Let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s extend all the trends we see around the mechanization and automation of sales. Let’s look at emerging trends around the rep-free buying experience some research is showing. Let’s throw in a dollop of AI, ML, and a handful of Bots.
Let’s pile onto this already intriguing combination a lot of supporting research, showing the decline in the number of sales jobs. We can stir in some trends around work from anywhere, virtual selling, and perhaps a bit of wishful thinking and we can imagine:
There is an argument that salespeople will no longer be necessary, there will be no salespeople.
No, this isn’t a variant of the joke, “What do you call 600 Lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!” Though many of our customers might think this about salespeople, and many within our organizations might agree.
We’ve already seen some trends supporting this premise:
- In retail, we are seeing people increasingly leveraging on-line channels. Personally, I despise shopping–not because of the retail sales people, just because buying online is so much easier. At the same time, we are seeing some counter trends–some led by the giants of online shopping. For years, Amazon has been experimenting with and opening increasing numbers of retail stores. There’s something about the in person shopping experience people crave. Recently, I saw a report on number of retail store locations. After years of decline, we are seeing a reversal. The forecast for retail outlets over the next several years is increasing.
- In transactional buying, where there are categories of solutions where people are well informed and deeply experienced in buying, there’s an argument to fully automate the sales function. Already we script every word and every step of our selling process. We emulate processes that have been proven in manufacturing, such as the Toyota Production System (TPS), to mechanize our interactions with buyers, with the goal of making them perfectly predictable. We have conversational intelligence tools that are literally on the cusp of putting words into the mouths of sales people. Add on the developments in bot technology, particularly in conversational bots, we can imagine bots executing sales conversations with customers with zero deviation. We don’t have to worry about whether a bot might have an off day, distracted by children, family, or wondering how they get a promotion. The efficiency is much higher than people, the process can be executed automatically with zero variation, they don’t need lunch, coffee or pee breaks, and they cost much less than sales people. Layer on top of that the bots we already are using on our websites and in our phone systems. It’s very easy to imagine the complete automation of all the simple transactional sales. No more SDRs, no more AEs, no more demo jockeys.
- As we look at complex B2B buying, we are seeing similar trends–but at a slower pace. Much of this is being driven by customers, rather than sales management focusing on volume, efficiency, and selling cost reduction. Customers are still looking for help, but they are looking to sources of help other than salespeople. It’s faster and easier for them to search. They can learn more, more effectively in their digital buying journey. Currently, sales people only occupy 17% of the time customers spend in their buying efforts. 83% is spent learning from other sources and working with the buying team. Right now, 43% of customers prefer a rep-free buying experience and projections show this growing to 60% in the next couple of years (We do have to be a little careful with this, I suspect the data includes responses from well educated transactional buyers.)
- Overlay on top of all of this, the increasing challenges of recruiting, onboarding, supporting sales people. Investments in technology are skyrocketing, while utilization of these technologies is pathetic. Finding people is becoming increasingly difficult and they want more–more flexible hours, more flexible work conditions, more comp. (Not to mention more leads, more support and all the other stuff sales people whine about). We make these investments for a person that is highly likely to move onto another job in 18 months or less. And they are led by managers who have equally short tenures.
It’s easy to look at all these trends and project a not to distant future where there are no salespeople. (Please, keep the cheering down.)
What happens then? What happens to our own growth? What happens to our customers?
We might have a few salespeople, but they would be spread so thin, covering so many customers, it would be difficult for them to have an impact. They’d probably move from one problem situation to another.
But what happens in a business world where there are virtually no salespeople?
Particularly, what happens to our customers when there are no salespeople?
We know customers are overwhelmed, confused. We know , at least for complex B2B, they don’t know how to buy. They don’t know the questions they should be asking themselves, they don’t know what they should be looking for, they are worried about risk, success. They struggle with getting alignment in their own organizations. They are people and one of the problems with people, is there are the dynamics of interactions between people, the fear, the egos, the uncertainty. We’ve long talked about the need for sensemaking and decision confidence–the ability to answer, with confidence, “We chose well.”
The data tells us the majority of buying journeys end in failure. This failure is tragic for our customers–they were seeking to make a change in their business, to address a new opportunity, solve a problem, improve their operations, serve their customers better. Presumably they were doing this to produce business improvement, perhaps measured by revenue/profit growth, new customers, and so forth. But they fail. They miss that opportunity–it’s lost because they got lost in their process.
We look at the preference for rep-free buying experience, then we assess their buyer regret later on. It exceeds 70% with 74% of all buyers in complex B2B saying they find buying difficult.
Then there are those, who are so busy doing their jobs, they don’t take the time to consider, “Can we do better, can we do more, should we be doing things differently?” They are clueless–not because they are dumb, but because they haven’t started to search, they haven’t asked themselves those questions and started looking for answers. This represents another huge loss.
Some might challenge me, “Well Dave, in the complex B2B change initiatives, consultants can fill a lot of that gap!”
This is where you pose the question, “What do you say about 600 consultants at the bottom of the sea?”
Seriously, they can and do fill some of that gap, but don’t have the capacity or orientation to address all the opportunity.
Some might argue, AI and ML will evolve to address these issues. Perhaps, but we are a long way from doing this. AI/ML are bad at addressing absolutely unique situations, things that have never happened before. AI/ML, currently, is optimized around patterns, as every situation that fits the patterns is handled in the same say.
But to the customer, their situation is unique–to their specific circumstances, to the people involved in the buying process, and at a certain moment of time. This exact customer situation has never occurred before–it is unique. And this applies to every complex buying journey. This is where the knowledgeable salesperson comes in. They start from a series of patterns they have experienced in the past, but then have the intelligence, curiosity, agility to think, “What is different about this, and how do I help the customer with THEIR specific situation?”
So far, we are beginning to recognize, our customers need help, they need help of a human being, that can adapt, innovate, and think differently with the customer.
Finally, we get to what is, possibly, the most important issue. These complex B2B buying journeys are being led by people–human beings. And they demonstrate all the good and bad characteristics that makes human being both difficult and interesting. They have egos, fears. They get confused, they don’t act logically. They may not make the best or right decision, but they make the decision they are most comfortable about.
Human beings want to understand and be understood. They care and want to know that those they work with, particularly those they buy from care.
As we talk about human beings we talk about understanding, caring, compassion. We know that people tend to make decisions based on emotion, rationalizing their decision with the data that supports their choice. (I can just imagine a bot in an endless loop, “Does not compute, does not compute, ….”)
As we play out these scenarios, as we recognize that businesses are about people interacting with people with all the baggage that comes with those interactions, we recognize buying is a human process.
We recognize, our customers cannot be successful without the help and support of sales people focused on understanding, caring, and helping. Salespeople that can adapt their past experience but understand what is unique about this customer situations. Salespeople that can help customers think differently, learn, grow, and make sense of all the conflicting information they encounter. Customers need sales people who can help them make decisions in which they have high confidence.
So we get to this point, even the most “anti sales” CRO or CEO might grudgingly admit, “OK, we need a few sales people for those situations, but we’ll automate everything else.”
But then we think, our worlds are not getting simpler. In fact they are increasingly complex, confusing, changing at rates faster than human beings can cope with. We face challenges we’ve never experienced, we face greater levels of uncertainty and risk. We are facing the need to change more quickly, learn adapt and respond with greater agility.
I suspect the reality is that a world without salespeople is unimaginable–at least from a customer point of view. I also suspect, that the number of salespeople we need to help customers deal with their challenges will be very high–but salespeople who are engaging differently than the direction we seem currently headed. We need innovators, problems solvers, people who think differently, seeking to understand, and who care both about their customer, organizational and personal success.
The future for selling has never been more challenging or more exciting!
End of thought experiment.
Afterword: Thanks to Ron Guilbaut for provoking my thinking about this!