How Data Has Helped Evolve The Sales Role

Back at the beginning of last year, Marcus Sheridan predicted that sales reps would become extinct in 2015. Well, that didn’t happen. In fact, a search of the Department of Labor database will tell you that at last count, there were about 3.5 million sales reps in the US alone —1.74 million in services and 1.73 million in the wholesale and manufacturing category. Sales reps most assuredly aren’t dying out. But they are definitely evolving.

As the business environment has become increasingly influenced in recent years by technology in general and data in particular, the sales rep’s role has changed dramatically. Reps who understand this, and who are able to adapt successfully to the changes — even embrace them — shouldn’t worry about facing extinction anytime soon. Rather, I think they can expect to be in a great position to continue to make vital contributions to the economic health and well-being of the companies they represent.

It’s those who don’t or can’t adapt that are at risk of going the way of the dinosaurs. And adapting is all about understanding the critical role data plays in sales today. Here’s what I think is important to understand about it, from the perspective of someone who runs a big-data startup.

Sales rep, yes. Order taker, no.

I think one of the most obvious ways in which sales reps have evolved is that the role of the “order taker” really has been disappearing over the last ten years or so with the rise of the Internet. It used to be that if your company sold a relatively straightforward product or service, you needed someone to hand a buyer a spec sheet or other piece of information about it and take their order. Now, a buyer can find all the relevant data online – and place the order online, too.

Looking at Forrester’s “Death of a (B2B) Salesman” report from last year, which predicted the loss of a million sales jobs by 2020, it seems obvious to me that the reps most at risk for that fate are those who are still in the position of taking orders and not doing much else. But that’s by no means all, or even most, of the sales professionals working today. When you’re talking about complex products and services that are not simple commodities, I’m inclined to agree that the sales rep continues to have an extremely valuable role to play — not as an order taker, but as a consultative professional, or what Ian Altman characterizes as a subject matter expert.

Subject matter experts don’t just know their company’s products inside out; they know the market for the products and how the products serve the market’s needs. They’re the sales pros whose mastery of marketing information and data enables them to cut through the all the emails, calls and other contacts that buyers are assaulted with every day, and who perform a truly valuable service for their companies and their customers.

Cold callers need no longer apply.

Cold calling is another approach to sales that’s in imminent danger of being wiped out by technology and data. A recent Information Age article described the old cold-call routine pretty succinctly: “buy a list of companies; cold call to set up appointments; carry out a sales pitch; close the deal.” These days, that’s about as inefficient a way of identifying prospects and selling to them as I can imagine.

Instead, sales reps have a multitude of data-driven methodologies and technology resources that they can use to target buyers — everything from social data on LinkedIn and Facebook groups, to sophisticated algorithms for predicting sales, to real-time data that reps can use to see where tactics are working and where they’re not, so they can adjust accordingly. And while bigger companies may be quicker to adopt big data and predictive analytics technologies for sales, these technologies are critical to having efficient, productive sales operations at smaller companies, too. This is especially important at startups, where the last thing you need to do is burn through funding by paying sales to chase down leads that are mostly not going to pan out.

A new, more efficient sales professional is born.

Data isn’t just helping sales reps sell more successfully today; it’s also helping them work more efficiently. Having a sales-oriented customer relationship management (CRM) system in place is the number-one recommendation on CIO magazine’s list of tips for building effective sales teams, and with good reason. Data-driven customer relationship management (CRM) systems like Salesforce gives sales reps instant information to help with everything from prioritizing leads to remembering to follow up.

Hand in hand with data, mobile technology is also revolutionizing sales reps’ productivity. With mobility, all the data and insights that are instantly available to them from today’s sales systems are also instantly available anywhere they happen to be.

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