Introduction

In the summer of 2023, we held our first ever Firestarter Roundtable session online with an interesting, insightful and lively discussion with a selection of industry experts on the future of traditional sales and evolving strategies in the face of an ever-changing landscape. Our intention for the Roundtables is to serve as the evolution of our popular Firestarter Forum series. Started in the depths of the COVID-19 lockdowns, our Firestarter Forums provided an opportunity for more than 200 business leaders to connect online – at first, the sessions were focused on sharing practical guidance amongst peers on how to navigate those extremely challenging times, but as restrictions lifted and things gradually returned to normal, the Forums shifted their focus to becoming a more general opportunity for business leaders to keep abreast of a whole range of contemporary topics, from finance and HR to business sustainability, leadership tactics and mental health.

One of the most popular features of the Firestarter Forums was our Breakout Rooms, where we would split our large audience into smaller groups of 4-8 people for a more personal discussion on the day’s topic. We received a lot of feedback that these smaller group sessions yielded some interesting, productive conversations amongst peers – and it was this feedback which led to the birth of the Firestarter Roundtables. By organising focused discussions with small, exclusive groups of hand-picked business leaders, our aim has been to create a space where truly meaningful insights on key topics can be generated – which we can then share through avenues such as this report.

Our first Roundtable was on the subject of ‘Evolving Sales Strategies and Lessons Learned’ – and it was a fascinating conversation on how buyer behaviour has changed in the last 20 years, how new technology has affected sales, and the implications of this for the training and development of salespeople. We are hugely grateful to the nine business leaders who joined us for this discussion and their individual contributions:

  • Alan Tattersall, Owner & Director at ATSM Ltd
  • Craig Wiltshire, Managing Director at Struto
  • Elaine Cresswell, Director & Landscape Architect at reshaped Landscape Architecture
  • Emma Millburn, Director of Sales at Cherwell Laboratories
  • Geoffrey Keeys, Vice Chairman at Strategic Thinking Group
  • Juliette Nicholls, Founder & Director at Pineapple Audio Production
  • Richard Clarke, Founder at Secret Source
  • Rory Jackson, Marketing Director at WorkNest

An uncertain future for the traditional salesperson

The way buyers approach their purchases, both in B2B and B2C settings, has undergone a remarkable transformation in the last two decades. The development and application of new technology, new levels of information accessibility and changes in social dynamics have all converged, leading to a new paradigm in buyer behaviour. This change in behaviour has not only altered the way in which everyday transactions occur but has changed the very foundation of the marketplace.

Buyers today are fundamentally better informed than they ever have been before, and being better informed, they feel more empowered. Being able to easily compare a range of solutions across every possible factor and variable has put buyers in control of their purchasing journeys and has changed their entry point into the sales funnel. While the salesperson used to be the first point of contact in a buyer’s journey, this is no longer the case.

Two decades ago, the salesperson was the gatekeeper to information about the product or service being sought, but now online resources, reviews and testimonials mean the modern buyer now navigates a significant portion of their journey autonomously, delaying interaction with sales representatives until they’ve crystallised their needs and preferences.

How new technology has impacted buyers

The democratisation of information lies at the heart of this transformation. The digital age has brought about unprecedented access to knowledge. Buyers, once at the mercy of limited sources, can now explore multiple avenues, compare options, and dissect the specifics of products and solutions. This shift has bolstered their ability to make educated decisions, fostering a more discerning and empowered consumer base.

It has also made buying journeys increasingly non-linear, as buyers flit from online reviews to aggregator sites and comparison platforms, making their ultimate route to purchase difficult to predict and plan for.

“Who would’ve thought 5 years ago that people would spend £80,000 on a car without ever seeing it, test driving it, whereas now people are happy to go online and buy a Tesla” – Rory Jackson

Despite these non-linear journeys, buyers themselves are extremely comfortable with making significant transactions in the digital realm. This newfound comfort in conducting transactions online is the result of enhanced cybersecurity measures, user-friendly interfaces, and the assurance of transparent processes. From luxurious items to life-altering investments, the digital age has paved the way for a seamless, fear-free purchasing experience without needing to interact with a human being at any stage in the sales process.

The past two decades have seen the emergence of a new era in buyer behaviour. Informed, autonomous and empowered, modern buyers wield a plethora of tools and resources at their disposal. The once-linear journey has given way to an unpredictable labyrinth of exploration. This state of affairs poses two hugely important questions:

  • To what extent have sales and marketing converged in this new environment?
  • What role does this leave the salesperson with?

The convergence of sales and marketing

“With the sophisticated marketing automation tools and data-driven segmentation and targeting, the marketing function arguably now does a lot more of the traditional prospecting, nurturing and taking people through the sales funnel than it ever used to.” – Matt Wheeler

In the past, sales and marketing were often seen as two separate silos, with each team having its own goals and objectives. However, in the last 20 years, sales and marketing have converged. This means that the two teams are now working more closely together to achieve common goals, such as generating leads, closing deals, and increasing customer satisfaction.

There are several factors that have contributed to the convergence of sales and marketing, including:

  1. The rise of digital marketing: as we have already seen, buyers are extremely comfortable with making significant purchasing decisions entirely in the digital realm. Digital marketing has made it easier to not only attract and retain customers within this space, but it has also allowed sales and marketing teams to track and measure the results of their campaigns to a far greater extent than ever before. In a well-functioning organisation, this should lead, or have led, to a greater emphasis on collaboration and alignment between the two teams.
  2. The increasing importance of customer experience: Customers today expect a seamless and consistent experience from the beginning to the end of the sales process. This means that sales and marketing teams need to work together to create a unified customer journey.
  3. The growing complexity of the sales process: The sales process has become increasingly complex in recent years, as buyers have become more informed and demanding, and buyer journeys have become increasingly non-linear. This means that sales and marketing teams need to work together to develop and execute sophisticated sales strategies to take account of the fact that there are now many potential routes to a sale.

Where successfully managed, the convergence of sales and marketing has led to a number of benefits for businesses who have been able to respond to this trend:

  1. Increased revenue generation: When sales and marketing teams are aligned, they are better able to generate leads and close deals. This is because they are working towards common goals and using the same data and insights.
  2. Improved customer satisfaction: Customers appreciate a seamless and consistent sales experience. When sales and marketing teams are working together, they are better able to provide this experience.
  3. Reduced costs: By collaborating on campaigns and initiatives, sales and marketing teams can save money on resources and improve efficiency.

How to achieve sales and marketing convergence

There are several things that businesses can do to achieve sales and marketing convergence, including:

  • Create a cross-functional team: Create a team that includes members from both the sales and marketing teams. This team should be responsible for developing and executing sales and marketing strategies.
  • Share data and insights: Sales and marketing teams should share data and insights with each other to better understand their customers and the sales process. This can be done through a CRM system or other data sharing tools.
  • Use technology to automate tasks: There are several technology tools that can help sales and marketing teams to automate tasks and improve collaboration. These tools can help to streamline the sales process and make it easier for sales and marketing teams to work together.

The convergence of sales and marketing is an important trend that businesses need to be aware of. By aligning their sales and marketing teams, businesses can improve revenue generation, customer satisfaction, and reduce costs.

The role of the modern salesperson

The Traditional Model

In the traditional sales process, the role of a salesperson is to identify, qualify, and nurture leads, then present and sell products or services to those leads. Salespeople also play a key role in building relationships with customers and ensuring their satisfaction.

Below are some of the specific duties and responsibilities of a salesperson in the traditional sales process:

Prospecting: Salespeople identify potential customers, or leads, through a variety of channels, such as networking, cold calling, and attending trade shows.

Qualifying: Salespeople qualify leads by determining whether they have a need for the product or service being sold and whether they are likely to buy.

Nurturing: Salespeople nurture leads by providing them with information and resources that help them to learn more about the product or service and how it can benefit them.

Pitching: Salespeople present the product or service to qualified leads in a way that highlights its benefits and how it can meet the lead’s needs.

Closing: Salespeople close deals by persuading leads to buy the product or service.

Follow-up: Salespeople follow up with customers after the sale to ensure that they are satisfied and to answer any questions they may have.

In addition to these specific duties and responsibilities, salespeople also play a key role in building relationships with customers and ensuring their satisfaction. Salespeople should be able to connect with customers on a personal level and understand their needs. They should also be able to provide customers with excellent customer service and resolve any problems that may arise.

The new era of sales

The traditional sales process is typically linear, with each stage following the next in a sequential order as prospects are taken through a defined sales funnel. However, as we have seen, in recent years there has been a shift towards more non-linear buyer journeys. In the modern buying process, salespeople are typically involved later in the process, once the buyer has already done their research and has a good understanding of their needs.

So, how exactly can and should a salesperson fit in? Here are a few key takeaways:

  • To provide expertise and guidance: Buyers want to work with salespeople who can provide them with expertise and guidance on their purchase decision. Salespeople should be able to answer the buyer’s questions and help them to choose the right product or service for their needs.
  • To build relationships: Buyers want to work with salespeople who they trust and like. Salespeople should focus on building relationships with buyers and understanding their needs. This will help them to close deals and build long-term relationships with customers.
  • To negotiate deals: Once the buyer has decided to purchase a product or service, the salesperson will need to negotiate the deal. This includes negotiating on price, terms, and other important details.

The overall approach for a modern salesperson is much more consultative than it used to be and requires the successful application of emotional intelligence to understand buyers needs and close new deals. By taking the time to accurately qualify business leads and developing an understanding of the buyer’s needs and challenges, salespeople can create solutions which are tailored to the buyer with a far better prospect of successfully closing deals.

“The roles of salespeople within that process becomes one of facilitation and identifying where the gaps are in information within the buying process.” Craig Wiltshire

Quick tips for modern salespeople

  • Use social media: Social media is a great way to connect with buyers and build relationships. Use social media to share relevant content, answer questions, and engage with buyers.
  • Personalise your outreach: Take the time to personalise your outreach to buyers. This means addressing them by name and mentioning something specific about their business.
  • Be responsive: When buyers reach out to you, be responsive. Respond to emails and phone calls promptly. This shows that you are interested in their business and that you value their time.
  • Be respectful of their time: Don’t waste the buyer’s time. Get to the point quickly and focus on the information that is most relevant to the buyer.

“I believe modern day salespeople have not been trained in the correct way to sell, and that’s something we’ve lost in the last 20 years” – Alan Tattersall

Supporting the survival of sales in the new era

In today’s rapidly changing business landscape, sales leaders need to be more supportive than ever of their teams and provide the correct training, sales leadership and tools in order to be successful.

Modern salespeople face a number of challenges, including:

  • A more complex sales cycle: Buyers are more informed and have more choices than ever before. This means that salespeople need to be able to build trust and provide value at every stage of the sales cycle.
  • Increased competition: The sales landscape is becoming increasingly competitive, with new companies entering the market all the time. This means that salespeople need to be able to differentiate themselves and their products or services.
  • The rise of technology: Technology has revolutionised the way that salespeople work. Salespeople need to be able to use a variety of sales tools and technologies effectively to be successful.

To ensure their teams can be successful in their roles, sales leaders need to focus on:

  • Training: Salespeople need to be continuously trained on the latest sales techniques and strategies. This includes training on how to use technology effectively, how to build relationships with buyers, and how to close deals.
  • Soft skills and emotional intelligence: In addition to sales skills, salespeople also need to develop strong soft skills and emotional intelligence. This includes being able to communicate effectively, build relationships, and manage conflict.
  • Technology: Sales leaders need to provide their teams with the right tools for the job. This includes CRM systems, sales automation tools, and social selling tools.

Beyond these three core strategic elements which sales leaders need to ensure they are actively working, there are a number of specific tactical actions which sales leaders can use to support their teams effectively:

  • Provide regular coaching and feedback. Sales leaders should work with their teams on a regular basis to provide coaching and feedback. This helps salespeople to identify their strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Set clear goals and expectations. Sales leaders should work with their teams to set clear goals and expectations. This helps salespeople to stay motivated and focused.
  • Apply the right level of rhythm and rigour to sales forecasting and activity monitoring, to make sure your teams are delivering the work necessary to achieve their targets.
  • Create a positive and supportive work environment. Sales leaders should create a work environment where salespeople feel supported and valued. This includes providing opportunities for professional development and rewarding success.

What’s next for the world of sales?

The profession of sales is constantly evolving, and the future is likely to see even more dramatic changes. Here are some of the key trends that are shaping the future of sales:

  • The rise of artificial intelligence (AI): AI is already being used in sales to automate tasks such as lead generation and qualification. In the future, AI is likely to play an even greater role in sales, helping salespeople to better understand their customers and close more deals. For example, AI-powered sales tools can help salespeople to identify and target the right leads, personalise their sales outreach, and track their progress more effectively.
  • The continuing transition to digital sales: More and more buyers are making purchase decisions online. As a result, salespeople need to be able to sell effectively through digital channels. This means being able to create and distribute engaging content, build relationships with prospects on social media, and close deals through video conferencing and other digital tools.
  • The importance of customer experience: In the future, sales will be even more focused on the customer experience. Salespeople will need to be able to build deep relationships with their customers and understand their needs to provide them with the best possible experience. This means being able to listen to customers, solve their problems, and go the extra mile to make them happy.

What will sales look like in the future?

In the future, sales will be more data-driven, more personalised, and more customer-centric. Salespeople will use AI and other technologies to automate tasks, gain insights into their customers, and create bespoke sales experiences. They will also need to be strong communicators and relationship builders.

Here are some specific examples of how sales may look different in the future:

  • Salespeople will increasingly use AI-powered sales tools to identify and target the right leads, tailor their sales outreach, and track progress more effectively.
  • Virtual Reality (VR) will allow salespeople to give customers demonstrations of their products and services in ways which will open up lots of exciting possibilities.
  • Salespeople may use AI powered chatbots to answer customer questions and provide support 24/7.

Salespeople who are able to adapt to the changing landscape and develop the necessary skills will be in high demand. Sales managers and leaders should be prepared to continue their investment in sales training, personal development and new technologies to make sure their teams are making the fullest possible use of the latest strategies, techniques and systems. There should also be a strong commitment to the creation of a culture of collaboration and innovation – by working together, both within the sales team and across the company as a whole, salespeople will be able to learn from their peers and share best practices for creating innovative approaches to winning new business.

Conclusion

In our roundtable discussions, our business leaders addressed a number of concerns about what the future holds for the profession of sales, and even discussed whether salespeople were still needed in a modern world where technology developments are moving so fast! The overriding conclusions were that yes, technology is taking over a lot of the traditional sales roles and buyer behaviour is changing to such an extent that salespeople now need to be much more focused on understanding the softer skills of selling and providing an outstanding customer experience. However, there will always be a need for intelligent, well trained and skilled professionals to effectively facilitate the sales process and ensure that deals are closed.

“The fundamentals of selling are what they always were, build relationships, assess need, propose solution, close the deal, that hasn’t changed since the beginning of time and probably won’t change.” – Chris O’Riordan

We can’t (and shouldn’t) slow down the pace of change, so it is ever more important to embrace it with evolving strategies and sales techniques based on the key skills that a salesperson needs to develop in order to be successful in this new environment. Whether we like it or not, technology such as AI will continue to remove a lot of the fundamental, early-stage elements of the sales process, but where businesses (and salespeople) can really win is by focusing on building relationships, understanding customer needs and providing a level of personal service that technology just can’t do.

Investments in training and developing new skills to complement traditional sales skills and experience will be key to this transition, as well as more effective strategic planning to develop cohesive relationships between sales and marketing functions. By working together on data segmentation, targeted campaigning, operational systems and processes more effectively to manage prospect targeting, lead generation, qualification, customer nurturing and opportunity pipeline management, businesses will strengthen their propositions and ensure they are better placed to close more deals.

Fundamentally, our panel concluded that advances in technology have provided many new opportunities for the sales profession, such as flexibility in sales conversations, the ability to access information and find answers to questions, understanding complex buyer needs and targeted messaging, but it is vitally important for organisations and individuals to recognise the need to change and develop new skills. As technology continues to evolve, buyers will have even more information and choice at their fingertips so businesses will need to focus heavily on differentiation and customer experiences to stand out from their competition. It is clear that the role of salespeople will evolve over time.

As time progresses, everyone within an organisation will need to play a part in the sales process, working together for a common goal, but using technology effectively throughout the buyer journey. AI, social media and other new developments will play an ever more important role in selling, particularly where there is a need for a more transactional approach. However, we shouldn’t forget the importance of the customer relationship and the empathy required to understand their challenges in ways that technology simply cannot do right now, so there will always be a need for a ‘personal touch’ when a customer wants it.

Chris-Roundtable-Speaker

Roundtable Speaker – Chris O’Riordan

Managing Director @ Firestarter Business Solutions

Chris has continued to lead the development of the Firestarter team, business and operating model. Specialising in sales excellence, organisational design and significant change management programmes.

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