Deja-Vu All Over Again, Death Of Sales People


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My friend Kelly Riggs got me all wound up on this topic I hope had died, but apparently hasn’t had the sense to die.  As you look at related titles at the bottom of this post, I’ve run out of titles and use variations of the same one over and over.

Kelly writes about an infographic on the death of selling that’s making the rounds.  I understand the infographic, buying into it makes you want to buy the author’s products and services.  I don’t really blame them, they’re selling, just like many of us do in our sales and marketing campaigns.

The infographic in turn is based on a research report published in the Spring by a large consulting company.  There’s been a lot of discussion about the research, I’m not sure how many people have actually studied it.

As usual, when one is trying to present a certain point of view, you parse your words carefully, present data in a way that supports the point you want to make.  (Mandatory reading for all sales and marketing is How To Lie With Statistics.  It was written in the 40’s, is a short, informative, hilarious read.)  We all present data that supports and reinforces our points of view.  This research report is no different.

Whenever we read research and data, we should have some healthy skepticism, understanding the assumptions, biases, and points of view underlying the data.  In this case, it’s useful to dive into both the original research and the infographic, to understand what the real issues..

The infographic cites the research report as saying the number of B2B Sales People will decline from 4.5 t03.5 Million by 2020.  The research report is a little confusing, they have their own assessment, but also cite data from the Bureau Of Labor And Statistics (BLS).  The BLS data clearly shows growth in sales overall.  They show some segments declining, but overall there is quite a healthy outlook for the profession of sales.

The research report also cites certain companies that no longer have sales people.  It’s interesting, some of those companies are actually clients.  Yes, those companies do not have job titles that have the word “sales” in them, but, based on our engagement with them, they have some of the best sales people I’ve ever seen.  They have people responsible for generating revenue, people who are on quota and measured on things like revenue attainment, and people who do the activities sales people do–prospect, build pipelines, identify opportunities, close deals.  These people just aren’t called sales people, yet the do the function of sales people.  So saying these companies no longer have sales people really isn’t true.

The infographic says new technology will beat old technologies.  Well tell me something new!  Sales people used to go from town to town in horse covered wagons.  In cities, they used to go door to door.  We used terms like “wearing out shoe leather.”  Phones displaced a lot of door to door.  Direct marketing helped the outreach to drive inbound calls.  Today, we leverage a number of technologies.  Sales like every other profession is constantly changing, there are new tools, new methods,

Declaring sales dead, because the old tools are no longer useful is craziness.  It’s similar to declaring engineering dead because the slide rule, drafting tables, and the T-Square have gone away.

The infographic outlines, “The Cold Call Is Dead,”  97% of cold calls do not work.  That is a statement about execution, not about employment.  In fact, one of the fastest growth areas in sales is SDR’s.  That might cause one to say, well executed cold calling is still in high demand, and those that specialize in doing this well have a great future.

It also cites, “The Closer Is Dead,” 48% of buyers are frustrated with aggressive sales people.  Again, this is a statement about execution, not employment.  And it’s not particularly new, insightful or revelatory.  Apparently, Adam was deeply frustrated that Eve kept saying, “Adam, just imagine how great that apple would taste!”  She was, apparently, relentless–he finally gave in and we know what happened.

The infographic cites, “No More Scripts,” 39% of buyers are frustrated with overly scripted sales approaches.  You know where I’m going to go with this, so I don’t even have to say this.  If you’re going to talk about employment data, then stick to the topic!

The infographic then moves to leveraging the research again, citing who will take our jobs.  Apparently, it’s all the Social Platforms:   Google, LinkedIn, Twitter and other sites replace sales as a source of product information.  Machines will rise (I saw Terminator as well) and sales professionals are already in trouble.  Well, ugh, ugh……… Yes, but so what, tell me something new.  The assumption is the only role of a sales person is as purveyors of product information.

But we’ve known for a long time that sales people do more than provide product information.  From my point of view, making sure that customers get 100% of their product information from the web can’t come soon enough!  It frees sales people up to focus on what their customer really cares about.  Change–identifying ways to grow and improve their business!  Opportunity/Problem Solving—ways to make them better.  Customers really don’t care about products, except as means to help them achieve their goals.  The real value of sales people is in instigating and leading those discussions.

Yes, those sales people who define themselves as people who educate their customers about products will find very limited employment opportunities.  But I can see no end to problems, no end to discovering opportunities, no end to customers needing help to achieve their goals.  So sales people who do that, will be well employed.  While I don’t have research data to support this, since the world is getting more complex, the number of problems and opportunities grow at a rate faster than we can identify and address them, it would indicate the need for sales people who help customers address these might grow.

The infographic leverages more of the research.  Here, it’s actually more informative to look at the research directly and how they carefully present data and parse their words.  Again, I’m not criticizing it–we all do it, but it’s just important for thoughtful people to recognize this.

The infographic states, “Nearly 75% of B2B buyers now say that buying from a website is more convenient than buying from a sales representative.”  The research actually goes into this more deeply and presents more data.  But when you look at the data, they are speaking of the physical (or virtual act) of entering the order.  An example might be buying a book from Amazon-I sign into my account and enter an order electronically.

Again, my reaction is Ho-Hum.  Tell me something new, let’s talk about sales.  In my career, I can count on one hand the number of orders I’ve had given physically to me, or that I’ve entered myself.  Orders were mailed in, faxed, phoned, or have you every heard of EDI—it’s been around for decades.  The research implies that selling is all about that physical act of dealing with the order.  The research does not address the activities the customer went through (yes a lot was online research), to get to the point they wanted to buy and wanted to enter an order.  In my experience, the smallest part of B2B sales has always been order entry.  In our own company, since inception, 100% of orders have been electronic.  Yet 100% of those orders have been driven by strong engagement of our team with people solving tough problems and choosing us to help them.

The infographic and research state 93% say that they prefer buying online rather than from a sales person when they decide to buy.  I’m frankly surprised the people building the infographic chose this piece of data–the research has other more compelling data about not using sales people.  But addressing this specific data point, it’s only an order entry statement.  It says nothing about the customer activities, needs, behaviors in getting to that point of purchase.  Again, in our company, 100% of our customers “buy” online because that’s the way we designed the process.  It’s not a statement about selling.

The research is a little more clever in making statements about people’s “preferences to not deal with sales people.”  They present a lot of “preference” data.  The problem is preference doesn’t describe behavior.  For example, I have a very strong preference never to see a dentist.  Yet I see mine regularly every 3 months and wouldn’t think of not seeing the dentist.  I have a preference for paying no taxes.  But I know the consequences of acting on that preference, so I religiously pay all my  taxes.  I have a high performance car, I have a preference to drive fast and not obey speed limits.  But I know the consequences ……… oh well, never mind 😉

So when one sees the word “preference,” one must be very careful about how it is interpreted.  Preference doesn’t mean behavior.

Unfortunately, the study doesn’t dive into buying activity and selling activity to describe the types of selling activities buyers find useful and as adding value.  That would be very compelling research (Check the CEB, Gartner, Sirius Decisions, Aberdeen and others.  They have good data on this.).

The infographic goes on to describe the categories of “sales” jobs that will be lost and the one that will grow, “Consultants.”  There’s not much useful there, the research goes into more, but still tends to look at the “old roles of selling,” with very little emphasis on the new roles of selling.  We all know the old roles of anything die, the world changes, we need to change.  It’s true of every profession, so limiting the discussion to the old and not researching the new doesn’t add much to the body of knowledge.

The infographic ends with “There’s no survival, just evolution,” with an argument for relevant digital channels and the piece of data, “80% of buyers know what they want before they even contact a vendor.”  Well we know what this company is selling–digital solutions, I’m all for that, but this 80% number is not terribly useful or informative in isolation.

That number itself is questionable.  I’ve seen variations from 57-90% (The original research this infographic is based on posits a 90% figure.).  But then one contrast that with CSO Insights data about a very large number of Forecast Deals ending in No Decision Made.  So if customers know what they want to buy, why are so many failing to buy?  CEB data shows a huge number of “deals” blow up 37% into the buying process–before they research solutions, simply because of the frustration of buying.

Finally, and this is the big one, no one ever talks about all the opportunities that exist, but customers don’t know there is a better way.  They aren’t into a opportunity/problem solving cycle, consequently never enter a buying cycle.  This is the real stomping ground of the sales person of the future, it’s getting customers to recognize not changing is unacceptable.

There’s a little more–but I’m bored, you get the point.

There will continue to be discussions about the death of sales people because the people in whose interest to declare the death of sales people have something to sell you.  In truth, I will always be talking about the future of selling being bright–but that we as a profession need to continue to learn, change, adapt, and improve because I have something to sell you.

Most of you will never be my customers, however.  But I still believe the profession of selling is very bright because there is no end to the opportunities and problems our customers face.  But we have to change, improve.  If we don’t, we will certainly die.

Let’s shift the discussion about how we grow and improve and stop talking about the death of our profession.  Frankly, it bores me to tears!

Rant over, thanks for your patience.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Dave: These draconian forecasts don’t bother me anymore. I find that they’re mostly bandied about for their self-serving shock value. We all know the fable of Chicken Little. She had a very successful strategy for gaining followers.

    Creating a forecast about the number of salespeople needed in five or ten years compares to predicting the price of a barrel of crude oil in the same timeframe. Come up with a number and share it. Anyone can do it – all you need is a keyboard and an Internet connection. But intelligent forecasts are hard to develop, which explains why they are exceedingly rare.

    How do you forecast the number of salespeople needed? – By job title? That won’t work, as you point out. By function? That means defining what, exactly, a salesperson is – which is a pretty existential question that few writers in the sales blogosphere want to take on. And just as few want to read about when there are more pressing concerns, such as Best tips for writing a great email subject line.

    Automation – specifically marketing automation – has made it possible to spread the revenue generation (i.e. “Sales”) function to any department in a company. For example, customer support personnel can now “upsell” people who call (or chat) about technical issues. Upsell is the term used inside the company. Outside, they’re called Service Consultants. No wonder the forecasters are in such wild disagreement about how many salespeople will be needed. Maybe I should just keep quotes around the word: “Salespeople” – there! That looks better.

    Until our economic system changes to where companies routinely generate revenue without incurring any risks, we will always need “salespeople.” Of far greater interest to me is what those professionals will be do to produce revenue – not what their job titles will be, and not how many there will be.

    No one can credibly predict.

  2. Andy, I tend to ignore all these articles myself. This series seems to have an unusually long life and seems to be resurfacing long after it needed to be forgotten.

    No one can predict.

    But even taking the prediction away, the analysis they did was terribly flawed and misleading. Unfortunately, too many people are taking their data at face value.


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