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Evolution or Extinction: Is the Sales Workforce Future-Ready?
Blog / Entrepreneurs / Jan 15, 2015 / Posted by Andy Rudin / 5093

Evolution or Extinction: Is the Sales Workforce Future-Ready?

Years from now, will salespeople have been driven into extinction, victims from over-predation by cost-cutting CFO’s and empowered buyers? Will anyone remember the once-glorious meaning of Individual Contributor? Will the selling profession be able to extract itself from the festering primordial swamp that sustains negative sales stereotypes?

Well, the siren has sounded.

In 2012, Gerhard Gschwandtner of Selling Power magazine predicted that out of 18 million salespeople currently in the US, fewer than 3 million will be needed by 2020. A radical trajectory that means in eight years, 15 million people will have transitioned out of sales by retiring, or by finding a new day job. If you believe Gschwandtner’s prediction, you have to wonder when this negatively-sloped forecast will intersect with zero.

In a future-ready sales force, the new generation won’t resemble today’s sales producers.

Don’t look for a glut of buzzy new fresh-faced recruits to offset the exodus. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) is hot in schools today, and unless you believe salespeople build robots, wear white lab coats, and carry stethoscopes, you won’t see the serious, tenacious images of sales hunters adorning career websites. Interested in a rewarding career where you’ll be out on the bricks every day? Consider construction engineering!

“I’ve noticed that people in the Millennial generation just don’t think sales is a cool job.” says Elli Sharef, co-founder of tech-recruiting firm HireArt. “Among our parents’ generation there were millions of people making decent salaries as a sales rep for this, that, and the other thing. These days salesmen are regarded as shmucks.” It used to be easy to draw people in for sales interviews when you could bait the hook with high financial rewards and workplace autonomy.

At least if you’re an HR recruiter who must appeal to Millennials, there’s kind-of-good news: Many companies are actively redistributing selling tasks throughout the organization, giving positions anodyne titles like Customer Support Associate and Technical Support Specialist. These roles can be staffed with lower-wage people who earn smaller commissions than traditional salespeople, or none at all. That improves profit margins, but smudges the crisply-defined boxes in organizational hierarchies. When revenue is driven through multiple departments, where, exactly, does Sales fit?

You can thank Big Data, in part, for leveling the who-can-sell playing field. In a November, 2013, customer experience forum on CustomerThink (The BIG Shift from Service to Sales), a case study described a US-based Fortune 100 financial services firm that provided 1,600 customer service agents with “access to actionable investor information,” and gave them the ability to “use analytics to resolve problems, cross-sell, up-sell, and improve customer satisfaction.” That’s 1,600 Customer Service Agents who don’t need to say, “please hold while I transfer your call to Sales.” That’s empowerment!

I promise not to get preachy about how change is the only constant and how salespeople need to face reality, adapt, and evolve blah blah blah—or risk becoming irrelevant. In fact, I believe there will always be a need for salespeople. There—I said it! But in a future-ready sales force, the new generation won’t resemble today’s sales producers.

The Future Sales Force:

1. They will proudly wear multiple functional hats as client manager, project lead, support staff, and more.

2. They will be more mobile throughout the organization. The future-ready sales professional will build customer value by transitioning from other departments, including marketing, into sales—and then back out again.

3. They will be motivated by more than money. As Lisa Earle McLeod of McLeod & More said at a recent program, “Salespeople want purpose and meaning” in their jobs, as well.

4. They will be concerned with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Twenty years ago, salespeople rarely stressed about whether their products were manufactured using child labor, or by people earning less than a living wage. Today, those issues matter.

5. They will be better educated. As selling has become more knowledge-dependent and business focused, formal education requirements have increased, too.

6. They will be lifelong learners. The rapidly-changing demands on knowledge workers will favor those who continue to augment their skills through online courses and professional certifications.

7. They will have strong written communication skills, as new technologies expand on—or in some cases, replace—voice as the predominant method for holding sales conversations.

8. They will be better connected. When I entered college, social networks did not exist in a formal way. Unlike my college freshman daughter, I did not have 1,459 friends, or even a meaningful network of professional contacts from summer jobs.

9. They will be needed to train their managers on social media and other information technologies. The future-ready sales force will enter organizations with more IT knowledge than their supervisors, and they will be valued for bringing innovation into organizations.

The future-ready sales organization will be smaller and flatter than its predecessors. Management-heavy territory/district/region strata will become organizational dinosaurs. Through software automation, salespeople will generate more revenue per person, manage more accounts, and cover larger territories than before. Expect to see a rapid expansion of hybrid selling models that include combinations of outsourcing, channel development, and strategic partnering — as well as the distribution of selling roles to other entities within an organization. Algorithms will take over a measurable chunk of traditional repetitive sales work. Expect voracious competition to hire those who possess the ideal combination of skills. Even though there will be less demand for salespeople, there will be high demand for those with talent.

Fifteen million salespeople fleeing for greener vocational pastures over the next eight years equates to about 5,100 per day. Who—or what—will replace them? Will the future-ready sales workforce need dedicated sales professionals, or will new archetypes evolve? Technology no longer limits the possibilities. The answer depends on how an organization intends to reduce its strategic risks, what its customers demand, and its passion for capitalizing on opportunities.

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View the original article on CustomerThink.

About Author

Andrew (Andy) Rudin serves as Managing Principal of Contrary Domino, Inc., and helps B2B companies identify, assess, and manage a broad spectrum of revenue risks. He has a successful background as a technology sales strategist, marketer, account executive, and product manager.

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