Our last article introduced a new series on mega-threats to the sales industry, inspired by the fascinating bestselling book by Nouriel Roubini entitled MegaThtreats: 10 Dangerous Trends that Imperil Our Future, and How to Survive Them.
Now, let’s look at the first mega-threat—which deals with the salespeople themselves.
While researching this article, I turned back to an excellent book that was popular when I first brought my business to the U.S. from Austria a little less than 11 years ago. The book was by Daniel Pink and was entitled To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth about Moving Others. Going back through this book, I was startled by how much has changed since the book was published. Many factors addressed in the book are no longer relevant, mainly due to the incredible advance of technology.
I recently saw an article that provided some amazing statistics about technology adoption. Facebook and other social media technologies took approximately a year to be adopted by 1 million users. But how long did 1 million users in the current culture take to adopt the artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT? Five days. That is quite an incredible escalation in adoption time!
In To Sell Is Human, the author quotes playwright Arthur Miller from his famous play Death of a Salesman. The quote is in a scene where one of the characters says to Willie Loman, the “salesman” of the title: “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. And the funny thing is that you’re a salesman, and you don’t know that.” This quote serves to show how important a real salesperson is—or at least once was.
This was certainly true at the time To Sell Is Human was published in 2012. Pink cited the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in the book—sales had almost 15 percent of the U.S. workforce, and manufacturing had 12 percent. Today we can see that in this $2 trillion U.S. economy, these two figures are very likely to switch, with factory workers occupying a much larger portion of the labor force.
Pink mentioned in his book that the software company Atlassian, which develops the issue-tracking product Jira that we use in development at Pipeliner, collected around $100 million in sales without a single salesperson. Pink asked Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brooks how that was possible, and Cannon-Brooks replied that, in a way, everyone in the company is a salesperson. That is also no longer true.
In short, we’re in the most significant change ever. And yes, this is a mega-threat for salespeople.
The Specialization Disease
I don’t want to bring a threat of doom and gloom, however, and say that there will be no more jobs for salespeople. I want to take a few steps back and point out that the real issue is that we won’t have enough people who really know how to sell, based on the direction businesses have been taking with their sales teams for the last few years. This trend follows the direction of many other industries—there are only specialists that are knowledgeable in one specific aspect of their profession.
As an example from another field, medicine, the general practitioner, which was very common when I was a child, has become practically nonexistent. Over hundreds of years, the GP delivered correct diagnoses and truly helped people. Today, a patient must run from one expert to another.
Is that good? I don’t think so. I understand the need for an expert when it comes to a major organ transplant, such as a heart, kidney, or long. But the professional that could make a holistic diagnosis is practically no longer with us.
Within the last decade, we’ve seen a similar trend in sales to the extreme state it is in today. There is the SDR—the Sales Development Rep—which warms up leads for sales reps. There is the customer success rep, which focuses on existing customers. There are appointment setters, product presentation specialists, and many others. The real profession of being able to view sales holistically is fading away.
The Real Salesperson
It takes a holistic salesperson to truly bring about a deal. One of my core principles is that a good sales contract, at the end of the day, hurts both sides just a little bit—not too much on one side or the other, but just a little bit on both. This is the very definition of fairness.
The salesperson should not be squeezing the buyer like a lemon, and the buyer should not be trying to take unfair advantage by denigrating the seller’s product to lower the price. Criticism of such behavior goes back thousands of years and can even be found in the book of Proverbs in the Bible.
A real salesperson is ethical. The most crucial aspect of working with people is how you communicate and collaborate. In today’s world, we often meet someone twice. If you’ve treated them well the first time, that reputation will benefit you the second time. The opposite is also true—if you didn’t treat them well that first time, the second time your reputation will precede you and cause an adverse reaction.
Ethical behavior is not something you can just learn from a book. Much of it must be learned through life experience.
For example, many people gravitate to sales because they want freedom in a job, to set their own rules and hours. But freedom has a flip side, which is responsibility. One cannot exist without the other.
A salesperson must maintain a calm demeanor and a cool head. When someone gets impatient or “hotheaded,” they often make wrong decisions and ruin a deal.
A salesperson must possess the fortitude to be brave. They must be courageous enough to make a good deal and confidently ask for the close. Such a thing isn’t done out of fear—the salesperson is creating a better future where none currently exists for both themselves and the customer.
One quality all salespeople should demonstrate is trust. This characteristic is vital within a company, especially when selling to prospects.
There has been much discussion, especially from vendors of sales automation software, that AI will eventually replace salespeople. AI is better and faster. If AI also replaces buyers, then there will only be machines talking to each other one day.
AI cannot replace a real salesperson. AI cannot differentiate between the different shades of emotion. A machine cannot establish a long-term relationship—for example, recognize that a particular buyer might be a real ambassador, advocate, or door opener for the seller’s product, and therefore should be given a special price.
Such ethical and social intelligence qualities cannot be programmed into a system today. And if they could be, who should do so? The programmer could be biased in one way or another or require real education in dealing with buyers.
Real sales education is not something that can be done overnight. It took us hundreds and thousands of years to realize that true sales have a life component. For example, a salesperson could sell a piece of jewelry to someone as an anniversary gift for their spouse. The buyer has a limited budget but has been married for 20 years and wants something special. The salesperson would need to take the time and care to show the customer some real possibilities that yet fit within the customer’s budget.
This kind of selling includes understanding emotional nuances. It cannot be taught when the sales job is sliced into five different segments. The person might be great at their one little specialty but wouldn’t know how to get in front of a person, begin a sales cycle, and run it all the way through. Or, in a B2B setting, such a person could never walk into a room full of people they’ve never met, contact and address them. They don’t know how to relate and be authentic.
Because of specialization, today young people are not being trained as real salespeople. They will emerge into the business world as mere machines—appointment setters, product presenters, or customer success reps. But no one looks at a prospect and sees the potential from start to finish. And I see that as a mega-threat.
A mechanical approach is like bureaucracy—very cold and rule-based.
I have recently been in Europe. When I was leaving, I had to go through the airport at Frankfurt. There are no longer human passport controls—it’s all mechanized. You place your passport on a scanner and then have to stand in a precise position so that your face can be scanned to match up to your passport. In such a situation, there is no in-between. Either you’re in, or you’re out. You can’t approach the station and say, “Oops, wait, I forgot something.” Or, “Oh, this picture is old.” You either make it, or you don’t.
I fear that this is where we are heading in sales, and that the knowledge of real sales is fading away.
I do understand that when you have a lot of customers, you may need to hand one over to someone in the care of support. A continuing customer may need to be regularly contacted by customer success so that the company can remain in contact with them. But when a company has major accounts, the real salespeople take care of them through building and continuing relationships.
Real account management is also fading away from a business point of view. In today’s business, the ultimate goal is only “growth, growth, growth!” until there are hundreds or thousands of customers and a customer becomes only a number that is no longer cared for.
At Pipeliner, we experienced this ourselves. We were customers for several different services for five or six years and then decided to change. When we did, nobody called from the companies we left behind. It was like no one even noticed. In the old days, when you brought a company in the area of $100,000 over five years, you would be important to them. They would contact you to find out why you were leaving and see what they could do about it. But no longer.
Bring It Back!
To conclude, the disappearance of genuine, authentic selling is a mega threat to sales. As young salespeople enter their careers, they should be educated as relationship-forming true salespeople.
Stay with me as I explore this topic further, and discuss possible solutions!