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Four Strategies for Sales Organizations to Respond to the Talent Shortage

By Robert Lesser, Director, Advisory, Gartner Sales Practice and Delainey Kirkwood, Research Specialist, Gartner Sales Practice
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Sales leaders in 2022 are dealing with a multitude of issues. While many are preoccupied with battling rising inflation and economic headwinds, they also face significant challenges when it comes to recruiting.

Talent shortages pose a chronic threat to achieving revenue and margin targets. Over half of organizations are experiencing seller attrition rates higher than their target rate, and replacing these sellers is not easy. Gartner’s analysis of B2B sales representative job postings in the U.S. indicates there are just three available candidates per posting.

Current talent shortages are caused by a combination of issues, such as elevated turnover, COVID-related workplace closures, increased levels of self-employment, and a potential recession.

Sales organizations need to make structural talent changes in order to address talent shortages, respond to market changes, and accelerate shifts in buyer preference and behavior. In particular, the rise of digital commerce and increasing customer preference for rep-free buying mean that digital and hybrid sales approaches significantly expand the possibilities for redesign.

Sales leaders should explore strategies that reduce dependency on high-cost channels to maximize business results. There are four strategies chief sales officers (CSOs) can leverage to redesign the sales organization in response to talent shortages:

Strategy One: Headcount Arbitrage

Gartner research shows that 72% of buyers prefer a rep-free experience, which decreases the need for field sales and drives a greater need for hybrid and inside sales. Evolving buyer preferences enable organizations to safely reduce their dependence on high-cost field sellers by either partially or fully replacing them with other sellers – or non-sellers who are similarly effective in enabling buying. Other seller options that CSOs can prioritize include virtual or inside sellers, while non-seller roles include support from customer success, subject matter experts, technical experts, service providers, and senior executives who interact with buyers. When these roles collaborate with sellers or take on some of their responsibilities, it reduces the number of high-cost field sellers required.

Strategy Two: Burden Reduction

Gartner research has revealed that 90% of sellers feel burned out from work, and high levels of non-value-added administrative tasks are a contributing factor. Organizations should simplify and eliminate workflows to reduce administrative burden for sellers. They should delegate activities to other internal functions or roles or move toward automating processes to eliminate internally focused activities from sellers’ responsibilities. By reducing the burden on sellers, sales leaders can improve field seller productivity by allowing individuals to focus on external deal-generating activities.

Deal approval is a prime example of where sales leaders can eliminate complex and unnecessary workflows to reduce seller burden. Deal approval can be a cumbersome process, with numerous approval stages and slow turnaround that delays seller progress. When deals are rejected, sellers can be left on their own to create alternative proposals. Inconsistent and slow approval policies undermine customer confidence and push down win rates.

Sales leaders can improve the deal approval process by standardizing inputs, decision criteria, and deal approval requests. These requests can be process automated with deal desks and workflow technology. If the deal is not approved, a deal desk provides a counterproposal to the seller.

Strategy Three: Refine Targeting

Refining target customer or account criteria can improve the revenue per seller of existing hires, by reducing the time field sellers spend evaluating and prioritizing opportunities. This allows them to focus more precisely on high-value opportunities. For example, an organization could raise the threshold for lead handoffs to field sales by tightening lead qualification criteria. Or they could utilize enterprise personas to identify high-potential customers. When targets are refined, field sales can align to the highest potential target. Ultimately, this results in improved revenue per seller, as only high-potential accounts are targeted.

Strategy Four: Alternate Channels

Organizations should explore alternate channels that reduce the need for additional sellers. Shifting transactional purchases to an e-commerce platform (either owned or third party) can free up sales force capacity – likely with little impact on revenue. Of B2B buyers, 83% prefer ordering or paying through digital commerce, reinforcing this approach. Similarly, utilizing an outsourced channel partner sales force can reduce the need for sellers – especially in challenging geographies where hiring is difficult.

Case in Point

A corporate real estate company realized that virtual sales were vital to the company’s success amidst a changing business landscape. They reimagined a technology-driven buying experience that made real estate feel tangible to customers with little or no in-person interaction – a digital-first model.

The business analyzed past purchases to identify a small number of high-impact “buying jobs” that customers must complete and identified engagement points for each job. Next, they incorporated a digital-first approach – designing buying technology that allowed flexibility for customers as they complete buying jobs. Finally, they ensured that sellers engaged in virtual selling only at key moments during the buying process. These changes resulted in a 115% increase in conversion rates and a 70% reduction in sales cycle time.

By focusing on increased sales productivity and effectiveness, reducing the need for field sellers, and alleviating the burden on salespeople, sales leaders can proactively maximize business results – even in the face of talent shortages and economic uncertainty.