2016 Predictions for the Sales Profession

The sales profession is always changing, because sellers must constantly adapt to changes in economic, political, cultural, and market forces. As the world changes, so too must salespeople respond. And, those sellers who can align and adapt first are those who can achieve a competitive advantage.

What kind of changes can we expect to see for the sales profession in the coming New Year? Here is a compilation of perspectives and opinions from Sales Performance International consultants. We’ll revisit these at the end of 2016 and see how many of our prognostications turned out to be accurate.

Macro Trends Affecting Sales

1. Fully empowered “Buyer 2.0” behavior will be the pervasive global norm.
  • Keith Eades, Founder and CEO: Buyers will go deeper into their buying process before ever contacting a salesperson. In fact, I expect that half of all buyers will never engage a seller at all . Instead, they will buy “self-serve.”
  • Tim Sullivan, Director of Business Development: Currently, a majority of buyers develop their own visions of solutions to their problems before communicating with a salesperson. I expect to see this become even more prevalent behavior in 2016. Successful sellers will be those who are highly proficient at enhancing or reengineering buyer’s existing visions of solutions by providing useful insight and expertise.
2. Buyers’ perceptions of global uncertainty and instability will not abate.
  • Tim Sullivan: I am sadly pessimistic about the impact of global politics in the coming year. Economic and political uncertainty will continue to heavily influence purchase decisions. As a result, sellers will need to continue to address an exaggerated perception of risk by buyers. The most effective sellers will be those who mitigate buyers’ concerns about operational, financial, and transitional risks in each purchase decision.
3. Global shortages in sales talent will become even more acute.
  • Keith Eades: The total number of salespeople in the world will decline in 2016. Companies will have to do more with less, in order to achieve sales goals. As an indirect result, I think that more than half of all new college grads in 2016 will have to sell something as part of their first job.
  • Tim Sullivan: As a result of Buyer 2.0 behavior, the required skills, knowledge, and collaborative abilities of sales professionals will continue to increase. The supply of people with required selling abilities will shrink, resulting in a global shortage of qualified sales professionals. Sales managers will spend an increasing amount of their time recruiting sales talent, and also in mentoring and coaching current sales staff, to try to close persistent sales skills gaps.
4. The cost of qualified salespeople will rise.
  • Tim Sullivan: Due to higher compensation for sales professionals, the cost of sales will increase  at nearly double-digit rates in some industries. This increase will be precipitated by increased competition for talent, as the global pool of qualified candidates becomes more restricted.
5. The accelerating pace of mergers and acquisitions will increase the need for account planning.
  • Sean DesNoyer, VP of Customer Success: Mergers and acquisitions will accelerate in 2016, so the number of stakeholders within each organization that sellers will need to identify, access, and align with will also increase.
  • Tim Sullivan: The need for disciplined account planning and management skills will become more critical in the coming year, as the pace of change accelerates in most customer organizations. More sellers will need to take time to review their customer accounts in a proactive way, in order to identify new opportunities to create value for customers and protect accounts from competitive encroachment.

Sales Leadership / Management

1. Sales management spans of control will stabilize, and may even decline.
  • Tim Sullivan: Spans of control in sales organizations has been rising for two decades, from an average of about 1 manager to 5 sellers to 1:12, or even higher today, by leveraging CRM and improved communication technologies. But, as the skill level requirements of sellers continues to increase, managers must spend more time in coaching and mentoring to develop their teams. This means that the previous trend will abate, and perhaps even reverse in some organizations.
2. Sales leadership decisions become more data-driven and sales ops becomes sales enablement.
  • Dave Christofaro, Sales Talent Optimization Practice Leader: More sales leaders will use analytics to make objective, data-driven decisions on sales performance improvement investments.
  • Ken Cross, Sales Enablement Practice Leader: The use of “big data” will become more pervasive, as sales leaders start learning new ways to use analytic tools – in particular, in analyzing how sellers execute during the sales cycle and in combining this data with information from sales assessments.
  • Steve Wagner, Demand Generation Manager: Even more salespeople will be required to record their marketing and sales activity in CRM and Marketing Automation tools. This trend is being driven by improved analytics tools, which provide sales leadership with better insight and predictability of future success. Increasingly, they are using that information to identify best practices for faster onboarding and sales development activities.
  • Tim Sullivan: The duties of sales operations managers, which have been generally focused on sales results reporting, compensation management, CRM management and forecasting, will continue to evolve and expand to include analytics, sales recruiting, sales talent management, sales training, sales knowledge management, social selling tools, and other seller enablement capabilities. More companies will recognize that equipping sellers to develop their expertise and skill levels is a worthwhile investment with a rapid ROI. Sales Enablement Managers will be increasingly charged with this important responsibility.

Sales Technology and Enablement

1. Sales enablement technology becomes more intelligent, and more useful to sellers and sales leaders.
  • Ken Cross: “Sales intelligence technology” will become a commonly heard buzz phrase in 2016. For years, sellers have entered information into CRM and SFA. In 2016, these systems will start to use this information to push useful intelligence back into sellers’ and managers’ hands, telling them how to spend their time, how to be more effective, and how to ensure they are aligned with their customers throughout the sales cycle. Increasingly, this technology will provide sellers with what they need for specific selling or planning situations. Use of generalized sales processes will increasingly shift to applying a “process of one,” whereby data is leveraged to generate a tailored sales process for each specific selling situation.
  • Robert Kear, VP of Innovation and Development: Companies will begin to invest more aggressively in adaptive learning approaches to maximize human capital development for sales. This will carry through to investments in sales enablement, where technology will be leveraged to support the most valuable selling competencies.
2. Being tech-savvy becomes a supercritical requirement for sellers.
  • Sean DesNoyer: While the profession of sales will always involve a human element – people buying from people – the use of technology will increasingly impact the buying and selling process. The ability to maximize the value of interactions with buyers by using technology will become a required competency for sales professionals.

Sales Talent Acquisition and Development

1. The use of advanced analytics for sales hiring and development decisions will become pervasive.
  • Keith Eades: Companies will rely more on assessments and analytics before making new hire decisions, as they can’t afford to make hiring and development mistakes.
  • Robert Kear: In 2016, sales leaders will think more about performance improvement in terms of critical sales competencies, and align investments in learning and development based on where analytics indicate the capabilities with the highest payback.
2. Millennials’ preferences become increasingly important in developing sales teams. Granular video and mobile content become the new normal.
  • James Touchstone, Learning Solutions Practice Leader: In 2016, with millennials joining sales organizations in increasing numbers, and with growing availability of mobile technology, the preferred type of sales training will shift from instructor-led training (at the macro-level) and related, on-demand eLearning content (“MicroLearning”) to short-duration, on-demand, just-in-time, video-based learning on mobile devices (“NanoLearning”). A mix of training modalities will continue to produce the fastest development of sales skill mastery, but use of in-the-hand training content on mobile phones and tablets will become increasingly popular. Most sales training organizations will struggle to keep up with the higher demand for this type of granular, nano-level content, which often needs to be highly tailored.
  • Keith Eades: The millennials are here. As a result, learning and development for sellers will continue to move to more on-the-job experiences, and away from classroom and traditional eLearning training. Video is the future of sales development and is now a requirement for effective training of millennial sales professionals.
  • Ken Cross: How learning is consumed will become nearly as important as what is consumed. There was a period when many organizations furnished their sellers with tablets to provide them with a quick, go-anywhere way of accessing data and information. With the increase in smartphone sizes, organizations will move away from tablets and instead, ensure that their sellers have the latest in smartphone technology. This means that preferred learning modalities will shift, as “mobile-ready” will increasingly mean “smartphone-ready.”

Buyer/Seller Alignment

1. A differentiated customer experience becomes paramount for sales success.
  • Dario Priolo, Chief Marketing Officer and Demand Generation Practice Leader: I believe that 2016 will be the year of customer intimacy. Sustaining a competitive advantage based on product features is now nearly impossible. Technology evolves so quickly that new competitors emerge out of nowhere and can easily copy what you do, or disrupt an entire industry. As a result, more than ever, companies must understand their customers and how to create value for each individual buyer. This requires sales and marketing to be completely aligned on messaging and go-to-market strategies. The “fit” of solutions to individual customer problems matters. Companies that can demonstrate they are the best fit across the customer relationship, from initial contact to close to ongoing success management, will succeed. This requires anyone who touches the customer, or who supports those who do, to step up their game.
  • Tim Sullivan: An increasing number of organizations are realizing that their biggest differentiator is a quality customer experience, and that most of that experience is the responsibility of salespeople. More than half of a buyer’s perception of a company’s brand is determined by their interaction with sales representatives. In 2016, companies will invest more in sales training, not only to improve selling skills, but to also ensure a consistently good customer experience.
  • Sean DesNoyer: Buyers will expect more sellers to work with them not only during the purchasing process, but also well beyond their decision to buy, until they actually begin to see operational and business results. As a result, the demarcations between traditional Sales and Customer Service roles in many industries will become increasingly blurred.
2. Sales models become more complex and less relationship-based.
  • Keith Eades: As buyers become even more knowledgeable and empowered, sales models will become more complex, even in industries that traditionally have had simpler kinds of engagement with buyers, such as food service, commodities, and non-profit organizations. They will need to develop dynamic, buyer-aligned sales processes and supporting methodologies to be successful.
  • Dave Christofaro: 2016 will see the end of the traditional “relationship-based sale.” As buyers make more purchases in larger committees and increasingly incorporate formalized procurement departments, relying solely on relationships with individual customers is becoming more difficult – and riskier. Successful sellers in 2016 and beyond will need to prove the ROI of their solutions, and communicate their impact on the customer’s business.
  • Sean DesNoyer: We will see more organizations use hybrid sales channel models in 2016. The use of inside sales teams will continue to rise, either as replacements for outside direct sales teams, or as supplements to them and indirect channel partners. This trend will be driven by a growing diversity of buyer preferences in purchasing approaches.
3. Confrontational sales techniques will decline, in favor of modern collaborative methods.
  • Tim Sullivan: The simplistic idea of confronting buyers with disruptive insights, in order to assert seller control, will fade away as buyers become increasingly empowered and resistant to such tricks. Instead, the most effective sellers will be agile, taking the optimum role as required to align effectively and collaborate as equals with buyers throughout their purchasing process.
  • Keith Eades: Situational knowledge will see a return in importance for salespeople. The expertise of each salesperson will have to be a part of what differentiates solutions, especially for products or services that buyers perceive as commodities.
  • Sean DesNoyer: Buyers expectations of sellers will continue to rise. They will expect sales professionals to be extremely knowledgeable, not only about their own products and services, but also about customers’ businesses, so that they can provide useful advice as expert consultants.

Demand/Lead Generation

1. Demand generation becomes even more critical – and more difficult.
  • Keith Eades: The number one sales challenge in 2016 will be demand creation. As buyers delay engaging with salespeople even more, there won’t be enough qualified leads to fill every seller’s pipeline. Sales and marketing will need to develop or enhance account-based and content marketing strategies to sustain required levels of sales. Sellers will need to become proficient micro-marketers to connect with buyers and create new opportunities.
  • Dario Priolo: Buyers are becoming overwhelmed by irrelevant content, so much so that they are becoming numb to it. Marketing strategies that carpet-bomb prospects with content that isn’t highly pertinent will see a severely diminishing impact in 2016. Sales and marketing organizations will need to develop and provide specifically useful content for well-targeted buyers, if they want to attract and hold their attention.
2. Smart companies increasingly help sellers develop their own personal brands.
  • Tim Sullivan: As a generally higher level of knowledge and skill will be required in order to be a productive sales professional, sellers who become recognized experts in their chosen specialization will develop their own, individual brand. The use of social media to demonstrate expertise and help clients develop visions of potential solutions will accelerate this trend. Savvy marketing organizations will recognize this as a valuable asset. They will work with their sellers to help them develop their own individual brands, instead of limiting them in favor of a general corporate brand.

If your sales team needs help in making 2016 a successful year contact us for a consultation: +1 (704) 227-6500.

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