Do We Need Sales People Any Longer?


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Recently, I was at a meeting hosted by my friends at Gartner. Scott Gillum made a provocative suggestion, “Do we need outbound sales any longer?” He followed that with a post.

As I reflected on the question, I think we can only discover the answer by changing the question, “Why do customers need sales people any more?”

Increasingly, the answer appears to be “They don’t!” We see all sorts of evidence supporting this. Customers are relying, increasingly, on other sources of information. They have solution provider web sites, influencers, referral sources, and other sorts of channels to learn about new solutions and how different supplier solutions might fit.

We also see customers voting with their time, they are becoming increasingly difficult to reach, they guard their time. Gartner data shows buying groups allocate roughly 17%* of their time to meeting with sales people (that’s not each person, that’s total).

We have all sorts of data showing how unhappy customers are with sales people: “They only talk about what they want to talk about,” “They don’t understand me and my business,” “They don’t understand their products,” or, “They waste my time.”

Sales leaders/managers are also doing things that seem to reduce the need for sales people–or perhaps SDRs. As they adopt strategies that, increasingly, try to make the buying process more transactional, one wonders, can there be a more effective way, further reducing the need for sales people, or at least SDRs. I wrote “What do Uber drivers and SDRs have in common,” as speculation about the future with fewer or no SDRs.

All of this seems to indicate the future of sales roles/jobs is pretty bleak. And it probably is unless sales people (driven by sales leaders/managers) change how we sell.

Stated differently, what the majority of sales people currently do creates little value to the customer. Unless we change significantly, customers will find other alternatives to help them buy.

After this very bleak set up, I’m extremely optimistic about the future of sales and selling! I think the demand for high value creating sales people will sky rocket, as a result the number of jobs for people that can fulfill this role will increase dramatically.

So the future is bright — but only for those sales people/leaders that can adapt to doing those things that create the greatest value for customers!

Here are some of my arguments:

  1. We’ve long known that customers struggle to buy. Gartner data shows 53% of buying decisions end in no decision made. These are customers that have an established problem and a need to buy, and funding. But they fail to navigate their buying group to a decision. The underlying reasons have little to do with selecting a soluton, but more to do in aligning the priorities, agendas, needs of the buying group and getting support up the management food chain. Great sales people, facilitating the customer buying process can help more of these people successfully complete their buying journey. Think of it, we (collectively) have the opportunity to nearly double our revenues, not by finding more deals but by helping customers successfully navigate their buying journey.
  2. With the introduction of Challenger, Insight Selling, Provocative Selling, we’ve learned the greatest opportunity is, perhaps, customers that need to change, but don’t yet recognize there may be better ways of achieving their goals. Sales people can play a tremendous role in driving new opportunity development by inciting prospect to change. But the skills, capabilities, and expertise to do this is very different than that which we seem to be developing. Not long ago, I suggested we change how we think of SDRs, in my post “My $500K SDRs.
  3. More recent Gartner data shows customers struggling to make sense of information they look at in the buying process. The good news is the volume of high quality information about alternative solutions is abundant. Marketing has done a fantastic job (I can’t believe I’m writing those words) in developing high quality, relevant content. The bad news, is customers are even more confused, even slightly skeptical with the information they are receiving. They struggle to make sense of this information overwhelm, sorting through those things that are most important, relevant to them. The emerging opportunity for sales people in creating value with customers is to serve as “sensemakers,” helping customers sort through the information, understanding what’s most relevant to them. Gartner will be providing much more information on the sales person as sensemaking, but Nick Toman, provides a great starting point with his post: How Challenger Sales Organizations Should Make Sense Of Sense Making.
  4. Along a parallel path with the folks at Gartner, I’ve been looking at the sales person as sensemaker, as well. As I look at the increasing complexity, rapid pace of change, overload, overwhelm, risk, and so forth, customers struggle with understanding and figuring out how best to achieve their goals. The sales person as sensemaker helps the customer better understand an cope with the complexity our buyers face. I’ve written about this a number of times, but the best starting points are: Turbulence and Fear of Buying, and Salesperson as Sensemaker.

The bottom line, is, our customers are struggling. They need help in understanding what they face in doing their jobs, identifying opportunities to grow and succeed, identifying threats they need to address, identifying things that enable them to improve and drive performance, or to just cope.

Those people who help customers do those things, those people who can create value with the customer in finding answers, those people who help customers make sense of what they face will be in high demand and highly valued by customers.

Customers urgently need sales people who can help!

The opportunity for both customers and sellers is phenomenal–it’s just different from what too many do now. Those sales people and organizations that make this transition will be those customers most value.

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. Very insightful Dave. I’d suppose Customer Selling Approach would be along those lines but, to your very impactful point, traditional selling approach (“conveyer belt approach”) is done and dusted.
    Thanks for sharing – Yann

    Sr. VP Business Development
    Latin America / USA

  2. Many good takeaways. That said, I’ll remind you of Mark Twain quote, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” The Death of Salespeople…well,….the ending has yet to be written 🙂 But there are industries where your comments are prophetic! Dave, great insights…I enjoy reading your content! VA

  3. Thanks Victor! In virtually every sector, customers are struggling and looking for help and sense making. The future is extraordinary for those sales people that can step up to this. The demand for sales people who can do this will be stunning.

  4. Dave, I agree with you 100%. Your statement, “…the demand for high value-creating salespeople will skyrocket,…” nails it; especially in the B2B complex sales space.

  5. Sorry Karen, use of jargon is always a problem. SDR stands for Sales Development Representative. It’s a variant of inside sales that has arisen, initially, out of high technology/software, that is now reaching other segments. SDRs typically manage the front end of the sales process, finding and “qualifying” opportunities, before passing them to a sales person to manage the opportunity. Hope this is helpful.

  6. Dave, it is always good to read your insightful posts. One question that comes to mind when reading this one is: Do customers need salespeople or do they need consultants – as a salesperson, by default, is biased? How do you suggest dealing with this dichotomy?

  7. Thomas, I struggle with the same idea. Here are some thoughts, I’m not sure, honestly, where I’m coming down on this:

    1. Clearly, the demand for consultants will grow, as well.
    2. I’m not certain I would say consultants are unbiased. In fact the deeper their expertise, research might suggest, the greater their bias (Epstein has a number of great discussions on this in Range.)
    3. One might say, the value or at least the differentiation in value, is less in the product/solution. Usually, any solution on the customer’s shortlist will solve the problem. So the real differentiated value might actually be in the selling/buying process in helping the customer think about the issues they are trying to address and what they are trying to achieve. So the sales person that is superior with this, creates the greatest value.
    4. I tend to think customers are pretty sophisticated in filtering unreasonable bias.
    5. Customers may not be interested in an unbiased approach. They may find someone who has a point of view more valuable in helping them think about these issues.

    What are your thoughts? Regards, Dave

  8. Thank you Dave. Moving forward, how about sales persons defined as how the person in what segment of a channel is paid, incentivized. Ie 100% commission, base and salary, hourly. This can change how the salesperson behaves surely.

  9. Dave, great reply. I am struggling, too, hence the question. Full disclosure: I am a consultant 😉 – actually a kind of hybrid between a consultant and a salesperson

    I fully agree to most points. Stil, let me somewhat challenge #3

    While salespeople need to help thinking about what to address and why, they also need to help identifying shortcomings of their solution or difficulties that may arise when choosing it over others. This, to me, seems to be somewhat avoided in pitches that I see. And yes, admitting difficulties might lead to not closing the sale. But then there is no other way than this to get trusted enough for repeat business that is not business with a captive customer.

    I think it is the complete package here, that is necessary. Don’t know a better word than consultant … maybe adviser?

  10. Thomas: I think good sales people have always done that. Too many sales people think they have to hide these from their customers, thinking their customers are stupid. The reality, customers know every solution has limitations. If the limitations of our solution are crippling in terms of what the customer is trying to achieve, that’s a disqualifier, and the sales person is doing herself and the customer a favor by explaining that and walking. Customers value that and will invite the sales person in, again (I’ve actually done that a number of times).

    Often, the shortcomings are not shortcomings, but a matter of context, which you can work on. I used to see this a lot in selling software. People didn’t like the GUI, it didn’t impact the outcomes/success, but just not what customers wanted.

    In your last sentence, I just got a peek at some new Gartner research. What do we call the sales person of the future? A trusted advisor……. 😉 Thanks for the great question.

    Karen: Not quite sure what you are suggesting. I think compensation design has little to do with this. We want to make sure we have a compensation plan the reinforces the behaviors we expect, but comp is just one lever in driving performance. Here’s a radical example. One of the very best sales organizations I have ever encountered has a very complex sale, each deal is worth $millions. No one is on commission. They have high employee satisfaction, retention, and their performance data outstrips all their competition and most sales organizations. Their comp is competitive, but management has figured out that comp isn’t the only thing.


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