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A Glimpse Into the Future: What Sales Will Look Like 5 Years From Now

What will the future bring for sales professionals? Sales expert Tom Searcy looks into his crystal ball to share his predictions for what trends will dominate the market in 2018.
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One of the responsibilities of leaders is to help their teams not only plan for the future, but anticipate it. I spend a great deal of my time helping business leaders see that future in the larger market context beyond just their own industry. Here's a small glimpse into what I believe the next five years will look like in the world of selling:

1.    There will be fewer traditional sales people

The market forces of digitization, mobilization, and purchasing governance are going to dramatically change the ways in which buying and selling occur. This will transform the role of the traditional sales person and diminish the need for that position. That does not mean that there will be fewer jobs per se in the world of revenue generation, but those jobs will be different than that from what we now call "sales." Here's why:

-       Less prospecting--Traditional direct prospecting methods will have lower yields to the point that sales people performing direct prospecting will become cost prohibitive.

-       Fewer client meetings--Prospects and clients will have less time and interest in considering new vendors and going through the traditional face-to-face presentation cycle for considering providers.

-       More structured purchases--The procurement process, purchasing department, and online auctions will continue and expand in use to include smaller size contracts.

-       Disintermediation--Buyers will seek additional ways to go direct to providers and manufacturers, diminishing the need for and use of manufacturer reps, dealers, and distributors.

-       Leveling the playing field--Buyers will turn more items that have been considered value add into minimum requirements thereby decreasing the need for involved explanations and comparative analysis.

The net of these trends will be fewer sales people on the road calling on clients directly.

2. The focus of buyers will finally shift from price to integrated outcomes

This may sound like good news at first, but, the reasons that this will occur need consideration.

-       Competitive pricing exercises will have squeezed out what is available in margin discounting. This means that other than spot quoting, more products and services will be treated as commodities and will thus be included in structured purchase processes.

-       Commodities that have standardized COGS will be "traded" not bought and sold. This means that the activity of quoting will replace the more traditional roles of sales people who provide needs assessment, solution matching, and price justification.

 3. The roles in the revenue generation chain will become more specialized.

These roles will include, but not be limited to:

  1. Traders--Although not titled as such, this will be the role of many of the people with sales titles. Their real role will be to facilitate quoting of commodities and near commodities in the roles titled "Account Management," "Inside Sales" or "Customer Service."
  2. Designers--Solution architects will continue to be in high-demand for opportunities in which the prospect has been qualified for a diagnostic session. Customization and tailoring of pre-packaged and modular solutions will be the choice for companies who want to limit the risk and cost of completely built-from-scratch approaches.
  3. Project Management--This function of collaborative coordination between customers and providers including all of the supply chain management, enterprise resource planning, and logistics will grow in importance for the larger contracts in the market.
  4. Lead generation--This area will continue to evolve as the technologies adapt to the filters and barriers organizations put between buyers and your revenue generators. Social media, outsourced meeting makers, earned media, and other mechanisms are entering and developing in the market for the single purpose of getting higher up the food chain in the buying organization as a way to bypass the structured purchase.

 4.   Compensation for sales people will change significantly

As the partitioning of the sales process and subsequent specialization of roles occurs, the commission-based compensation for selling will also change. This will mean a move to less commission-only and high-commission compensation models and more of a salary and bonus model with compensation more broadly shared by all of the participants.

5.   What will not change

  1. Urgency or perceived urgency will trump process. When clients have real problems in a hurry, they will eschew all formality to solve a problem now. Companies that are positioned effectively for rapid response in the marketplace will be able to capitalize on opportunities.
  2. Evaluation of prospects will continue to drive fast-growth company decisions.  Smart companies do what they do best, and avoid doing things that will stretch them beyond their capabilities. An effective Target Filter will be crucial to continue to sort through the dearth of leads and glean only the high-value opportunities.
  3. Guarantees and proven speed to results will still earn a higher price than similar commitments over longer time periods. Companies in the market continue to move closer to Just-in-Time mentalities around need satisfaction, and JIT has moved closer to "NOW" than ever before.
  4. Communication skills at all levels will be valued as companies align their business development organization with the prospect's purchasing organization.  Effective and efficient written and verbal communication is a greater requirement when other differentiators have been commoditized.
  5. Trust will still be more important than bona fides. At the end of the day, buyers have to trust the company that they are going to work with because it is the buying group's collective careers that are on the line if they get it wrong.

In the world of sales, much of the above is heresy. However, when I look at the companies who are growing in the top 10 percent of their industries, many of the changes described have been embraced and implemented. This picture of the future is incomplete, of course. It is also not absolute. There will continue to be direct prospecting efforts, just less. There will continue to be traditional sales people and approaches, just fewer.

IMAGE: Gary Forrest / Flickr.com
Last updated: Nov 7, 2013

TOM SEARCY | Columnist | Founder, Hunt Big Sales

Author, speaker, and consultant Tom Searcy is the foremost expert in large account sales. With Hunt Big Sales, he has helped clients land more than $5 billion in new sales. Click to get Searcy's weekly tips, or to learn more about Hunt Big Sales.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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