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Salesmanship come a full circle!

In the last couple of decades B2B sales roles have witnessed so much slice-and-dice, with specializations based on territory, business, type of clients, stages in the sales cycle, type of sales conversations, products-centric and the now, near-ubiquitous digital vs. "offline" engagement.

So you had a plethora of job classifications such as inside vs. outside sales, sales and pre-sales, account sales, general sales and tech sales, target-carrying sales vs. business development (or BD) vs. sales enablement, B2B vs. B2B2C, direct vs. channels, strategic accounts and partnership development, and even get vs. grow sales!

Certainly, technology has played a significant role in the evolution of the sales function, with plenty of tech-enablers in the customer's buying journey. The cost of maintaining the sales force are driving the adoption of many of these technology interventions universally - helped amply by the affordable economics offered by cloud, SaaS and pay-for-use solutions available to all. And now, with the pandemic of 2020 impacting both the buying and selling sides equally hard, many businesses have had to rethink and right-size their sales orgs. Customers have found that they can progress in their buying cycle without help from sales reps and in the process driven up digital sales enablers. Sales orgs at the other end began valuing and loading higher productivity targets on more versatile reps, and in the process trimmed the sales force considerably.

Four things are evident and are getting even more strongly rooted within the core customer engagement framework:

  1. Remote engagement - field sales is not necessarily the answer to the sales problem. According to some research reports, customers are already more than 50% into the evaluation process, when they actually invite sales reps to engage!

  2. Automation of sales administration - the biggest bug-bear or yore for sales reps used to be basic research, activity logging, and tracking and integrating engagement. This is gone now, with automation. No more excuses!

  3. "Agile" solution co-creation - where sales reps and customers participate in the process of solution determination or delivery. This becomes more relevant in the consultative and partnership types of sales, where a highly capable sales function becomes a powerful integrator of customer needs and vendor capabilities.

  4. Digital brand presence - customers and competitors have equal access to public information, analysis, advocacy and actions of any vendor. This often pre-determines first impressions, which is an important marker and therefore influencing it becomes relevant from a marketing perspective.

With these four forces at play in the customer mind-space, it is very likely that the wide-ranging classifications of job roles we saw above, could get disrupted. Though the flow from a sales process point-of-view would remain, many roles would get subsumed by customer-clickable engagement steps, guided by BOTs and AI-backed customer information- and preference-based logic. As a consequence channels of communication will change. Sales journey cycles will also change.

Looked at from a marketing perspective, the buying process would still follow the classic AIDA path and therefore smart sales orgs would do well to align their Sales campaigns goals to appropriate marketing and customer engagement programs - by asking questions like who needs to know about us and how do we reach them (this, to create Awareness). And so on with the other steps down the marketing (AIDA) funnel.

From a job roles perspective, specializations could continue at entry and lower levels especially in large (and most likely for global) businesses, but surely the hierarchy will flatten out rapidly. Successful sales reps will be those that embody and are comfortable wearing many "colored sales hats". Smaller and nimbler businesses will look for (in fact, many already are looking for) broader skillsets and implied competencies in multiple "hats" like account, tech, pre- and partnership sales.

Now, this may seem hard for a mediocre sales rep - multi-faceted capability to own and execute on wider scope of accountability, but will increasingly become the norm in the Sales profession. The large scale classification of sales roles till date served many average sales careers with long tenures in super silos! This party may not last too long though.

All said, those who have been in sales for 25 or more years would not be surprised by much of the disruption, as many who rose to become successful sales professionals and leaders, would recall naturally wearing many of the "hats" as part of their daily job demands! Cold calling, filling up the DSR, endless follow ups, account management, proposal making and solutioning, and eventually negotiation and contracting - all roles played by the same rep, and quite well too! In that sense, the evolving sales role - which I term salesmanship here, has indeed come a full circle. Talented and versatile sales reps that are able to deliver on targets and expectations by leveraging tech-driven sales automation and enablement, would not be constrained by narrow role specializations. They will be the new sales captains of the future.

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