The Future of the Sales Profession

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Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Salesmen.

I recently read an article titled How Many Salespeople Will Be Left by 2020? by Gerhard Gschwandtner in Selling Power. In it, he stated a popular opinion these days that I’m not entirely sure I agree with: the sales profession is doomed, computers are taking over.

In specific, the article referenced three factors supporting this postulate:

  • The growth of on-line retailing, especially on Amazon, where no salesperson is involved.
  • The work IBM is doing with their Watson computer and its ability to answer questions quickly and accurately.
  • B2B adoption of B2C models with customer service teams to answer inquiries after online sales are executed.

The article offered a lot of statistics to support the theory, and I have not done any research into these to verify them; I am taking them at face value, as published. For example:

Gartner, a research organization, predicts that by 2020, 85 percent of interactions between businesses will be executed without human intervention. It is likely that of the 18 million salespeople in the United States, there will be only about 4 million left.”

Note that they said “between businesses.” This is not Amazon, this is General Motors buying parts and Alcoa Aluminum buying ore.

Gartner can certainly out-research me, so I can’t rebut this assertion. And, intuitively, I believe they are on the right track – computers are impacting all professions and we would be fools to think we are exempt. But are the three assertions made really definitive?

“I asked the audience members to raise their hands if they had ever purchased anything on All hands went up. Then I asked, ‘How many of you have ever spoken to an salesperson?’ Nobody!’s technology architecture has eliminated the need for salespeople.”

That’s retail, B2C, and there is no arguing the facts of this. There are very few things I can’t buy online with the speed, price, convenience, and customer satisfaction that I would get in the best brick and mortar stores. My next motorcycle would be one exception. There is something visceral about seeing them all lined up and being able to sit on them and even, if you have a cooperative dealer and are willing to plunk down some security, test drive them.

But shirts? Land’s End. Back-up HDD? Tiger Direct. Office supplies? Staples. If it can be shipped economically one-at-a-time, it’s going to be sold on-line. Tip: load your stock portfolio with UPS and Fed Ex and Modec (the maker of the electric vans UPS is starting to buy).

The article acknowledges this B2C phenomenon and then goes on to extrapolate it to B2B.

“As computing power accelerates, online interaction will become more customer friendly, and B2C online sales models will be adopted by B2B companies. Some software companies have already begun to sell their applications online. After the online sale, customer service representatives will stand by to help answer questions.”

Here’s where I start to part ways with the death-of-the-salesman assertion. And here’s where those 4 million sales professionals left standing may well turn out to be many times that number. Again, no research to support this, just something that researchers might have missed that those of us making the customer calls every day know for certain: if you wait until after the sale to answer the customer’s questions, you’re too late.

The article goes on to explain how computers will replace salespeople and close those sales so customer service reps can answer their questions.

“If today Watson can respond to complex questions in natural language with pinpoint accuracy and in fewer than three seconds, it is likely that 10 years from now, a Watson-like online sales avatar will answer all the questions customers need to ask in order to make a final purchasing decision.”

And here is where I really part ways. The premise here is that sales is all about answering customer’s questions. When was the last time you simply sat down in front of a customer and answered their questions and then closed the sale? Never, you say? That’s my experience as well.

Even buying commodities like ore for Alcoa’s smelters requires proactive selling. Otherwise, there is no room for innovation and competition in anything except price. How will Alcoa know that some mining operation has figured out a better way to deliver higher-grade ore than their current supplier? Are they going to constantly query every supplier? No, a salesman is going to call and make an appointment.

Maybe there will be a clearinghouse for ore suppliers like there is for airline tickets where supplier’s can get the end-user’s attention. But if it doesn’t fully work for airlines (do you see Southwest paying Expedia for the right to be listed?), why would it work in the more complex B2B environment? There will always be outliers, companies willing to do things differently, shaking up the establishment, requiring brains to create strategies and counter-strategies. Is Watson going to find the customer’s pain points by answering questions?

The argument here is not whether the sales profession will shrink or not – it certainly will. The question is how much, and I expect the answer is less than Gartner, et al, project.

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