Whether we're talking about the pre-internet days or the distant future, one thing is clear: There is a gap between businesses and their customers, and sales reps function to bridge that gap. This has been true since the pre-internet days, and it will remain true as long as that gap exists.
Chatbots, AI, machine learning — sales, like other industries, is changing rapidly thanks to technology. But, at the end of the day, you still need to nurture prospects, close deals, and hit your quota.
So, what does that look like in 5 years, and where has it already changed the most? We asked a few of the industry’s most innovative minds what they think is in store for sellers. Here are their answers.
What will the sales function look like in three to five years?
With how fast technology is changing, the sales function could be a lot different even in just three-to-five years. Here's what the experts had to say:
1. Channels are evolving, but research is still important.
“It will evolve. Technology is constantly evolving. Being okay with not always knowing the answers is fine. Learn to ask questions, and remember, cold calling is over. Follow up and social media connections are also changing. You’ve got to do research! I live by this quote, and it's my own: ‘People buy from people they like. People retain from people they trust!’” — Graham Hawkins, CEO and Founder, SalesTribe
2. Automation is going to increase efficiency... even more than we're already seeing.
“AI, machine learning, and automation will greatly assist the sales force. The simple and repetitive tasks sales teams do daily will become more automated. For instance, if you have a call with a client, your software will automatically send a personalized call confirmation reminder. This is done — with a bit of manual effort — now. With prediction and machine learning, this process will be more efficient.” — Jennifer Nelson, Marketing Automation Consultant, Jenny Miranda LLC
3. Or it could be automated completely.
“In the next three-to-five years, the sales function will be completely based upon artificial intelligence. The large amount of data CRMs entail will be managed by AI, as it can process huge amounts of data without batting an eyelid — much faster and more efficiently than any human could ever hope to.” — Eric Quanstrom, CMO, Cience
4. This rise in efficiency will lead to a greater need for sales training.
“We’ll see the rise of the professional salesperson — automation powered by AI will require it. The majority of salespeople will be efficient, so the most effective will win out and the rest will be replaced by technology. This means we’ll also see a rise in the need for excellent sales training around conversational abilities and navigating complex sales effectively.” — Rex Bibertson, Director, Sales & Marketing at OpenSense
“I hope people like me continue to raise the importance of formal continuing education within the sales profession, in the same way it’s applied to corporate roles like finance, legal, HR and IT.” — John Kauffman, CEO, Lammore Training
5. But products may start selling themselves.
“But, as technology automates more and more of the selling process, companies will start to rely on salespeople less and less. At first, they'll hire low-cost, customer service professionals. But, as AI is applied to the qualifying and presentation phases of the sales process, products will sell themselves.” — Peter Caputa, CEO at Databox
6. There could be more specialization for each part of the sales process.
“I think there will be more and more specialization. The process will be broken up into a few parts — depending on what you are selling — with one person focusing on each part. Lead generators and marketers will produce leads, project managers will do research and pre-sale activities, account executives will conduct discovery work, presentation, and deal closures, and account managers will implement what’s been sold — all while providing the customer service.” — Matt Sunshine, Managing Partner, The Center for Sales Strategy and LeadG2
“Sales will be further specialized. Role definition will increase, and specific skills applicable to the buyer's journey will become increasingly important table-stakes for most sales organizations. Expecting one individual to be good at research, prospecting, outreach, discovery, evaluation, demonstration, alignment, calibration, negotiations, closing, then managing accounts is foolish, at best, and dangerous to results, at worst.” — Zenaida Lorenzo, Lead Sales Trainer at Unstopped Sales & Pareto Law
7. Roles may disappear and combine.
“Given the increasing knowledge customers have, commercial leaders will own a combined marketing and sales function, the chief sales officer role will disappear, and marketing will see tighter, more aggressive commercial targets.” — Dustin Clinard, Vice President Strategic Partnerships at Betterworks
“The functions and compensation models will look much more like a hybrid team of sales, marketing, and customer service sitting at the same table, using the same technology, and following a common playbook. Sales itself will be more of a blend, with both sales and customer service monitoring inbound sales opportunities, responding via chat and chatbots, and participating in mid-bottom funnel conversations.” — John McTigue, B2B Customer Journey Architect at The Customer Journey Maestro
“The sales and marketing functions will become one single revenue function. There will be no difference. Both marketing and sales teams will be responsible for driving revenue in an orchestrated, experiential manner. The prospect's journey will the the key to it all.” — Mike Lieberman, Founder and CEO at Square 2
8. Sales reps will need to learn how to coach.
“The new language of selling is coaching. Leadership is a language, mindset, and skill set. This holds true for selling as well. The only thing that changes from manager to seller is the conversation. So, instead of a conversation between a manager and a direct report, it’s a coaching conversation between the salesperson and prospect or customer. Sales training isn’t the answer. To build a bench of next-gen successful leaders, develop your salespeople into consultative sales coaches.” — Keith Rosen, Author and Chief Evolution Officer at Profit Builders
9. Tools and technology will give more leverage to the sales function.
“The sales function will evolve due to AI, voice bots, and chatbots. Low-level sales functions will be absorbed into these technologies. And higher-level sales roles will gain access to more real-time information from the expanded use of these tools. Sales performers will be unafraid of AI and will use these technological advantages to be better armed than their peers.” — Darren Trumeter, CEO at IntegrateHQ and Trujay
10. Sales professionals will spend more time earlier in the process.
“High-value sales talent — currently deployed at the end of the sale — will be reallocated to an earlier stage of the process. Playbooks will continue to grow in utilization and sophistication, making the core sales/buying process far more predictable and controllable. This will lead to a new type of role, similar to customer success, that will manage the process from decision to implementation.” — Doug Davidoff, Founder & CEO at Imagine Business Development
11. Lazy salespeople will be out of luck.
“There are so many think pieces about how AI will replace salespeople, but I think it will simply thin the herd. The future isn't "death of a salesman," it's "death of a lazy salesman." The best salespeople will embrace it and automate their lives to spend more time closing.” — Chris Fago, Enterprise Account Executive at Palo Alto Networks
What has changed the most about the sales function over the past five to 10 years?
Sometimes the best way to make predictions is by looking back on where we've been. According to our experts, these are the most notable changes:
1. Buyers are more educated and demanding, which means they have more leverage than before.
“Information parity has created the greatest change we’ve seen in the entire history of sales. Since 1884, when John H. Patterson first created many of the fundamentals of selling, we’ve never seen a greater change in sales than the one we’re witnessing right now. Educated and demanding buyers have never been part of the sales dynamic — and the fact they dominate the space now is a game changer, to say the least.” —Graham Hawkins, CEO and Founder, SalesTribe
“Buyer awareness and sophistication will change the most. Not just because of the well-publicized ability for any buyer to run a Google search on you and your business, but because the more important and strategic roles most salespeople are being asked to play are dramatically different from those employed even a few years ago.” — Eric Quanstrom, CMO, Cience
2. We're moving away from face-to-face interactions without sacrificing relationship building.
“Calls and in-person meetings used to be a must to close meetings, now they’re not as necessary. With video calls, you can develop meaningful relationships without ever having a face-to-face interaction.” — Jennifer Nelson, Marketing Automation Consultant, Jenny Miranda LLC
3. Inbound marketing has given rise to inside sales.
“The biggest change to sales has been the introduction of inbound marketing and inside sales models. At first, inside salespeople fed opportunities to outside salespeople. Then, inside salespeople started closing smaller sales. Now, many companies rely exclusively on inside sales to close even their biggest deals.” — Peter Caputa, CEO, Databox
4. Sales enablement has increased, but that's not to be confused with sales skills.
“In some respects, the sales function has become confused as it grapples to understand the difference between sales enablement and sales skills. Sales enablement is not the holy grail of increased performance and — in some respects — has created a level of entitlement on the part of salespeople that has no place in their role.” — John Kauffman, CEO, Lammore Training
5. Traditional sales tactics have given way to several types of sales strategies.
“Sales has split. It either looks like high volume hunting or account management. Insight selling in the startup community, for example, is the role of founders. And hygiene factors — traditional sales stuff — has become more standardized. Gone are the days smart email subject lines and timing was differentiating.” — Dustin Clinard, Vice President Strategic Partnerships at Betterworks
6. Sales has moved away from providing answers toward asking questions.
“Presentations, proposals, and closing customers are each becoming as antiquated as traditional performance reviews. That’s why sales training isn’t dead, it’s evolved. Top performers know selling today requires leading and selling with questions, rather than answers.” — Keith Rosen, Author and Chief Evolution Officer at Profit Builders
7. Email has become increasingly important.
“Email has had a big influence on selling. Although it’s been around for 20+ years, more and more sales communications happen over email. Salespeople must be able to express themselves well through writing, which can be challenging.” — Zenaida Lorenzo, Lead Sales Trainer at Unstopped Sales & Pareto Law
8. Sales is less territorial.
“Sales teams have evolved from autonomous agents with their own prospecting and closely guarded contact lists to co-equal members of a team sharing lead data, using automation to stay in touch, and using CRMs to manage activities and reporting.” — John McTigue, B2B Customer Journey Architect at The Customer Journey Maestro
9. It's increasingly important to meet buyers on their preferred channels.
“As new technologies and messaging platforms have emerged, buyers have become less likely to conform to the seller’s preferred communication channel and more likely to choose their own. Sales pros who’ve adapted and become more fluid in channel-switching have become better positioned to win business than some of the ‘old dogs’ who can’t learn new tricks.” — Chris Handy, Sr. Director of Demand Generation & Product Marketing at ClosedWon
10. Information is not enough without context.
“Information no longer matters. The ability to tease relevant insights from information and share it to help others benefit has changed from being a differentiator to table stakes.” — Ed Marsh, Founder at Consilium Global Business Advisors, LLC
How Sales Jobs Could Change in the Next Decade
As some of these trends are shifting, here's how we think sales jobs could change:
1. Larger companies will have defined roles, and smaller organizations will look for adaptable people to perform multiple functions.
As effective selling begins earlier in the sales process and the relationship continues after the sales, adaptability will be increasingly important in the sales role. Smaller companies will rely on multi-talented people for account management and customer success, so the lines may become blurred. Larger organizations, however, may break this up into multiple roles but still value cross-functional talent.
2. Robust sales tools will be considered coworkers.
With reliance on AI and cross-functional teams increasing, so too does the need for elegant sales software solutions that enable reps to make data-driven decisions and/or improve productivity. The more sales tools that are needed (or the more elegant the solution), the more the company will invest in them, money-wise and time-wise. These solutions will be integrated into every facet of the sales process and beyond.
3. Tech-savviness will be part of the job description.
Reliance on email and tech is already making tech skills more important in the world of sales. Familiarity with the most popular CRMs, comfortability with email communication and automation, and the ability to navigate the internet and social platforms are examples of skills that are necessary now more than ever. As technology advances, so too will the tech requirements for sales hires.
4. Entry-level sales roles will require more experience or focus on soft skills.
As some of the more manual and less strategic tasks of sales (such as prospecting and following up) can be automated out effectively, entry-level sales roles that spent a lot of time performing these tasks will need to evolve. It's possible that the "entry-level" gets bumped up to require more experience. Alternatively, organizations may evaluate reps based on softer skills, such as writing, to get more out of new hires.
5. More organizations will say goodbye to having the whole team under the same roof.
With SAAS and other solutions emerging, more companies are targeting national or even international pools of customers. This combined with the need for more experienced sales reps, the need for more diverse teams, and inside sales trends, there will be a continuing shift toward remote work. Changing attitudes toward telecommuting and technology making it even easier to connect with team members will result in more integrated but geographically distant sales departments. And talent will be more accessible.
6. Sales people with large existing networks will be highly sought after.
With marketing doing a lot of legwork to fill pipelines, additional prospecting being automated more and more, and a rise in self-serve purchasing, the value that sales professionals add will be in their ability to forge strong relationships and build trust. That puts candidates with existing networks at an advantage with proof of their adeptness at making connections.
Whatever the future of sales is, it's never been a more exciting time for the profession. By having the experts look at where sales has been and where it’s likely going, it’s clear to see the future leaves plenty of room for innovation, education, and kick-ass salespeople.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Dec 10, 2020 8:00:00 AM, updated December 10 2020