Looking into a crystal ball isn't exactly a scientific thing to do, but if you ask the right kinds of smart people you can get a pretty good idea what's likely to come down the pike. And considering every company on the planet is alive thanks to the selling of products and services, predicting how sales will be changing in coming years seems like a prudent thing to do. Check out these predictions, offered from a handful of eminent thought leaders.

1. Inside sales will replace field sales.

In case you don't know the difference between the two, field salespeople live and work near customers away from a company's headquarters, whereas inside salespeople operate out of company's main base and sell remotely to customers who may not be nearby. According to Nick Hedges, president and CEO of sales acceleration software company Velocify, collaborative technology has evolved to the point where sales reps can serve clients well without ever having to meet with them in person. "People just don't have time to have lunch and play golf and all of those kinds of things that used to go with being a field sales rep," he says. "Time is very fragmented. I've got 15 minutes where I'm going to be thinking about the net piece of software or the billing system, or whatever it is that I want to buy, and I want to engage with someone right now."

2. Discounting and loyalty programs are going to be huge.

Research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey conducts an annual survey of a cross section of more than 500 SMBs representing various markets and company sizes. The results of its third quarter 2014 survey are telling. A year prior respondents on average said 15 percent of their sales would come from discounts, however in the most recent survey that number jumped to 26 percent. As for loyalty programs in particular, in 2013 18 percent of respondents said their company had some kind of loyalty program in place. In 2014, 29 percent did. What's behind the trend? According to BIA/Kelsey research director Steve Marshall, it stems from a shift in relationship between SMBs and their customers.

"The whole nature of that contract is changing," he says. "The relationship is getting closer and more involved for both parties. And we believe social media is a part of the deepening of the relationship." In essence, customer who connect with brands on social media feel more like friends with the company, which makes loyalty programs and special discounts a natural outflow.

3. The democratization of ecommerce will allow local brick and mortar retailers to compete with national superstores.

Jet.com--a buyer's club for consumer products slated to launch in "late spring"--will have a lot to do with it, says Jet founder and CEO Marc Lore. While ecommerce hasn't changed much in the two decades people have been buying things online, Lore says the space is ripe for disruption. First, assuming Jet--which boasts a prelaunch valuation of $600 million--succeeds, local mom and pop shops will be able for the first time to act as fulfillment centers and deliver products quickly to customers located near them.

While smaller retailers historically may have been reluctant to sell their products on marketplaces such as Amazon out of a desire to own the customer relationship, consumers will increasingly want to make all their online purchases in one place. "Those marketplaces are channeling eyeballs and... as that trend continues retailers are going to have to adapt and they're going to have to think about the relationship they have with the customer in a different type of way, more of a shared relationship than ownership," he says. "Unlike other marketplaces, Jet allows merchants to freely market to any customers that they sell to. So it's a shared ownership with the customer. Nobody owns the customer."

4. Smart companies will take advantage of predictive customer acquisition tools.

The point is to use technology to assess customer acquisition cost and move away from broad-stroke targeting. "You're going to see a more united approach around prospecting to acquisition and retention teams working together, and over time that will really build a predictive acquisition model," says Monica Girolami, head of North America marketing at NewVoiceMedia, a company that links inbound and outbound communications through Salesforce. "It will guide sales more effectively on identifying who they really should target, to create the greatest outcome and revenue return for the business."

5. Predictive data will kill cold calling and unwanted lead generation.

That's according to John Bara, president and CMO of enterprise predictive marketing company Mintigo. Even though many companies have invested heavily in CRM and marketing automation solutions, customers are still subjected to a barrage of unwanted cold calling and random lead generation because salespeople still for the most part don't really know who they're calling. In the coming years affordable cloud technology will become available for smaller companies which will be able to predict what customers want and need, similar to how Amazon and Netflix offer consumers content recommendations. "Think about that concept being extended to the realm of selling especially for B2B but also B2C," he says. "Once someone in marketing or sales has a much broader understanding of who this customer might be and what they're looking to do in their business, then the marketer or sales individual will have a much higher likelihood of providing something valuable in terms of solution and solving a problem for that customer or prospective customer."

6. The lines between sales, service and marketing will blur.

That's according to Jamie Domenici, VP of marketing at Salesforce, who says 62% of the sales cycle typically happens before a sales rep is involved, meaning a prospective customer is making decisions about a product or service without a sales rep's involvement. Smart companies in the next several years will figure out how to get the sales rep to the customer faster. "For example, if somebody is on your website you need to know in real time so a sales rep can actually pick up a phone and call that person and say "Are you interested?" because the longer you wait the colder the lead becomes. You don't want to know a day later," she says. "I think it's a transition every company has to make or they'll get disrupted."

7. Consumers will want more human interaction with retailers.

While people may be buying more online, the pendulum is swinging back to a consumer desire for some kind of in-person human interaction with retailers. That's according to Raju Vegesna, chief evangelist at Zoho, who says customers are getting burned out on automation. "Just like we are seeing in telephony where everything went automated--press 1 for sales, press 2 for whatever--now we are seeing a comeback of human interaction," he says. "The industry has taken automation too far. Human interaction is more valuable as people are shouting that this is not working."

Published on: Apr 9, 2015