It is clear the world of selling is changing. It is easy enough to simply declare that fact. But what is really driving the changes and what do these changes mean to people who sell and those who lead sales organisations? Here are four main drivers for change, each of which has implications for sales professionals.
1. Selling in a VUCA world
The environment in which sellers operate is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA). Volatility means sellers need to be flexible and quick to adapt. Uncertainty means it’s dangerous to be overexposed to one customer, one sector, one product. Complexity requires emergent, not classical strategies; it requires we recognise the challenges we face are multi-dimensional not single cause and effect. And it requires unambiguous, fast decision-making at the point of contact with the customer, not the delays and rigidity of hierarchical sales structures.
2. Generating growth in low-growth economies
Most businesses will have far higher growth plans than the predicted rates of economic growth of the markets they serve. In the past you could grow by riding the growth curve of the market, but few of us can do that now. You could go for growth by acquisition, but that may only hide the problem of low organic growth. The traditional route is to seize market share, but that often involves price reduction to unseat incumbents. The most sustainable route to organic growth is to enter white space: the areas where you are not head-to-head with competitors; the areas where your customers and prospects are underserved, which they may not yet have considered or are only just exploring. Opportunities for collaboration and co-innovation are significant.
3. Changed buying behaviours
Buying behaviours have changed, and are changing rapidly and radically. All sorts of data points to this, but so does experience. Most of us are changing the way we buy as consumers and there is good evidence this changed buying behaviour is impacting on business-to-business buying. One of the main changes involves more research and data before engaging with sellers. Buyers are doing more homework, online through social media and through traditional networks, than ever before. The seller is no longer a supplier of facts, but a diagnoser of issues and a recommender of solutions. The data also indicates that more people get involved in a typical purchasing decision than used to. This requires sellers to be able to adapt what and how they communicate to different buying roles, and to navigate more complex relationships.
4. Sales innovation
Sales leaders are faced with a multitude of “shiny toys”. Some of these will turn out to be expensive distractions, but some are already making a significant difference. The areas where we see the greatest impact are in interpreting and making use of data; lead generation, nurturing and filtering; relationship management, making customer relationship management more user friendly, customer-centric and business enhancing; making the right content available to sellers and buyers at the right time and tracking complex sales; remote coaching using artificial intelligence; and more effective sales compensation. The challenge for sales leaders is to buy at the right time and to integrate any sales innovations into the wider business. The software-as-a-service approach is certainly making buying decisions easier and is putting sales innovation firmly in the hands of sales management.
In conclusion, the overall impact is likely to be increasing automation of lower-value orders and an increasing demand for a smaller number of skilled sellers, who can identify complex problems and opportunities, and communicate coherently in a world where both the digital and the human will be more important.