Sales Talent Is a Problem. Is it Worth Solving?

In our past several posts, we’ve discussed several insights from the recent 2018 Sales Talent Study, highlighting a series of talent challenges plaguing sales leaders. With most (84.5%) sales leaders not convinced that they have the talent needed to succeed in the future, there are clearly problems to be solved. Yet, it’s worth pondering a philosophical question… Do we still need sales talent at all?

The question may not be as far-fetched as it sounds:

  • Buyers are getting used to minimal sales involvement. Our Buyer Preferences Study confirmed that B2B buyers don’t see salespeople as problem-solvers. Buyers engage sellers later and later in the sales process, when there is less differentiation to be demonstrated. Not surprisingly, this coincides with a sharp rise in B2B eCommerce. According to some estimates, B2B eCommerce is on track to outpace B2C online retail purchasing in the next several years.
  • It’s increasingly possible to shrink the span of sales activities. The sales role is narrowing with above funnel activities partitioned off to SDRs, and renewals increasingly the domain of customer service and customer success. In addition, the activities that remain for a seller (quoting, demos) are being automated, and enhanced, using AI. In fact, we recently spoke with a services company who was replacing the entire discovery phase of their sales process with AI tools. Our 2017 World-Class Sales Practices study tells us that less than 1/3 of seller time is spent actually selling. If you used technology to create more selling time, how many salespeople would you need?

 
At CSO Insights, we see these changes having a profound effect. But we don’t see that effect as the ultimate demise of complex B2B selling roles. The most successful salespeople have always been the best business people, the most effective consultants, and the most credible experts. But the bar for being a problem-solver is undoubtedly higher than before. And certainly, the delivery of that expertise may happen in different formats (social and other asynchronous interactions) and the roles of those on the sell-side may look quite different. Sales is here to stay… but only if it changes profoundly.

Change presents a cultural challenge.

Most sales leaders today perceive a gap between what they want to do and what they have the talent to do. It is tempting make drastic changes. But turning over a significant proportion of a sales force at once can be highly disruptive to clients. A more conservative approach may not be a better alternative however. If you significantly change your hiring profile (and chances are the data will show you that you should) your proportionately small numbers of new hires will be so different from your incumbents that they may feel disconnected and leave or underperform.

We surveyed over 400 salespeople and found that 44.3% had two or more jobs before moving into sales, bringing with them a range of experience and expertise. Those who went directly into sales out of school didn’t necessarily have the typical sales background either. The #2 major (behind business) of sellers in this study was Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. And a growing number (10% in this study) had degrees in Sales. As discussed in a previous blog, those graduates are often entering the workforce prepared with CRM expertise and first-hand experience with sales process and methodology.

So how does an organization create an environment where those who can change will, and those coming into the organization have the best chance to succeed? Especially now when overall revenues are up, organizations should get aggressive with development, mentoring and other continuous learning programs. Create a culture where learning is built into the fabric of the sales organization. Everyone should be aware of a developmental gap to close. Creating an enablement focus will also move the organization away from tribal knowledge as the core learning solution. This will put newer sellers on par with existing sellers. There is a respect for those that have “earned their stripes.” But with things changing so fast, those stripes may be irrelevant.

The first step is a major talent strategy has to take the culture into account such that the organization can straddle old and new successfully.

Questions to Ask

  • How many of your sales roles add real value to customer relationships?
  • What role should technology play in your customer engagement strategy?
  • How are you defining the performance tiers within your salesforce?
  • How are you blending new and tenured sellers together?
  • What role does learning play within your culture?

 

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