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I entered “sales has changed” into Google and got 1.29 billion hits in 0.23 seconds. (Yes! Billion not million.) Confronting me was a sea of experts sharing their perspective on how we’ve moved from Sales 1.0 to Sales 2.0, and how sales has changed more in the last 10 years than it has in the past 100. I didn’t bother to read any of them. Why? Because they’re all wrong!
The world has changed. We live in a very different world than we did 25 years ago. Twenty five years ago, the Berlin Wall fell, and with it much of the structural assumptions of the modern world. In a way, the fall of the Berlin wall symbolized the fall of modernism and the triumph of postmodernism. In our postmodern world, nothing can be taken for granted. This loss of structure is the main reason salespeople and the profession of sales have lost their way.
Sales worked well in a structured world. You knew your role and I knew mine. My role was to educate and persuade you. Your role was to learn, be persuaded and open your wallet. Ahh. Why can’t we bring back the good ol’ days? Sales conferences were organized to educate salespeople on product features and then wind them up with enthusiasm so they could get out there and “sell, sell, sell”.
As the world has become more complex, and buyers have become more sophisticated, there is an increasing pressure on salespeople to meet their quotas and justify their existence. Ultimately, sales has not changed. It is still about educating and persuading prospective clients. The problem is it must now operate in a completely different context. In addition to a more sophisticated buyer, salespeople also face the rapidly emerging challenge of increasingly sophisticated e-commerce platforms. Hmm. A sophisticated buyer and robust e-commerce… where does a traditional salesperson fit in?
I predict that the traditional salesperson will disappear altogether within the next 10 years. Technology will see to that. We are already seeing the trend of organizations moving from field sales to inside sales in order to reduce the cost of sales. Isn’t the next logical step to move from inside sales to e-commerce or channel partners who have trusted relationships with buyers? Sales professionals have only one choice: they must recognize that they are in the middle of a dramatic polarization. On one side is increasingly robust e-commerce and easy-to-use systems and on the other is the Strategic Account Manager — both have great value to the sophisticated buyer. For well-defined problems, the buyer can get exactly what he wants via Google and e-commerce exactly when he wants it. For complex, emerging and poorly defined problems, the buyer can get a business partner who understands his business as well as any employee (and perhaps even better than most). This partner has command of a myriad of resources and is constantly thinking about what’s next for her client. She is a Trusted Advisor and makes herself indispensable to her client. The Trusted Advisor still educates and persuades. The buyer still opens his wallet. But this exchange is happening within a very different context. Both client and Trusted Advisor enjoy a highly profitable and mutually beneficial relationship — what I call a Symbiotic Partnership.
Buyers will always want transactions, they just won’t pay for the overhead of a salesperson. In addition to transactions, buyers will always require transformations. For these, they will happily pay for a Strategic Account Manager. Suppliers will be automated. Symbiotic Partnerships will never be automated. They require a genuine human-to-human connection. Those who try to play in the middle as transactional salespeople will be crushed by the march of progress.
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