About this time every year, people who publish sales-related content ask me for my thoughts on what the significant trends in sales are going to be in the coming year. Unfortunately, the only trends that have been worth remarks share one attribute in common. That attribute is the their abject failure to live up to their hype.
At one point, the CRM promised improved sales results. Once the sales force was organized, and transparency achieved, sales results would improve. So would forecasting. There is no question the CRM is necessary, but there is also no question that it does something next to nothing to improve sales results, and forecasting is still challenging at best.
Occasionally, a sales process or methodology comes to the attention of the sales community, like Solution Selling, or the Challenger Sale, most of which provide a valuable contribution to the craft. Because sales leaders want better results, they put their faith in a new process or methodology, only to be disappointed by their results, with many incorrectly believing the process or method doesn’t work. The blame lies elsewhere.
Over the last decade, the major trends have included ideas like inbound marketing eliminating cold outreach, social selling enabling salespeople to acquire warm opportunities by being present on the social sites, along with other nonsensical ideas about buyers now having more power as a result of the proliferation of content on the internet. The increase in the buyer’s power, if there is any, comes from larger, systemic trends that count for much more than the ability to research, like globalization, commoditization, and disintermediation, and the smart phone’s ability to support new platform plays.
You can add to all of these trends the interminable addition of new technologies that promise better results, most of which overstate the impact on sales results.
The Real Trends
If you want to look at the most significant and most important trends over the last ten years, you would need to look deeper, and in the opposite direction of where your attention has been drawn.
Lack of Accountability: The last ten years have resulted in an increasing degradation of accountability. Leaders are not equipped to hold their teams accountable, many have too many direct reports, more live behind their dashboard, and some have never been on a call with their sales reps. They complain about not being able to achieve compliance with CRM, their sales processes, their training, or their goals. More complain that their salespeople won’t prospect. Because these things are allowed, none of these failings belong to the salespeople. If you were going to correct only one failing in 2020, there is not a better place to start than accountability.
Outdated Sales Approaches: While not much changes in a single year, a lot changes over the course of a decade, and even more over two decades. The arrow in sales is pointing in a specific direction. That direction is towards greater value creation. Because the technological marvels created over the last decade have consumed our attention, we have given too little thought to “whom salespeople have to be” and what their prospective clients are going to need from them. At sales kickoff meetings, product knowledge gets more time and attention than adjustments to the sales force’s approach, the result of which is irrelevant and impotent salespeople. We are underserving the very clients whose business we pursue. For many salespeople and their companies, unless and until they change their approach, their results will not improve.
Missing Business Acumen: If you were to address what most salespeople are missing, enabling a better sales approach would require that you improve their business acumen. One of the significant disruptive changes over the last decade has been the increasing value of business acumen and the degrading of what might have been called sales acumen, the natural result of moving to more significant value creation. In large part, creating a preference is based on the salesperson’s ability to offer advice about why their client should change and how they should change. The skill sets that I call business acumen now makes up what is now the required sales acumen.
Seeking Consensus: If there is a noteworthy change over the last decade and a half, it is the increasing requirement that buyers reach consensus on the right answer and the right partner, something that salespeople struggle with, in part because it’s difficult for their contacts. While this trend is oft-discussed, it is left unaddressed, and salespeople are without strategies and tactics to improve their effectiveness in helping their clients find internal agreement.
Managing Nonlinearity: As much as we want our sales process to be linear and predictable, and as much as we try to understand the buyer’s journey (more accurately, “journeys”), the sales conversation is more nonlinear than ever. Buyers tend to be more willing to explore change and less ready to commit to changing very quickly. When they do engage, the process of making a change in their companies tend to come in fits and starts. Deals stall, only to come back to life months or quarters later. It is now a necessity to control the process.
Your Next Year and Your Next Decade
If you want to improve your results in the next year and the next decade, look not to the latest trend, the next big thing, or the shiny object that will be sold to you as the answer to better sales results. Instead, look to the fundamentals and principles that endure over very long periods. Then look towards the broader, systemic issues that require changes in your approach.
Better results always start with better leadership, and you will find that high-performing sales organizations are still built on high standards and accountability. If you are an individual, your results are going to require your personal leadership, your standards, and the discipline to hold yourself accountable.
The broader, systemic issues, like commoditization and disintermediation, are still driving the need for approaches that create greater value for your clients throughout the process. The value created through the sales conversation may be the last remaining strategy to differentiate and is undoubtedly the most meaningful way to do so. Addressing your sales approach, business acumen, the need for consensus, and the nonlinearity of the process should top your agenda for 2020 and beyond.
My prediction for 2020 is that for most people it is going to be a repeat of 2019. For a small number of sales organizations and salespeople, it will be a breakout, transformational year because they are determined to make it so–and because they take the massive action necessary.