I have been invited to participate in a discussion on the “Future of Sales,” with a small group of wickedly smart practitioners. I can’t express how much I’m looking forward to the discussion and learning.
In many cases, predicting the future can sometimes be done with an artful projection of the past. Not with sales/marketing–at least not in these transformative times.
For my part, I see a number of critical issues at the organizational and individual level.
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At the individual level, I see a huge shift in required competencies. The traditional skills/competencies we look for in sales professionals will be table stakes. High performing sales people are going to have to be curious/creative thinkers. They will have to have extremely strong critical thinking/problem solving skills. They will have to to be nimble/agile/adaptable, and exceedingly comfortable with ambiguity. They have to be masterful project managers, resource managers (both internally and with customers). They have to be continuous learners and teachers. They have to be masterful change managers. They must be comfortable with complexity (knowing both complicated and complex). They have to help their customers and their own organizations manage/and simplify. They must have deep understanding of people and empathy for the challenges individual and organizations face. They have to have growth oriented mindsets. They have to be business people who sell, not sales people. (You might be thinking I’ve missed “Leaping over tall buildings with single bounds, and faster than a speeding bullet—that’s table stakes).
At an organizational level, many of the same skills/competencies are required. As sales organizations, we have to set the example and drive the focus of the enterprise around customer-centricity. Organizationally, we have to become systems thinkers, recognizing we don’t optimize performance by focusing on the pieces/parts, but we need to include holistic thinking about how these impact each other–not just within the sales function, but within our extended enterprises. We have to develop “ecosystems” thinking both in looking at our own organizations, but also in looking at our customers and markets.
One of the biggest issues sales (and business) executives will have to address is complexity. As our solution offerings become more complex, as we look at sales stacks, as we look at increased workloads/expectations of our people. as we look at just the challenge of getting things done within our own organizations–managing complexity, driving business simplification becomes one of the greatest performance issues for the organization. Sales faces a triple whammy on complexity and business simplification. In addition to organizational and product complexity, we have the complexity of managing/working with partners and the complexity of getting things done with our customers.
Related to the organizational complexity, leaders will have to be sensitive to the impact of all of these things on individuals, the overload and overwhelm factors (Read Your Help Is Killing Me). More than anything empathy becomes critical in the leadership role.
At an organizational level, we have to be dealing with all these things that impact organizational excellence/performance in a rapidly changing world. Transformation is being forced on us! Changing business models, the digitization of business processes, changing markets all drive the need for nimbleness and agility at a leadership and an organizational levels. We will have to learn how to change the course of “super tankers” at the same rate as we can quickly change the course of a ski boat (The boaters and water skiers will get this difference).
Key to building agility and nimbleness at an organizational level is creating learning organizations.
At an organizational level, our ability to understand, accept and manage risk/uncertainty will have to change in order to survive.
I’ll stop here. The challenges and opportunities for the future are massive and exciting. They are game changing for those who can navigate them effectively.
If you are sensing a “But………”
There’s a huge one. The world is changing at a rapid pace. We can’t ignore it, it’s happening in spite of what we do or don’t do. The winners, individually and organizationally are those who successfully identify and tackle these issues.
But if you don’t have the basics of individual and organizational performance mastered, it will be impossible to address these challenges.
Sadly, too many organizations have not yet mastered these. Too many are doing the same things they have always done, just at a more frenzied pace. The data on quota and revenue performance is getting worse, not better. Customer feedback on the ability of sales people to engage in meaningful, high impact ways is plummeting.
Rather than creating Challenger sales people we seem to create Challenged sales people (and organizations). Rather than building smarter more capable sales people, we seem to be dumbing down sales people and organizations, wishfully thinking that technology, automation, and our ill-informed views of AI will save the world.
So what’s the future of selling?
There will be a certain amount of carnage as some organizations fall so far behind in individual and organizational capability, they will not survive. Sales people, who can’t or refuse to adapt, will be displaced.
The vast middle, will muddle along, getting what they can, where they can. Margins and share may be impacted. There will be churn at all levels, at the top, as CEOs become dissatisfied with performance, this will cascade through the organization. At all levels, they will grasp for straws, looking for the silver bullet that always eludes them–because it doesn’t exist.
Likewise, a certain number of sales people will muddle through. They will be increasingly threatened in their roles or become transient sales people, with relatively weak earning power.
And the gap with those few high performing organizations will widen. These organizations will create long term customer loyalty, huge share and margin growth, huge competitive differentiation. Sales people at this highest level of performance will be highly sought after, by companies and customers.
Some of us will have the feeling of deja vu—the future of sales doesn’t look a whole lot different.
The good news (and there is hugely good news), all of this is simply a matter of choice and commitment to execution. Top performing sales people and organizations have already made it and are reaping the results.
So where you are and where you can be is, relatively simple. It’s a choice and a commitment to execution. All the rest flows from that.