The Sales Force of the Future Could Be Spelled 1-0-9-9


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I feel the same way about Zika that I do about being average. I’d rather avoid it. But averageness helped “Bill,” who once contacted me to fill a sales role at a startup. His social skills were unremarkable – not great, not bad. Just bland as oatmeal. Bill blended with the corporate fabric, and had no objectionable tics. At least none I can recall.

But he had optimism that newly-launched companies adore. Bill’s business card sported a title adjacent an artistic logo, corporate email address, and local phone number. It was printed on paper that didn’t immediately cave when I applied light finger pressure to the edges. Nice! He worked in a windowed corner office in the executive suite, where buzzy staff mingled outside. Whenever I asked Bill questions about the startup, he always answered in the first person plural.

But it turned out that Bill wasn’t an employee, and never had been. Bill was a contract recruiter – an experienced hired gun with a highly specialized talent. Notably, finding and hiring dozens of new employees – fast.

Bill recited lots of corporate rah-rah, sang the company’s praises, and told me they were ramping up pronto. He shared that great financial rewards – including stock options – lay ahead. He slathered compensation icing on an already-attractive financial cake, offering me a decent carrot for signing on. I accepted.

Several weeks later, I peered into Bill’s office. Empty, except for a few sparse remnants. On the desk, a stray paper clip lay next to a solitary packet of Post-it notes. A crooked white Ethernet cable snaked across the dark carpet, connected to nothing. His mission completed, Bill silently moved on, presumably to his next gig. No formal send-off, no hugs from colleagues. Bill’s story ends there. And around one year later, the startup ended, too. “We’re out of money,” the VP of Sales told me, without any hint of disappointment or contrition.

In 2002, when Bill first contacted me, it was easy to view his trappings as a well-choreographed deception. Bill appeared a W-2 when he was surreptitiously operating as a 1099 *. His contract likely earned him a decent commission for every person he sold on the startup’s promise. A future he never intended for himself. For Bill, the engagement simply represented another notch on his computer. I wonder how he’s doing today. I found no trace of him on LinkedIn.

Temporary office space. Temporary desks. Temporary projects. Temporary committees. Temporary roles. Temporary jobs. Impermanence feels nauseatingly normal. Interim, and proud of it! Today, companies swap business models like coffee filters, which has spawned a new use for the participle pivoting. A word that helps executives quickly re-channel conversations into the Next Big Thing they’re after.

Among the inhibitors to pivoting are employees, and the infrastructure required to support them. And the more employees there are, the more challenges to pivoting. True, employees can change direction, but rarely with athletic grace. Employees often plod in big, arcing turns – if they turn at all. A death sentence for companies in today’s hyper-competitive business arena, where revenue and market share spoils belong to the agile. No wonder Bill’s ephemeral arrangement has gained widespread appeal – and not just for acquiring human talent.

“Nearly all contemporary organizations are increasing their use of talent from the outside—by engaging individuals, teams, and even firms in non-traditional work relationships and alternate forms of employment. Google and Intel rely on experts in social science and biomechanics to develop transformative products by better understanding how people think about and use technology. McKesson, the US-based pharmaceutical and health-care giant, benefits from external expertise as a strategic extension of its resources in areas such as business strategy and logistics support. Managers in these companies understand that agile, fast, and lean strategies require that they think in new ways about accessing and leveraging key strategic talent and filling critical gaps in strategic capabilities,” according to Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood, co-authors of a February, 2016 Harvard Business Review article, Aligning Your Organization with an Agile Workforce.

Longtime sales professionals are probably wondering, “why all the hoopla?” After all, sales organizations have embraced non-traditional working arrangements for decades. For example, independent agents and manufacturer’s reps are company outsiders who have traditionally plugged gaps in territory or market coverage – a particular advantage when corporate policies restrict hiring managers from adding headcount. Similarly, channel partners enable vendors to support customers or markets that might be prohibitively expensive for the company to reach. But to customers – and even to the in-house business development team – these arrangements are often well camouflaged.

Today, vendors routinely offload chunks of selling activities – such as lead generation and account management – to independent contractors and specialty firms whose relationship to the company are opaque to prospects and customers. Here, success demands plug-and-play simplicity. Outsourced providers need sufficient operational capacity and proven talent for achieving a specific task or objective, and their clients must have clear objectives, requirements, and compatible processes.

Vendors can gain direct financial benefits, including shortened time-to-market, reduced expenses for salaries and benefits, and improved performance measurements such as Revenue-per-Employee. But the greatest payoff comes from risk transfer. Moving selling tasks outside the company sheds risks, enabling companies to quickly capitalize on opportunities, and to jettison entities that are underperforming, or no longer fit the company’s strategy.

“Human capital risks are among an organization’s most pervasive and pressing risks, permeating nearly all aspects of its strategic, operational, financial and legal priorities. Business models are constantly changing and global trends impacting human capital risk are continually rewriting the rules of engagement. Managing the impact of human capital risk is an essential contributor to successful business transformation,” said Jon Williams, PwC’s Global People and Organization leader, in an August, 2016 article, Anticipation of Human Capital Risk Vital for Better People Investments.

The 2020 Workplace, a book by Jeanne Meister and Karie Willyerd published in 2010, highlights both risks and opportunities by examining trends and explaining what they mean. In addition to the need for speed, several are especially important for business development strategy:

1. “The rise of the tacit workforce.” The term refers to “employees in jobs that require a complex set of skills such as problem solving, judgment, listening, data analysis, relationship building, and collaborating and communicating with coworkers,” according to the authors. “70 percent of all US jobs created since 1998 – 4.5 million jobs, or roughly the combined workforce of the fifty-six largest public companies by market capitalization – require a set of conceptual tacit skills.”

2. Expansion of digital information. Today, millions of people can access the same business intelligence services, making it possible to readily collaborate outside the organization. “The rapid expansion of the digital universe – defined as information that is created, captured, or replicated in digital form – will lead to tremendous challenges in the workplace for both individual employees and their employers.”

3. Culture of online connectivity. According to IDC, a global market intelligence research firm, hyper-connected workers (defined as those who maintain active Internet connections regardless of where they happen to be located) will comprise 40% of the workforce within a few years.

4. Growing importance of personal reputation as a selling attribute. “Reputation capital will be the top currency in the 2020 workplace. This is the sum total of your personal brand, your expertise, and the breadth, depth, and quality of your social networks. Companies will increasingly source, recruit, and promote new employees based upon their reputation capital.”

5. Shortage of global talent. “The US Department of Labor predicts that US based employers will need 30 million new-college-educated workers in the next decade, while only 23 million young adults are expected to graduate from college in that period.”

6. Companies will hire teams. “As teamwork becomes increasingly important in the global workplace, companies are seeing the value of hiring and training an entire team to tackle business problems. At the same time, some teams will form into guilds and move as intact teams from company to company in order to maintain their established working relationships.”

7. Lifelong learning will be a business requirement. “In 2020 and beyond, we will see another innovation – branded lifelong learning centers – to ensure ease in continually updating one’s skills for both one’s current job and one’s next job.”

8. Work-life flexibility will replace work-life balance. “Work/life flexibility reinforces the view that there is no such thing as work time and home time. Rather, hyper-connected workers will aspire to have the flexibility to manage both work and home lives.” Is this good for society . . . or our undoing? Discuss.

9. Building a portfolio of contract jobs will be the path to obtaining permanent full-time employment. An unexpected shift from a few years ago, when job applicants with Independent Consulting gigs listed on their resumes were viewed with disdain.

I expect 1099 professionals to play a growing role in sales force staffing and resource management. They will fulfill four escalating needs for business development organizations:

1. gaining strong selling skills when they can’t be developed in-house

2. gaining rapid access to buying networks, or to experience in a new selling market

3. moving marketing and sales talent into – and out of – temporary, project-based opportunities

4. obtaining talented people who can sustain flexible hours and irregular work arrangements

Companies will drive demand for 1099’s to satisfy emerging requirements they will be less able – or less willing – to cultivate themselves: Helping staff build personal brands or reputations. Developing tacit skills such as critical thinking and social rapport. Assembling and maintaining teams of people who possess disparate knowledge. Managing an individual’s commitment to lifelong learning. In the 2020 workplace, these will be table stakes for engaging with customers.

And the best talent for the job might be spelled 1-0-9-9.

* As expected, the IRS has weighed in to establish definitions for independent contractors. According to the agency, “if you are an independent contractor, you are self-employed.” In business parlance, we have shortened the handle to 1099, since 1099 is the IRS form independent contractors use to report income. But heated controversy ensues when the distinction between employee and contractor isn’t clear. For example, “California became the latest state to weigh in on the issue of Uber’s longstanding practice of classifying its drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees. While several other states, including New York, Texas, and Georgia, have held in favor of Uber’s classification practices thus far, California did not follow suit,” Sachi Barreiro wrote in an article, Are Uber Drivers Employees or Independent Contractors in California? . The legal answer carries profound ramifications for Uber’s business model.


  1. Using the Uber business model in an on demand economy. Particularly fits the seasoned worker, where they are paid a nominal base/retainer, results oriented compensation,approved expenses, and no benefits.

  2. Herb: Thanks for your comment. The legacy model of recruiting, hiring, training, and developing permanent staff to sell to customers has its limits. The 1099 model allows flexibility for the organization, while a talented salesperson can spread his or her time among multiple clients. Contractual arrangements help ensure continuity. For the most part, when salespeople are paid strictly on commission, they can ‘walk’ at any time. When the arrangement is 1099, different pay and incentives can be used – ones that can work better for clients, contractors, and end customers alike.

  3. Exactly – when salespeople are paid on “commission only” there is less urgency by the organization to give the technical and customer support the salesman needs. There is a tendency to prioritize their salaried “permanent” management and employees over commission only. Many times salespeople can get stuck with business development costs for products not ready for prime time.


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