When it comes to change there are really only two questions: what is going to change and what isn’t? While most people focus on what they think will change, and we’ve certainly got plenty of thoughts on that, the question of what won’t change is equally, if not more, interesting. As Jeff Bezos famously said, what’s not going to change “is actually the more important of the two because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”
So before we dive into what is going to change in sales—and I think there are lots of things—let’s focus on what’s not: sellers aren’t going anywhere. Despite hemming and hawing about the death of sales, the introduction of new functions, the digitization of all business processes, and on and on, salespeople are more important than ever. Will there be products out there that sell without salespeople? Of course. But particularly in B2B, where the first sale is almost always the smallest, salespeople will continue to be there to shepherd the process, gather requirements, build trust, and push deals to the finish line.
This is our first strategic principle for Variance. As much as will almost certainly change, salespeople are more important than ever. While the rest of the strategy includes bets about the future, it’s fundamentally rooted in this belief. This is our central force.
So with that said, let’s get to the stuff you’re here for: what will change? What things do we feel confident will be different in sales ten years from now than they are today? We’ve boiled it down to four shifts:
- Customer-led > Vendor-led
- Remote > In-person
- Usage > Seats
- In The Field > Data Field
Let’s dive in.
Customer-Led > Vendor-Led
There’s a long list of acronyms to describe what’s been happening in sales and marketing over the last decade. CX (customer experience) has become so overused it’s effectively meaningless. PLG (product-led growth), which is also frequently talked about as bottoms-up sales, is a move away from the big enterprise sales method of the past and towards a much more nimble try-before-you-buy and buy-a-little-before-you-buy-a-lot approach. There’s a bevy of other pieces to the puzzle, but when you boil them all down there is one central shift: a move away from a sales process entirely orchestrated by a vendor to one that is driven by the wants and needs of buyers.
We see it in the software products growing the fastest and also in the research around what customers expect during the sales process and how much self-directed buying they want to do. To compete in this new world requires shifting sales approaches, and particularly in letting customers into the product earlier with trials and freemium offerings and letting customers buy on credit cards. This has the effect of allowing customers to start small, which better aligns their success with your success.
What does this mean for sellers? Some big, positive shifts. Instead of being focused on bringing home the big deal, salespeople in customer-led sales organizations will be focused on converting freemium/trial conversions and on customer expansion. The beauty of this is that it offers the one thing every seller asks for: stronger leads. What better way to qualify a customer is there than having them banging around in your product? But it also means a big shift in the mindset of sales away from being methodology-driven to product knowledge-driven. Customer-led selling should benefit the attributes of all the best sellers I’ve worked with in my career. It requires real product knowledge, a deep desire to understand a prospect’s business, and the ability to shape and articulate true solutions to the challenges they’re trying to solve. This future is solution selling if solution selling wasn’t taught as “try to convince them you have a solution before letting them use it” selling.
Remote > In-Person
Obviously one of the fundamental shifts coming out of COVID was a move towards a more remote business world. While I don’t think we’ll stay 100% remote forever, there’s no denying that we learned a lot about how to sell without sitting across the table from a prospect over the last twelve months and that’s undoubtedly a good thing.
That’s because there are just too many advantages for both the buyer and seller to conduct business remotely. The costs are lower, the time is more focused, you can easily record and even transcribe your conversation, and the list goes on. There will always be moments when getting on a plane or in a car is the best way to get a deal done, but the best sellers have thrived in this remote environment and will continue to find ways to make the distance work in their favor. Bottom line is that the genie is out of the bottle, and while some in-person will come back, remote selling is the future.
Usage > Seats
For a long time seats were the very easiest way to buy and sell software. It was good for the customer because it was simple to stick in an RFP spreadsheet and it was good for the vendor because it almost always led buyers to ask for more seats than they needed. In that way, it was a lot better for sellers than buyers. Like many other market inefficiencies, this one has started to go away as new entrants with easier-to-use software and friendlier usage-based pricing models like Amazon Web Services, Hubspot, and Twilio moved into the market.
Similar to bottoms-up, this lowers both the barrier and the risk for buyers and offers tremendous upside for vendors. Today’s best SaaS companies grow not because there are a bunch of seats going unused, but because their customers are growing and happily spending more on their software as they do. This is a great focusing function for salespeople: let everything else melt away and just focus on driving usage—the best measure of success we have in the world of software.
In The Field > Data Field
Updating the CRM system has been the scourge of sellers for the past thirty years. Whether it’s Siebel or Salesforce, salespeople were required to keep the rest of the organization informed of their progress. While this was pitched as helpful to sellers, and sometimes it was a good forcing function, mostly it existed to ensure as accurate a forecast as possible. CRM became a system for managers, not reps.
Over the last few years, a few things have happened that have started to change this dynamic and we think this trend will continue to accelerate. First, the state of APIs and the open-platform approach of Salesforce has meant that all data can fairly easily flow into opportunity records. As a result, new companies have popped up with the sole intention of taking actual sales activity—the interactions, emails, meetings—and finding ways to use that data to dynamically update records without pushing salespeople to sign in and fill out the fields themselves. Second, the sheer amount of data that now exists around prospect and customer behavior has meant that most organizations have adopted data warehouses to stitch everything together. Some of that data gets fed back into CRM, while all of it is available in BI tools. This leads to a situation where, for most organizations, the most accurate records now exist in their warehouse, not their CRM. Finally, the idea of a portal like CRM being your operating system has been overtaken by Slack and Teams. Those are the places work is happening (even more so in our newly remote world) and increasingly everything needs to be able to move in and out of those spaces.
If you want evidence of all this, look no further than Salesforce itself. They’ve obviously famously invested in APIs through the Force.com platform. But then, in addition, they’ve spent almost $43.5 billion over the last eighteen months to buy a BI tool in Tableau and a work operating system in Slack. If that’s not an indication that they recognize the need for data to freely move, I don’t know what is.
Put together this creates a much more seller-centric world and ideally leads to more time selling in the field and less time filling them out.
When you boil all these forces down it actually comes back to another thing Jeff Bezos said in that same 2012 conversation: “if we can arrange things in such a way that our interests are aligned with our customers, then in the long term, that will work out really well for customers, and it'll work out really well for Amazon.” Better alignment means shared success, you win when your customers win.
That’s what’s happening in enterprise software and it’s a massive threat for those stuck in the past and a huge opportunity for those willing to embrace the future. In Star Wars, The Force was an energy field created by all life that connected everything in the universe. The future is bright for those who learn to harness these forces.