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The science of sales

Sibusiso Msomi, The Msomi Institute

In one of cinema’s most famous scenes, Alec Baldwin reaches into a business suitcase and pulls out a pair of brass balls. He waves these at his audience, a group of dissatisfied salesmen, indicating what they need to make it in his world. It’s the climax of a speech that, to this day, remains divisive. On its own, it’s a rousing call to the sales corps: shit or get off the pot. But in the broader context of the film Glengarry Glen Ross, it’s a sadistic and tone-deaf attitude not shared by the abused salesforce.

The movie is an interesting microcosm of the sales world: Jack Lemmon is a salesman past his prime and desperate for good leads; Ed Harris schemes to get himself out of the misery of sales; and Al Pacino plays a smoothtalking con-artist who doesn’t need leads to do his job, just a willing sucker to buy drinks for.

How one views Baldwin’s speech also illustrates the dimensions of sales. To many, it’s a powerful and important force where only the best and toughest survive.

“I think sales is the most important skillset young people can learn,” tech entrepreneur Jennifer Hyman once said. “Understanding how to pitch an idea with confidence and secure a client are valuable skills that apply to every single aspect of business.” But in a world of self-service technology, is there still a place for salespeople?

Death of a salesman

There’s certainly incentive to automate sales. Training sales reps can be expensive in terms of money and time. Sales forces are also notorious for churn: those who can’t cut it drop out and those who can are headhunted by rivals. This creates an interesting balance of power in many organisations, where salespeople often enjoy disproportionate favour and clout in comparison to other groups in a business.

But that clout and freedom also has a price: unrelenting pressure to perform and meet targets. So their elevated position is justified because their performance has a direct impact on the business. Thus sales churn is a real risk for companies, not least because they don’t want a salesperson to leave with all the good leads. There is plenty of reason to corral sales data into CRMs and, where possible, automate sales in the form of e-commerce.

Customers have also developed an appetite for self-service, especially soft activities such as research. The most visible signs of this change are in the B2C market, where e-commerce platforms are cannibalising traditional retail experiences. Even though e-commerce only reflects around 12% of the US’ retail sales, that isn’t the full picture. In 2018, online sales in the US were close to the $160 billion generated by mall retail, up from $5 billion in 2000.

B2B sales are starting to show similar trends. Gartner predicts that by 2025, 50% of low-to-medium-touch B2B sales transactions will be conducted solely via self-service commerce, electronic data interchange and intelligent bots. Forrester predicts that over a million B2B rep jobs will be gone by 2022. Already 68% of the businesses it polled said they prefer doing business online than with a salesperson.

There will always be a place for sales reps, but the nature of their jobs is evolving quickly.

The art of selling

 “Many companies don’t know how to sell,” says Sbusiso Msomi. “You aren’t born into it; there is a way to sell better.” Thus he founded the Msomi Institute, a new CRM services company that focuses on sales methodology backed by new technology. In his view, sales as a job isn’t under threat, but rather, it’s not applied properly.

 This reflects what analysts have been saying. Forrester’s research points out that when that 68% of online-loving customers engage with sales, they want the experience to be in a more problem-solving, consultative manner. Msomi believes it’s the poor use of sales technologies and processes that is damaging the sales world.

“The rapid changes in the sales world aren’t the problem. It’s when the sales tools don’t achieve the outcomes the business wants. Sales systems are introduced, but then tend to collect a lot of data without giving much helpful information.

“Systems should help salespeople at different stages of the sales process, or else those people just start dodging processes. A sales system such as a CRM must remove ambiguity and help coach sales staff. It must create a proactive feedback loop and help with complex sales that involve several stakeholders,” he says.

Great salespeople don’t fall into the habit of simply pushing numbers and hitting targets. They know their real job is representing value to customers. This is evident with car salespeople, who were among the first to adopt VoIP telephony systems so they could take a call from anywhere as if they are at their desks. A seamless customer experience is crucial to their success. In fact, it’s becoming critical for overall business performance.

“With a complete view of customer activity across your business, you will gain better business insight, increase the productivity of your teams, and put your business on the path to growth,” says Gerhard Hartman, Sage’s regional sales director, mid-market, for Africa and the Middle East. “The insights from CRM are not just important for the sales and marketing team, they also help departments such as finance or production to optimise their performance with a view to getting the best revenue and profit outcomes.”

Sales as a process

This is good news for both B2B salespeople and the automated services threatening them. Automation is taking over so-called buyer-driven sales, which tend to be small and frequent purchases. Speeding up those transactions – such as value chain visibility to ensure stock is available – results in a lot of sales. Salespeople are increasingly involved in rep-driven sales, which are more infrequent but substantially larger. These often require managing multiple parties and decision- makers, reinforced through relationships. A machine might be fast, but it can’t shake hands or flub golf scores as a person does.

Sales as a science is now seen as the way forward for sales staff, something Msomi believes is central to the value proposition of his company.

“You have to teach the science behind selling, backed by the right technology. It is very easy to miss steps in complex sales, so CRM tools today are more about managing those complex selling relationships. Often companies just expect salespeople to do a job, but don’t support them with the right tools.”

Some emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and chatbots have been accused of threatening salespeople. But the change is rather in how sales happen. If you think about it, there are no longer toilet paper salespeople, because that value proposition hardly needs a person to pitch it. B2B marketplaces combined with SaaS models have expanded that concept to cover services and products that once required salespeople.

If salespeople are disappearing behind automation, don’t blame the technology. Blame businesses that undervalue the science of sales and the technologies that ought to improve sales skills, not cull them. There is no argument that sales roles are changing radically and those who don’t move with that change will be consumed by it. Yet the winners won’t be companies that get rid of their salespeople through tech, but use tech that positions their salespeople to be educated about and in front of customers.

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