Your Cutting-Edge Strategy Won’t Cut It in 2012


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Which of these definitions comports with your beliefs?

“Salesmanship is a battle of organized knowledge against unorganized knowledge or ignorance.”


“Salesmanship is the ability to make a mutually profitable exchange of values.”

In fact, both definitions appear in a book first published almost 100 years ago, Salesmanship and Business Efficiency by James Knox. The second definition is relevant, but the forces of social and technological change have rendered the first definition all but obsolete. Laws, theories, ideas and assumptions become stale at different rates. The force of social change is marked in another way: In 389 pages, the book includes no references to women.

By 2012, will familiar terms such as “cold calling,” “individual contributor” and “lead lists” mean anything to sales and marketing professionals? Will “word-of-mouth marketing,” “collaborative teams” and “integrated marketing databases” be our buzzwords?

Based on interviews with industry experts and scholars, here is what I predict will happen demographically, financially and technologically to the world of buying and selling.

Trend 1: Retirement of the early baby-boom generation

The cascading retirement of the baby boomers, whose most senior members will be 67 in 2012, has significant implications for selling, including how to transfer knowledge and how to staff future sales organizations. Because much of sales knowledge is tacit, organizations will need first to define knowledge and then systematically capture and share it, or the knowledge will leave the enterprise along with the worker. The exodus will create a dearth of highly experienced sales professionals—at least initially.

At the same time, new entrants to the workforce in 2012 will change the culture of buying and selling. Those individuals, born in 1994 and after, will bring technical competencies that the retiring generation learned only recently, or never at all. The new generation of workers is growing up in a digital culture and comfortable in an environment of near-ubiquitous and instantaneous mobile communications, information and video. Today organizations encounter challenges because younger workers may have developed skills on new software that employers haven’t yet adopted. This skills imbalance will alter one change-management paradigm: Many organizations will be required to update their technology and processes to accommodate their incoming workforce, not the other way around.

Trend 2: Growing use of product virtualization

Ten years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that meeting face to face and satisfying the visceral need to “get the product into the hands of the customer” were correlated with successful sales outcomes. But the trend for product virtualization, a visual representation of something that emulates its physical properties, is very much driven by the financial needs of business and is not just a fad made possible through technology. That’s because virtualization creates an emotional connection with a product and can generate demand before physical products are available.

That early demand enables many companies to profit from the cash-before-delivery outcome that Dell famously unleashed. Second Life, a web site known for virtualization, has promoted this capability to manufacturers from Adidas to Mazda. Through avatars—representing individuals in Second Life’s virtual world—Mazda made it possible for anyone to test drive its Hakaze concept car, even though only one physical model existed. Once the virtual drivers demonstrated an appropriate level of online handling mastery, they could keep the virtual concept car and re-use it in subsequent activities on Second Life. By the time the first Hazkazes reach the dealerships, the benefits for Mazda’s financial strategy will be huge: reduced time to financial break-even, increased demand, lower supply chain costs and improved forecast accuracy.

Trend 3: Increased predictive insight into customer behavior

Exploring ways to more accurately identify and reach valuable prospective customers will continue, even in the face of privacy concerns and regulation. Why? Investor-backed companies require lower selling risk and more productive demand generation for improved cash flow and rapid business growth. These financial imperatives are unlikely to diminish.

Companies will convert from low-productivity marketing activities, like mass mailings and telemarketing to broad markets (derisively called “smiling and dialing”), to tools providing unprecedented sophistication in targeting and reaching the most likely buyers. Average sales cycles will shorten into timeframes once thought anomalies, and results from measurements such as close ratio (the number of prospects completing a purchase transaction divided by the total number of prospects contacted) will improve dramatically. What underpins this capability is a combination of improved predictive analytics and what Stefano Grazioli of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce calls the growing use of the universal identifier. (Think of it as a large digital bucket that can collect lots of information about a person.) This powerful combination makes it possible to derive meaning from a rich trove of artifacts about an individual from disparate databases containing his or her personal information. Consider the predictive accuracy regarding a person’s lifestyle and buying habits when data from his grocery purchases, warranty card registrations and motor vehicle records are combined versus just looking at grocery-buying habits.

The wave is already forming. The Wall Street Journal reported in October 2007 that a company called Acxiom has a database of 133 million U.S. households divided “into 70 demographic and lifestyle clusters.” Two married women who are next-door neighbors can visit the same financial services web site at the same time and see two different ads. Differing lifestyle-related content will follow these individuals as they visit other sites, and software services to support immediate purchases will accompany the ads.

How will today’s strategies evolve in light of the forces that are changing our culture and world? In Part 2, I’ll look at how social networking, environmental responsibility and the redistribution of information power will redefine sales.


  1. Andrew, Your article is very interesting in that as one who spent 25+ in retailing and another consultant now almost the same amount of time, many of the problems sellers face have not changed much other than the modes of communicating with potential customers. Still, the same reasons why people do not buy and/or why they do buy have not changed over many, many years.
    What has happened, though, is that there is been a decrease or death in customers being “professional shoppers.” Few, other than electronic gurus, understand the differences in like things that determine quality and value. Today, it is the brand or trade name that sells. Take the brand name off and see what happens to sales. It matters now what kind of product it is.

    Where I saw this happening was in my retail experience starting in the 50s selling fine dinnerware and related products. The generation of my mother’s, as young women, they learned how to be gracious hostesses by entertaining friends in their family’s home. Came WWII, and other things became more important and this type of “home economics” left for the shipyards and other non-traditional jobs.

    The result was that their children did not have the same exposure to living with gentility . . . and through succeeding generations, it was almost 0 . . . to what we have today with the rudeness of cell phone usage, loud music others do not want to hear, attire that is off-the-wall, etc. With these changes came disappeared the teaching or exposure to what constitutes quality other than good marketing of inferior products or the marketing of brands of all kinds. So much so that the really great brands are knocked-off to where the pride of owning the real thing is naught.

    In my generation we have gone to “planned obsolescence” to just “obsolete in 3 to 6 months or even less” is the norm. Nothing is made to last even though it may be expensive. Consumers accept cars that look like they have metal bumpers but are, at best, medium gauge plastic held on by plastic clips of even a less gauge.

    The other phenomenon in retailing has been the trend to hire clerks – if at best they are really clerks – and call them sales associates. And it is getting moreso. On the Internet and in advertising in general, hucksterism reigns supreme. Promises and innuendoes of promises are put before the public several or more times each day. Doing this or buying this will make you __________.

    Is there or will there be a trend when the marketplace will rebel against “impersonal” selling and demand that they talk to someone who knows what they are selling? How long will there be a “internet barrier” between buyer and seller and the trend will be to take down the barrier? Will it come to “turn off the computer” and get out an meet people in the next 5 to 10 years? It all depends on how impersonal selling gets or tries to get. Will Generation Z be the ones to demand more than virtual relationships because they discover that their time, effort and, most likely, money is being wasted?

    Who is going to reverse the trend from impersonal to personal business relationships? The one who does will be the real winner.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Awarded the 1992 Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network

    You are invited to learn about programs and services and
    article on business topics that affect selling at http://www.sellingselling .com


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