Are we really looking at a 75% reduction in sales heads by 2020?


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Gerhard Gschwandtner, publisher of Selling Power – in a characteristically provocative piece – recently predicted that the number of sales people in the United States could decline from the current 18 million to around 4 million by 2020. He quoted a Gartner report that projected that 85% of the interactions between businesses will be automated without any need for human interaction by that time.

photo gerhard gschwandtnerNow, whether or you agree with the absolute size of the change to the future salesforce, there’s no doubt that the B2B sales process is already undergoing a pretty dramatic transformation, driven by a combination of changes in buyer behaviour and a relentless focus on improving the pre- and post-sales customer experience by some of the smartest sales organisations around.

The changing face of B2B buying behaviour

We’ve all become familiar with how the internet has made it far easier – even in high-value complex sales environments – for B2B buyers to research their subject and gather information without having to engage with a sales person until far later in their decision making process. These better-informed buyers have higher expectations of the sales people they eventually engage with, and are expecting them to clearly deliver value beyond that which can be found online.

In these high-value complex sales environments, today’s direct B2B sales people need to be problem solvers that can help to make sense of all the information that is available to the prospect, capable of bringing a fresh perspective and new insights to the buying process. Transactionally oriented sales people will be increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in these situations. The qualities exemplified in The Challenger Sale will become even more important in the future than they are today.

Improving the pre- and post-sales customer experience

Today’s best SaaS vendors – who represent some of the smartest sales organisations around – have recognised that the pre- and post-sales customer experience is influenced through every touch-point between the prospect and the vendor. This includes making even powerful and sophisticated product offerings easy to understand, easy to try, easy to buy, easy to use, and easy to upgrade, expand and enhance.

They have worked out how to intelligently blend web-based assets with a balance of inside and outside sales resources into a seamless customer experience that facilitates the buying process, rather than relentlessly (and boorishly) driving a traditional hard-selling process. In fact, I’ve concluded that the Cloud is a mind-set, rather than a technology.

In contrast, many established software vendors are still wrapping a traditional direct sales process around their new SaaS-based offerings – and this unhealthy blend typically makes for a painful customer experience together with an unmanageably high cost-of-sale – not a great combination from any perspective.

Redesigning the B2B sales process for the new realities

It’s clear that transactional B2B selling is going increasingly on-line, supported by telephone-based advisers and an easy to navigate approach to self-serving the information the buyer needs. Economics dictate that face-to-face selling is going to be increasingly unaffordable in such environments.

In higher-value complex B2B sales environments we can already see a move towards an intelligently blended sales model that combines easily accessible self-service on-demand information to support the buying decision process with a mixture of telephone-based and face-to-face sales assets.

The idea of “one view of the customer” (including their social media activity) becomes critically important in such environments, and we’re already seeing significant progress amongst today’s smartest sales organisations in pulling these threads together. Many are already redefining what they expect from customer-facing sales roles.


I’m not sure that I buy into Gerhard’s projection (frankly, I struggle to project that far ahead in such a rapidly-changing world), but it’s clear to me that the future world of B2B selling is likely to be characterised by fewer, smarter face-to-face sales people backed by a well integrated systems to support the buying decision process.

Sales organisations that get ahead of this curve will thrive. Those who remain in denial will in all likelihood wither away. Where does your sales organisation fit into this continuum – and how do you plan to adapt to the changing world?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Bob Apollo
Bob Apollo is the CEO of UK-based Inflexion-Point Strategy Partners, the B2B sales performance improvement specialists. Following a varied corporate career, Bob now works with a rapidly expanding client base of B2B-focused growth-phase technology companies, helping them to implement systematic sales processes that drive predictable revenue growth.


  1. Automation will almost certainly change the job of sales, but it remains to be seen whether Gerhard’s dire prediction will come true.

    We can automate more transactions (including B2B), but I think there will be a role for long time for reps to deal with more complex sales, and to “own” the business relationships and results.

    In other words, it’s hard to put a machine on quota!

    But we’re already seeing a shift in consumers buying online, which is putting pressure on Best Buy’s big box model. Some customers are fine just buying online at Amazon and don’t want to pay a premium to cover the cost of real estate and people. B2B will follow, a few years behind.

    Still, as simpler products go through electronic channels as markets mature, more complex solutions appear that need more human support. The trick (for reps and their companies) is figuring out when to draw the line and shift their attention.

    Years ago I studied how e-commerce was impacting distribution channels. This was called “disintermediation” and while it did happen and some players disappeared, in the tech industry at least, the majority of revenue (75% of so) continued to go through distribution channels.

    Personally, I think sales reps numbers will decline moderately over the next 5-10 years, but the sales jobs will change more dramatically. Reps that have survived by taking orders or managing information without adding value will end up doing something else.

    Just like secretaries who could only type letters were replaced by “executive assistants” using PCs.


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