reminding us of this. Regards, Dave

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