2017: A Bridge to the Future of Sales

As I reflect on our extensive body of research this year, I am struck by the fact that many of the “trends to watch,” both positive and negative, that we’ve described in previous reports have become the norm.

The warnings came true. Sales did not change fast enough to match changes in customer behavior. Incremental tweaks to performance drivers are now inadequate.

The 2017 World-Class Practices Study confirmed that the #1 new concern for sales leaders was “transforming my sales organization.” In fact, most organizations are taking on improvement initiative after improvement initiative. Yet, despite the attention and investment, most are finding it hard just to maintain status quo performance. Thus we sub-titled the report “running up a down escalator.” We uncovered lots of very hard work with little progress. In fact, quota attainment dropped to 53%, the fifth consecutive annual decline. That means only half of sellers are making or exceeding their goals. However, the news was not all dire. For the first time in the 15 years that we have been conducting this study in various formats, we statistically connected organizational practices to the Sales Relationship Process (SRP) Matrix, showing how to move from one level to the next. And for the first time, we saw customer experience oriented practices demonstrate a link to operational sales results. Encouragingly, we still found those who succeed, a World-Class set of performers (an elite 7% of the overall study population) who are doing the right things and getting the right results.

Artificial Intelligence has lived up to (some of) the hype. Tools exist that can help turn the tide.

As organizations look to transform themselves, technology will be an indispensable factor. For the first time, Artificial Intelligence is now a matter of “which tools are you working with?” versus just a philosophical discussion of what might be possible.

We looked at over 60 sales technology companies who position themselves in the AI space. We found at least 17 who are up and running with real customers who are seeing real results. Our AI white paper defines just what AI means and how it is different from analytics and Big Data. (Watch the related video here.)

We see great promise for substantially removing the “tedium of sales,” creating more selling time and therefore more opportunity for the creativity of sales. We see AI as “augmented” intelligence, used in conjunction with a World-Class sales team. We do believe that AI will replace many transactional sellers. However, we do not support the predications that AI will mean the end of selling as a profession. In fact, AI may be the very thing that saves sales (consultative, perspective selling sales models). But it will mean a drastic change in who will be successful in sales. Organizations need to start acting on this today and begin trying out these new technologies.

The move from selling-as-art to selling-as-science has permanently transformed the profession.

With quota attainment continuing a downward slide and AI primed to replace some sales jobs, you would think that many sellers would be a bit skeptical about the future. Not so. In our research with over 800 salespeople, we found that they still love selling. When asked whether they would recommend sales as a profession to someone coming out of school, the answer was a resounding yes (85% agreed). Specifically, sellers loved the varied nature of the job, the ability to continuously learn and the fact that sales had a future, among other factors. You may be surprised to notice that being financially lucrative only came up as #5 on the list. But they were also clear to point out that sales was a great job, for the right person. And that right person profile is going to change dramatically over time.

Sales enablement has become a permanent sales fixture in organizations of all sizes.

With sellers struggling and a new breed of salesperson and sales manager rapidly approaching, organizations have stopped experimenting with sales enablement and moved to full out adoption. Five years ago, our research showed that only 17% of organizations had a dedicated sales enablement function, program or position. This year’s Sales Enablement Optimization study reported that number to be 60%! Sales enablement is no longer a trend; it’s a fact. And, it will become increasingly important as organizations fight to reverse the downward slide, learn to incorporate AI to be more efficient and effective and help their professional sellers succeed.

The key is that while there are more organizations focused on sales enablement, less than one-third feel like their sales enablement goals are being met. This is because enablement as a discipline is continuing to mature. To assist, we developed the sales enablement clarity model. Born of our enablement research, this model describes specifically what sales enablement means and what components you should include in your sales enablement discipline.

And while we are on the topic of sales enablement, let’s not forget that sales managers need to be enabled too. Our 2017 Sales Manager Enablement Report: Overwhelmed and Underdeveloped shines a spotlight on the fact that many, if not all, transformation initiatives require intense commitment and work from sales managers. Yet, at the same time, they are an under-developed audience, receiving little true enablement attention.

There is still a lot of work to be done to connect all the elements of selling together.

As we look to our research agenda for 2018, we will continue our exploration of transformation practices, the enablement discipline and emerging sales technologies. In addition, we are planning a comprehensive look at the current state of sales operations, a deeper dive into customer experience, a contemporary study into sales leadership and a buyer behavior study.

We’ve been excited about selling, both present and future, for a long time. Now we clearly see a bridge between the two.

1 Comment
  • Fred Diamond
    Posted at 11:29h, 11 January

    I’m surprised to see no comments on this excellent post. The other main trend we see at the Institute for Excellence in Sales is that the shift to AI and the rise of marketing automation have almost completely flushed out the middle of the road sales professional. If you’re not at the top of your game, your career prospects continue to dramatically dwindle.

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