Thursday, April 16, 2009

Is There a Future for Professional Selling?

Yes, but not in the form we know and practice selling today. This is one of my takeaways from the round table discussion between Nigel Edelshain, Jonathan Farrington, Jill Konrath, Linda Richardson and Dave Stein over at the Top Sales Experts. Especially “order takers” and 'glib talkers” will have a bleak future according to Jonathan Farrington. Intelligent strategic orchestrators and business advisors looking to develop long term allies however will have a bright future according to him. Jill Konrath seconded that she hopes that sales is really changing that much.

So we should expect a lot of organizational transformation within sales forces. However, and this is my second take away, the salespeople are not the primary target for this transformation. The sales profession -if we want to use this term despite the fact that from a scientific standpoint 'sales' is not yet a profession- faces not only a leadership crisis but a disaster as Dave Stein put it.

The transformation has to start at the very top with company leaders. They should get rid of the myths that super salespersons make good sales managers and that the necessary competences come with the title. Sales Management is an occupation in itself requiring different specific skills than those of a sales superstar.

Relying just on tribal wisdom, where newly appointed sales managers draw on what they have observed their own managers doing, will not bring the desired result as it is very likely that these managers were not properly prepared for the job either. In addition their understanding of selling and of their job role might be outdated and not fit in today's unforgiving economic context.

In my own opinion there will be no room left for purely action and result oriented managers trying to manage outcomes. It makes little difference if they rely on data from their own home grown spreadsheets or on sophisticated analytical CRM tools in their attempt to manage these outcomes. Outcomes are lagging indicators even if they come in the disguised form of forecasts. Management actions based on these metrics will always be too little too late. The future belongs to sales managers being able to interpret leading indicators helping them to derive coaching needs of their sales people.

The panelist were all in agreement that being able to coach people is a very essential skill for successful sales managers going forward.. There is however a huge skill gap with current sales managers. Linda Richardson's re-edited book on this subject will help fill this gap. As a questions from a listener indicated, a significant number of sales managers has though not only a skill gap but an outright attitude problem towards coaching. Let's hope for them that they can be convinced by appropriate business cases to avoid being phased out.

The dilemma for preparing sales managers for their job is though deeper. While a lot has been written with the salesperson in mind, there is a lack of a body of knowledge from which sale managers can be taught how to do their job. This is the reason why already three years ago, I started my blog with the sales executives and managers in mind.

In a webinar that I will hold on the Top Sales Experts platform at the end end of April 2009, I will introduce a method on formulation of sales growth strategies , which hopefully will contribute a further puzzle piece to this much needed body of knowledge about the sales management process. You can register for this event here.


  1. The resolution on my monitor must be failing. The date appears to read April 16, 2009 but based on the stale insight and cliche advice presented it must be closer to April 16, 1979.

  2. Your comment just goes to show how little progress the sales 'profession' has made.

  3. Ok - well...I am not going to say your ideas are "dated".

    Sales and selling always "changes" but since the advent of "solution sales" - it is the same thing, re-hashed every decade or so - and that is ok.

    One thing I would ask - the title of your post "Is There a Future for Professional Selling?" leads me to another question - "Is There a Future for Sales Managers - Who Needs Them?"

    Great Blog - keep it up.

  4. Thanks Greg,

    It is the same as for the sales professionals. There will be little room for Sales Managers who continue doing the same things and expecting different outcomes.

  5. This may indeed by a reminder of what we already know which is certainly helpful. We all need to be reminded of what we already know. That's why AA works so well. However I've been reading the same ideas for the last 20 years. The fact is that many companies have made an outstanding transition from feature benefit selling to sophisticated, customer focused, consultative, value and outcome based b to b selling. It's not getting worse although proclaiming "ain't it awful" makes very popular press. I see sales changing for the better. I also see far better trained managers that clearly understand that coaching is fundamental to good sales leadership.

    I'd love to have more conversation and exploration concerning cutting edge thinking about sales. I hope others in your circle would like the same. Now that would be interesting!

  6. Thanks Richard,

    I agree with you that things have somewhat improved over the years. Remember, I did not choose the theme. I reported on a round table discussion I listen too. To this, I added my own opinion, that we should focus more on the sales managers than on the salespeople if we want to have more sustainable improvement. Why do I think improvement is necessary?

    Dave Stein in his third edition of ESR’s Sales Training Vendor Guide reports that 15% of sales training initiatives have a an effectiveness lasting longer than 90 days. This figure is up from the 10% from previous surveys. When you think that in North America, about 6B$ are spent annually on sales training initiatives, this is really a poor return for the money.

    This is also the reason why we talk about the same things for the last 20 years and yes we see some progress, but not as much as we should.

    Another reason why the talk on the subject pops up now again is the economic situation. Booming times are more forgiving for not so stellar sales and sales management performance. Today's climate is unforgivable and reveals skill deficits brutally.

    The real bad news however is, that while many people still struggle with grasping the solution type of sales, also referred to as second generation selling, this era is over. We have entered a third generation type of selling, where the customer's business outcome is in focus. There are studies out there indicating that only about 16% of companies have already entered this third generation of selling.

    Add to this that the way we use the Internet has a more profound impact on the sales 'profession' than many of the sales people out there would like to think. I speculate that this was the primary reason for choosing this title for the round table dicussion

    I have never claimed that there has not been progress in sales. But if I look at the above figures, it is not enough. I remain with my conviction that we can only improve it if we focus more on sales management. I learned this from experience. I have been asked to examine several sales training initiatives where the outcomes did not meet an executive's expectation. In all those cases, one major factor was the lack of specific training for sales managers, resulting in a lack of application into their daily management practice of the new way of working taught to their sales people.

    I am certainly not the only one with this observation. I hear serious sales trainers often complaining that the first component taken off from a sales performance initiative when the budget gets tight is the coaching for management.

    Let me add a last observation here. Whereas the direct comments to the article here on the blog are all skeptical about the usefulness of the contents, people have made many positive comments about it on twitter?

    I is not for me to judge which community is right.

  7. Is there a future in professional selling? IMHO, the question should be "Is there a future for management that doesn't understand professional selling". Net/Net, without selling, there is nothing to manage, absolutely nothing.

  8. They are friendlier on Twitter - and basically, just trade cupcake recipes...


    Sales is sales - the big thing that changes is the generation of new sales people each year, month, week...oh, and the new generation of prospects each year, month, week...


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