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Faster, smarter, easier, edgier – Technology and the future of sales

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The people, technology and trends that are changing the way we do sales.

Companies spend an astounding $1 trillion on their sales organizations. 13% of the workforce in the US works in sales but where technology has transformed every aspect of our lives outside of work, very little of this innovation has made its way into the office.

Sales is based on human intuition and strategies to improve the odds.

For a salesperson, the numbers are daunting: only 46.5% of forecast deals result in a close. Craps tables at casinos offer better chances, with the likelihood of winning at 49.8%.

In a stagnant sector that hasn’t seen major change in decades, selling remains a numbers game – converting volumes of cold calls, emails and blog posts into transactions, with little to no predictability – played by a sales force that spends ⅔ of its time on non-sales activity, and managers who police it ineffectively (studies show that 88.7% of managers cannot proactively identify reps in need of coaching).

Statistically speaking, so much of the time spent in sales is a waste of time and money, with the only way to grow revenue is to increase the body count of the sales force. With a team facing so many obstacles, why bother rolling the dice at all?

With a team facing so many obstacles, why bother rolling the dice at all?

The forecast isn’t all bad, though. While technology has transformed marketing, operations channels, and even human resources, it’s just now beginning to engage with the enterprise sales force. Investments in sales acceleration technologies will grow from $12.8 billion in 2014 to $38.2 billion within the next 5 years, changing the rules of the game. What does that mean for the future of sales?

Fantastic gains for sales forces in any sector, as long as they’re willing to make the difficult transition from the days of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ to a modern paradigm where instinct and manual data entry is replaced by science and shared intelligence.

The Future of Sales Will See Gut Replaced by Science

Today, the role of a salesperson is to translate the complexity of a product to the buyer. In the past, she would typically do that by logging everything she gleaned from cold calls and conversations manually into the company server so the manager could see where his time was allotted.

She’ll use her accumulated knowledge and chummy relationships to assume what the buyer needs, when, in fact, she’s probably relying heavily on data from earlier deals. And then those overly-strapped sales managers will have to spend 31% of their time, on average, on administrative duties, trying to figure out where to allocate resources.

In the digital age, that sounds insane. When was the last time you manually logged in anything? You sign on with Facebook or fingerprint recognition, not chicken-pecking on a keyboard. Automation and optimization is how we all live our lives, from Waze to Apple Calendar.

By now everyone knows that technology creates a digital trail – everyone, it seems, except sales leaders. All that’s required is some new enterprise technology around artificial intelligence and big data analysis that can contextualize, sort and make sense of that breadcrumb trail. It could pull from digital signatures, email, cloud storage, and every interaction with a buyer to create a meaningful next step to get a sale done.

That means that methodologies like the Challenger Sales will no longer be the primary way to change a sales organization. Building relationships through in-person handshakes and time-developed relationships will also become less important. To get from here to there, companies need to invest in high-quality training as well as change-agents who can shift the culture of selling, rethinking everything from compensation plans to recruiting criteria.

In this new paradigm, where productivity and revenue growth is enabled by technology, the need for head-count increase is diminished. The goal: take a well-trained sales team and make them more powerful and effective, not through expensive people who log their activities but by taking advantage of the technologies that other departments have benefited from for years.

Tiffani Bova, a former analyst and current Customer Growth and Innovation Evangelist at the cloud-based CRM platform Salesforce agrees. “The future of sales will be contextual, data-driven, predictive and intelligent,” she says. “Sales organizations which are outperforming others are able to take each of those areas and mold them into what works best for their business.”

In the not-so-distant future, sales won’t be the left-behind relic of the 1980s. It will be personalized, optimized, up-to-the-second, tech-savvy – and maybe even sexy.

Collaboration Within an Organization Replaces Dog-Eat-Dog Mentality

In most cases, salespeople still use aging technology to do their jobs: booting up Office to pore over Excel, Word and PowerPoint files. Some will use CRM tools, but they also increase the administrative burden by requiring managers to spend hours policing inputs. Add to all that the impact of social media – a buyer can watch videos and read blogs to research a product, and visit LinkedIn to find out more about the salesperson coming in for a meeting (and vice versa) – and you are left with a sick sense that in the future of sales, sales forces are going the way of the fax machine.

But the opposite is true. There is now a historic opportunity for salespeople to maximize their efficiency: to use tools that let them call the right clients at the right time with exactly the right information, using data from those who were once considered their competitors – their sales colleagues.

Take Slack, a perfect example of shifting the structure of a successful sales team. CEO Stewart Butterfield’s proposition was basically to tell sales teams that email is a waste of time. Messaging was over.

Slack would allow team members to join the conversation long after it had begun (or ended) and organize the intelligence gleaned from every interaction to help with ongoing and future sales. And it transformed business efficiencies. The enterprise messaging firm has raced to 2.3 million monthly active users and $64 million in future projected annual revenue in just two years. It’s currently valued at around $4 billion.

Or look at Australia’s Atlassian. This 14-year-old company makes project management and chat apps such as Jira and HipChat that allow groups to plan, track and release software. More than 80 Fortune 100 companies use its software, and the company is valued at $5 billion. Just like we learned in kindergarten: sharing is caring.

Selling Will Become Buyer-Centric

In the future of sales, buyers will expect personalization. Companies that fail to do this will suffer huge opportunity costs and losses to competitors who get to the right people first.

Why? Because the buyers are more sophisticated than ever. They know more about your company’s offerings that apply specifically to them than any of their predecessors could have a decade ago. It’s all out there in the digital trail.

Success requires intelligence and recommendations based on data presented in real time, not on what other buyers in the past wanted or needed. Think of the recommendation engine at Amazon and how that increased purchasing by users who had no intention of buying more than they came to the site to purchase.

Think about Facebook and all the recommendations your connections give you before you go out at night or travel to a destination or purchase a car. And then, as a salesperson, you get into the office, and you’re 20 years behind. How is that possible?

Your buyers will no longer allow it in the future of sales. They want you to know what they want, when they want it, and to augment your human talents with AI – and even virtual reality. In the early days of cold-call selling, a regional manager would drive from town to town to shake hands and build relationships.

Those hours on the road (before Waze, mind you) were hours spent not selling. Now salespeople have the opportunity to be in Shanghai and Sao Paolo and Silicon Valley simultaneously through VR platforms that put them in a room with buyers, virtually, while building lasting relationships.

The proof is in the transactions. In the spring of 2014, Facebook acquired VR’s leading innovator Oculus for $2 billion. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made it clear that the purchase was not about making great games. Rather, he saw VR as the future of communications. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, agrees. Indeed, he thinks avatar-based VR can improve on FaceTime or Skype. “You can actually make VR better than face-to-face,” he says. “You can make it hyper-personal … with avatars you’re always the way you want to look.”

A salesperson isn’t a relic, no. He’s a human face of the company with whom the buyer has deep ties and is connected to at all times, anywhere.

The Network Effect Is Real

Within teams, outside of teams and between sales professionals in different companies, it will take a village to attack global markets that are moving faster than ever.

Tad Martin co-founded Collective[i] on the belief that it’s possible to give salespeople contextual data about sales prospects thanks to the ‘network effect’. “The old thinking was that you have to hoard your data, and that’s how you win. But now it’s different,” he says. “When you contribute to a trusted network, you get back the power of all the people in the network when you need it. This is how Uber and Google and Airbnb work. Basically, the more you share, the more you win.”

Collective[i] is leading the trend of transforming the enterprise using technology to automate repetitive activities. It combines that with networks of data to deliver intelligence designed to augment human activities so that sales teams can predictably deliver and grow revenue.

The company uses AI and machine learning to examine data from a huge network of buyers and sales organizations. It identifies patterns that show how enterprises make buying decisions and then shares these insights in real time via applications.

The result is that sales professionals and managers only spend time on deals that will close and remove the friction from the buying process for their customers. Automation combined with intelligence about buying behaviors has been the missing piece from CRM and the root cause of many of the challenges that plague sales.

Steven Wright, a Senior Analyst at Forrester focused on B2B marketing and sales enablement, predicts that “sellers will become more expert about buyers’ needs and use various sales and marketing technologies to become so,” adding that, “B2B sellers already focus at the account level, so finding data that can fill in the blanks whether from internal or external sources to better map the consensus buy will allow sellers to better engage.”

The ‘networking of the enterprise’ is already underway. Think Dunn & Bradstreet, a 150-year-old company that used collective, anonymous data to score business credit for anyone willing to share.

In the modern era, mature companies are hoping to remain relevant by using AI to enhance human capital.

Facebook launched Facebook at Work in 2015 as a version of the social network for the workplace. It’s being tested by nearly 300 companies including Royal Bank of Scotland and Club Med. Then there’s Microsoft’s purchase of LinkedIn. Though details are still sketchy, it’s clear that the long-term vision of this deal is a closer merger of Microsoft’s productivity tools and LinkedIn’s network.

Oracle made an announcement at its OpenWorld conference in September that its Adaptive Intelligent Applications will help sales teams hit the trigger at the ideal time for prospects. The behemoth will mine data from the 5 billion profiles living in its cloud. That’s not so far off from Salesforce Einstein, which will endow the cloud-based platform with predictive capabilities. Einstein’s technology is derived from acquisitions such as RelateIQ and Metamind.

All four of those relatively old Silicon Valley companies clearly see the benefits of AI and machine learning – but no one else will until those billions of profiles learn to trust these networks and share information.

The Future of Sales Will be Personalized

If technology is empowering salespeople with more options, it’s also doing the same for buyers. Consumers – from the shopper buying on Etsy to the enterprise CTO – are demanding more choice. And they expect personalization.

The most progressive companies give it to them. Take Tesla. Its customers can configure their Tesla, choose a delivery option and then click the order button – all on the web. This represents a complete rejection of the way the reviled car sales business works in the US. There are no Tesla lots; there are a handful of high-end showrooms, and they are staffed by engineers. And because the sale happens online on the website, Tesla reps don’t even ‘sell’ cars. They sell the brand experience and the amenities that add value to your personal needs in what amounts to a computer on wheels. And they don’t work on commission.

Tesla uses data to tweak its product offerings. Because its electric vehicles are permanently connected, it can gather data to better understand how owners drive. It can use this to improve the ownership experience and grow future sales. One example: Tesla updated Autopilot overnight and gave their customers a new feature without doing a thing. When that feature was found to have a problem, the company pushed out a fix over the air, all while gathering data from a network of their users to make the feature better in months, not years.

In terms of whether the Tesla model will spread into other industries, Forrester’s Wright believes, “it will depend on the level of customization expected or needed by the customer and how well the supplier can become, in essence, a service provider to optimize those solutions.”

Clearly multiple technologies are converging to change the nature of selling. If that spells the end of the cold call and the pushy rep, then the question is: what does the next-gen sales person look like in the future of sales? Many believe the answer is female.

The Woman’s Century

Research says there are more women than ever in sales, though it remains a male-dominated area. A 2014 LinkedIn study entitled “Women in Sales, Top Trends of Female Sales Professionals” stated that the percentage of women in sales increased from 36 per cent to 39 per cent in the last ten years.

Why the jump? Some argue it’s because women have – by and large – more of the empathy and listening skills required for today’s sophisticated sales approach. Jacqueline de Rojas believes this.

The VP of Citrix was Computer Weekly’s Most Influential Woman in UK IT for 2015. “You have to sell what the customer needs, not just what you’ve got,” she insists. “There are so many alternatives available, and we’ve had to become more consultative. This calls for emotional intelligence, which is something women often bring to the table. It’s an enormous shift in the sales industry.”

Another factor helping women find success in sales is the changing nature of networking. Social media is providing an alternative to the golf course and other male-oriented channels.

Sales coach and author Jill Rowley believes this is a huge change. “Social media provides a way for women to bridge that gap,” she argues. “No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can be building your personal brand, building your network and sharing valuable content.”

Right at the Center

So where does all this change leave the salesperson within an enterprise? The answer has to be: right at the center. If the future of sales means the sales agent is the conduit between the organization and the ever-more sophisticated buyer, his or her insights must count.

Lars Dalgaard, General Partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, says this has to be the way. He remembers how it used to be.

“When I worked in sales at a Fortune 100 pharmaceutical company, there was a voicemail box where sales reps could leave messages about stuff they were seeing in the field. I was dying to tap into that market and product information,” he recalls. “What I found was exasperating: nobody had ever listened to it. It was a black hole – there were almost 10,000 messages! And they were gold, solid gold; we actually took a number of them and turned them into products that have since made millions.”

The point, Dalgaard argues, is “that there was a clear wall between sales and the rest of the organization. And that’s the kind of divisive mindset that can kill your company.”

The benefit of putting salespeople at the heart of an enterprise is hitting home.

The last few years has seen the rise a new role – the Chief Revenue Officer – with responsibility for all activities that lead to revenue. Many observers believe CROs, who gain an overarching view of the commercial functions of a business, will make the next generation of CEOs. Look at Salesforce, Oracle, and Cisco – all enterprise technology companies run by sales leaders.

And maybe this paradigm shift will see the perception of a career in selling change, too. As the pushy rep gives way to the highly trained brand ambassador and product evangelist, perhaps the brightest graduates will consider selling differently. Tesla already employs engineering PhDs among its showroom team.

The firm has already changed perceptions of electric cars. Why not sales?