Why we’re going to need fewer, smarter B2B sales people


Share on LinkedIn

According to projections by Gerhard Gschwandtner (CEO of SellingPower magazine) and others, we’re going to need to employ far fewer sales people by the end of the current decade – and the trend is already kicking in.

From the demand side, there are many explanations for this trend – amongst them the modern, digitally-savvy prospect’s understandable tendency to delay wanting to engage with a sales person until far later in their buying decision process, and the rise of “self-service” B2B sales models.

Traditional behaviours are increasingly irrelevant

And from the supply-side, despite the fact that the one thing that a bad sales person typically can sell is themselves, profiling tools are making it a lot easier to recognise the common characteristics of top performing sales people and to avoid hiring duffers – If only we knew what to look for, because that has changed.

The changes in buying behaviour – as evidenced by the research that led to the publication of The Challenger Sale – also mean that traditional “relationship” or “solution” sales behaviours are becoming increasingly ineffective, irrelevant and downright irritating to the modern buyer.

Riding the downward curve

Whether you agree with the size and scale of the downsizing – Gschwandtner controversially predicted that, of the 18 million salespeople currently in the United States, fewer than 3 million will be needed by 2020 – there’s clearly a fundamental change underway.

Whatever the slope of the curve, we’re clearly going to need fewer out-and-out B2B sales people. We manifestly need far fewer of the old-fashioned ogres, and the sooner we flush them out, the better. But there’s an obvious consequence: we need the remaining members of the sales species to be far smarter.

We need a new level of sales intelligence

The modern sales person can’t rely on a sales script, or a rigid sales process. They have to be smart enough to able to listen, react and adapt to what’s going on around them whilst still keeping control of the sales conversation. They need to be able to add value to every customer interaction, and to help the prospect see things from a fresh perspective.

After every conversation, we want every qualified prospect to feel that they learned something useful from the discussion, and that they want to learn more. By the way, we’ve still got a long way to go: a recent Forrester study revealed that only 1 in 8 meetings with a sales person were rated “valuable” by the prospect.

Intellectual intelligence is necessary but not sufficient

Some level of raw intellectual intelligence is obviously necessary, as is a strong sense of “always be learning” curiosity on the part of the sales person. But that of itself is not enough.

We need our sales people to be emotionally intelligent – they must be able to “tune in” to the prospect and to establish rapport with them…

We need our sales people to demonstrate digital intelligence – they must be able to master the new rules of web-based information gathering…

We need our sales people to demonstrate cognitive intelligence – they must have the ability to reason, and to uncover the patterns in the information they are absorbing…

…and we need our sales people to be socially intelligent – they must be able to actively participate in social media and not just use it as a research tool

Training isn’t enough

Some of these forms of intelligence can be clearly taught, but some of them are innate. Some of the old school battle-wagons are simply going to be unconvertible – and the kindest thing to do for them would be to help them recognize and confront the issue. It may be time for a new career.

Is this person smart enough to work for us?

I think that some of the key questions that interviewers probably need to ask themselves when evaluating potential new sales hires are:

Is this person smart enough to work for us? If they aren’t likely to measurably move the average intelligence of your sales force up a few notches, they probably aren’t good enough to join them

Is this person smart enough to have their prospects believe that every interaction has been worthwhile? If not, and if you care about your brand, they probably aren’t good enough to represent you

Does this person visibly demonstrate a balance of intellectual, emotional cognitive and digital intelligence – and yet still have the potential to develop further? I guess you know the answer to this one

In a world of fewer, smarter sales people…

We’re heading towards a world of fewer, smarter sales people. How many of your existing sales people are going to be able to shape up? And if they are not, are you prepared to wait for your sales numbers to fall into irreversible decline before you do something about it?

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. By 2020, we’ll have more ‘salespeople’ than ever – but they won’t be called salespeople. I agree that marketing automation and algorithms will erode some sales positions, especially in B2B, but the fallacy in Gschwandtner’s drastic projection comes from the fact that there is no definitive way to categorize workers who hold sales responsibility. “Not a salesperson” if selling constitutes less than 50% of time spent on the job, but “salesperson” if it’s greater than 50%? Who can say? Today, selling functions have been spread to many different departments in a company, and you’ll find that the word ‘Sales’ is nowhere to be found in the job titles of those performing the work. And they often don’t report through the “sales hierarchy” if one even exists.

    How would the Bureau of Labor Statistics classify the partner in a professional services firm who also carries a quota for bringing in billable work? Or the ‘Customer Care Representative’ who is responsible for promoting software upgrades and add-on services? Or the office cleaner who, once on customer site, offers additional products such as floor waxing, for which he earns a commission? Or the route delivery person who also has responsibility for recommending (and selling!) new products? These roles, and many more, represent a dispersion of the legacy siloed sales function, and have become commonplace–even ubiquitous–in organizations.

    Contact a cable services provider with a billing question, and I guarantee the representative handling the call will pitch you on the reasons why you must upgrade your connection speed–along with handling all needed billing administration to seal the deal. I assure you that you will not be ‘transferred to sales,’ because you are talking with sales. Or was it Customer Support? Hard to tell these days.

    You correctly observe that today’s salesperson “can't rely on a sales script, or a rigid sales process. They have to be smart enough to able to listen, react and adapt to what's going on around them whilst still keeping control of the sales conversation. They need to be able to add value to every customer interaction, and to help the prospect see things from a fresh perspective.” But these are the exact same capabilities I needed when I began selling way back in 1984.

    What’s changed over 30 years isn’t the needed selling skills, but the fact that others in an organization are now equally capable of performing the selling function, and through information technology, they are empowered to do it. That, and the fact that prospects and customers alike now want to buy without having to “go through a salesperson.” (They are, they just don’t realize it!)


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here