Five Mega Trends That Are Fundamentally Altering Sales

By Scott Santucci

A few years ago, when I was the research director for sales enablement at Forrester, I would work with George Colony, the CEO, on crafting the right question to ask other CEOs at Davos to get insights about what was on their minds about their sales forces. One year, he asked 40 CEOs, “How confident are you that your sales force is helping you execute your business strategy?”

Surprisingly, 39 of those business leaders were very worried about their sales leadership because they just didn’t see how the sales force was going to respond quickly enough to changing market conditions. Earlier this year, I heard similar feedback from a group of operating partners at a private equity firm. In their view, the sales function has become too tactical to take seriously and felt very strongly it needed to be controlled a lot more.

Over the past 10 years, our industry has really focused a lot on silver bullets: making formulaic whiteboards, sales playbooks, challenger sales, personas, and buyer journeys. More recently, we’ve seen a 400 percent increase in the number of cloud-based sales tools to help drive more sales and social selling movements. But ask yourself – do you really think the average salesperson is more productive now than they were five years ago? Ten years ago? If you examine the time your salespeople are spending on dealing with internally-focused things – like putting data into all kinds of systems, doing forecasts, generating price quotes, entering data into the CRM – you would be very, very surprised how all the “help” to sales has actually created barriers.

If I say “the digital economy” to you, what do you think? You probably think about all of the neat new ways you can envision using Web-based technology to make the job of selling even easier. Well, here are some things to think about.

  1. Your whole business is fundamentally changing – rapidly. It’s easy to get into a groove and think sales tactics are timeless (and many of them are), but it’s hard to get your head around how different the value of what you are selling is and the implications for how you talk about it. Imagine, for example, you’ve been selling office furniture for 20 years, but you are now being asked to sell space optimization strategies. You are quite literally moving from selling a physical thing to talking about maximizing the space between walls.
  2. Your customer’s business is also changing – rapidly. Of course, you know who your buyer is, right? You’ve always sold storage to a technical buyer in the infrastructure department. However, you are suddenly realizing that more and more people are involved in your deals. It’s clear the buyer you know how to talk to is not the person with the money – but figuring out who that is can be rough.
  3. Your buyers are getting excellent at commoditizing your products. There used to be a time when a salesperson would be looked at to provide information about that product or service…but that time is long gone. In a sheer product-based sale, you probably do not know how much data the procurement group has and how many ways it can rapidly find an alternative. Imagine you are in the media business selling impressions – and how easy it is for a buyer to move spending to Google.
  4. Your buyers are more confused than ever before. Paradoxically, you can go from one account where you feel totally drained by how hard you were worked over and then another that wants to pick your brain and explain what you do. For example, imagine you are a manufacturer selling fiberglass as a material replacement for ship builders accustomed to buying aluminum. Part of the communication challenge to overcome is that the technical experts of your buyers are metallurgists and yours are chemists, let alone changes in the production process.
  5. You are under the metric microscope. Finance organizations, wanting more predictability for revenue streams, are putting a lot of pressure on sales forces to improve the frequency and accuracy of forecasts. Attracted to the sales transformation space, management consultants are now helping to apply other financial metrics to review sales productivity. The result? Way too much data that seems important (but isn’t) and an increased burden on sales. This problem has gotten so out of hand there are firms tracking more than 1,000 different metrics to get insight into sales.

So what does this mean to sales leaders?

While it’s compelling to go to Dreamforce (or send your sales operations people) every year to stay up to speed on the latest and greatest, consider thinking about how much the digital economy is changing everything around you.

Consider simplifying the way you communicate with your CEO. Resist the urge to use sales jargon. Be more elegant with your terms and concepts with them. Find ways to explain your vision for how you see the sales force changing over time to accommodate the rapidly changing business landscape.

Develop and articulate more clearly an economic value proposition. Most ROI calculators seem fancy, but they don’t do a good job of conveying the real value of why your customers would buy. In addition, this will help you create a foundation for more valuable performance metrics.

Create forward-leaning metrics. Your CFOs have a bias in their data that is about managing risk. Creating metrics that are forward leading helps create the space to have conversations about taking risk and innovating, which is too hard to do today.

Map out the supply chain behind the sales force. The sheer amount of complexity and noise that exists in all the functions making various decisions to “help” you is mind-boggling. These expenditures show up as sales and marketing expenses on the income statement – but, when “sales costs” are examined, it’s only the sales budget. As much as 16 percent of your companies’ SGA is spent on these “hidden cost of sales support” investments – and most of it just creates a burden on your salespeople.

Promote customer successes a lot more. Purge language like “buyer’s journey” because the buying process starts after a client has a vision. In today’s “anything is possible” economy, your salespeople add more value helping prospective customers envision what success looks like and it requires a totally different conversation.