With the advent of new technology, evolving buyer behaviour and the convergence of sales and marketing functions within organisations, is it safe to say that the days of the travelling sales person covering hundreds of miles per week on the road visiting potential customers are long gone?
But what would this mean for the role of ‘sales’ as a whole in driving business growth? Do businesses still need a sales function, or can they simply rely on technology and digital marketing techniques to satisfy the needs of their customers? These questions and more were addressed in a recent debate hosted by Firestarter Business Solutions, where a collection of senior business leaders considered the cultural and generational shift in selling and what that means for the future of the profession.
Modern Buyer Behaviours
The fundamental principle that in order to be successful, any business needs to ‘sell’ whatever product or service it offers to its target audiences is still true to this day, but the techniques and tools that we use to sell are changing all the time, as well as the needs of our customers. The key to successful selling in this evolving world has to begin with understanding who your customers are and what they want in order to develop appropriate sales strategies.
It is clear that buyers today are increasingly comfortable with making significant purchases entirely digitally, often with no previous hands-on experience of the product. For example, who would have envisaged just 10 years ago spending tens of thousands of pounds on a new car online? Today, this is a very normal occurrence with the introduction of disruptive sales models such as Tesla and other online car retailers. Buyers also have access to more information than ever before, and consequently will take themselves further down the sales funnel before engaging with any form of sales resource. This means that buying journeys are no longer linear, as buyers consider many different sources of information and buying options over different timescales, often dropping in and out at different stages. This makes life very challenging for sales people, with their roles needing to adapt to help buyers ‘fill the gaps’ in their knowledge and provide empathetic support, rather than direct them down a specific buying path.
This approach to sales requires heightened emotional intelligence to firstly identify the pain points and ‘gaps’ that a buyer is experiencing, then tailor appropriate solutions in order to develop a trusted relationship and ultimately complete a sale, which is where the traditional skills of a professional and successful sales person truly lie in this modern age.
Artificial Intelligence & Technological Advances
We have all seen the scary stories about Artificial Intelligence and other technological advances taking over traditional roles, but the truth is that the technology is there to help the process of buying and selling, not hinder it. Change is inevitable and everyone needs to adapt in order to survive – clearly, technology is set to drive efficiency improvements at different stages in the sales process, but there will always be a need for a ‘real person’ to direct the customer journey and play their part at the right time.
One interesting perspective to consider is the convergence of sales and marketing functions in the wake of technological advances. As marketing activities now focus more on digital methods and data-driven techniques to understand buyer behaviour and intent, driving content and sales propositions aligned to customer decision making at different stages in the sales funnel, the question is ‘who is now responsible for prospecting and qualifying new opportunities?’ Many businesses now target and attribute revenue generation to both sales and marketing teams equally, highlighting the importance of online targeting, marketing automation, customer nurturing and effective CRM management in the sales process, all of which are digital activities.
The Future of the Traditional Sales Person
So, where does this leave the traditional sales person, and how do they need to change in order to remain successful in this digital age? A lot of this sits at the door of the training department, with a need to focus on good quality ‘sales’ training for anyone who has contact with customers, but doesn’t have direct responsibility for ‘selling’, but for the direct sales people the emphasis clearly needs to be on building relationships and closing deals. Potential customers are now more likely to have moved themselves through the sales funnel (assisted by carefully targeted marketing communications) and arrive at sales conversations much better informed, so the sales person doesn’t necessarily need to ‘sell’ a product or service anymore – now it’s more a case of understanding a customer’s needs and offering an appropriate solution in order to complete a transaction.
With the pace of change happening so very fast, it’s difficult to predict what will happen over the next 10 years or so, but what we do know is this:
- Everybody in a business has a part to play in the sales process.
- Getting the right technology ‘stack’ right will be critical for business survival and success.
- Companies need to really understand all possible customer pain points and journeys.
- They also need to make sure their business and technology is set up to deliver those journeys to ever-more empowered buyers.
- Modern ‘sales’ training needs to focus more ‘softer’ skills and understanding what a buyer needs.
- AI and technology advances are going to be hugely significant, and businesses need to adapt their approaches to accommodate this.
- But, in most cases there will always be a need for someone to ‘close a deal’ at the end of the day.