Are Salespeople Becoming Obsolete?

November 23, 2015, 3:48 PM UTC
Boutique salesperson placing open sign on window
Photograph by Siri Stafford — Getty Images

Dear Annie: I enjoyed’s recent article on how companies can turn all their salespeople into stars but, as a longtime sales guy, I have a different question. A senior manager here is pushing to cut our staff because he says customers now would rather bypass a human salesperson, research what they want to buy online, and get it directly from an online supplier. To prove his point, he emailed everyone a Forrester research study from last spring that says this trend will cause at least 1 million sales jobs to disappear by 2020.

I don’t think this applies to me because the complex systems my team sells have to be customized for each client, and they expect us to show up in person to do that. But am I burying my head in the sand? What do you think? — Just Marty

Dear J.M.: You’re not the only one worrying about being shoved aside by technology. Surgeons, airline pilots, even (gulp) journalists are fair game to be replaced by smart robots, and sooner rather than later. A new study from the McKinsey Global Institute says that about 45% of the jobs people do now could be automated with technology that already exists.

In the U.S., “these activities represent about $2 trillion in annual wages,” the study says. Not even CEOs are entirely immune, since McKinsey’s researchers found that chief executives “have a significant amount of activity that could be automated.”

Moreover, it seems your senior manager has a point. “There is going to be a big shakeout in sales,” says Eric Esfahanian. A senior vice president at sales-data analytics firm Gryphon Networks, Esfahanian has worked with business intelligence software for two decades, starting with stints at HP and EMC. “The bottom 10% or 20% of business-to-business salespeople, especially those who are selling a simple product with a short sales cycles, are going to lose out to B2B e-commerce.”

Even jobs like yours, involving more complex products with longer sales cycles, will see a sizable exodus of “people who really didn’t belong in sales in the first place.” Esfahanian likens this to the real estate business in the early-to-mid 2000s, when “lots of people went into real estate because it was booming and there was a lot of easy money around.” Most of them fled, or were forced out, in late 2008 when the going got rocky.

Think of this moment as your 2008, Esfahanian suggests, and “make yourself indispensable.” He sees three ways salespeople can do that:

Learn to love the phone. Now that Big Data analytic techniques have made it possible to measure what the most productive salespeople do, it turns out that the old stereotype of a salesperson “smiling and dialing” has some basis in fact. Gryphon Networks’ data show that bringing in a new client takes an average of eight phone calls to reach the right person and set up a meeting. By contrast, less stellar salespeople give up after two phone calls.

Why? “Email and social media are more comfortable ways to contact people, because there isn’t as much fear of immediate rejection,” he says. “But a big lucrative deal will never start with an email. You have to pick up the phone.”

Keep a detailed log of your phone calls, including cold calls and conversations with current clients. “It should show a consistent pattern of 20, 30, or even 40 calls a day, and note how many resulted in an in-person meeting,” Esfahanian says. “If you take that log to a job interview, it will put you ahead of at least 70% of candidates.”

Watch the top salespeople in your company or industry. Maybe you are already one of them. But, particularly for people new to the field, Esfahanian says it’s crucial to learn the specific techniques that work for the best salespeople who are selling a similar product or system. “Study the details of what they do and try it,” he suggests. “It might feel like you’re just imitating them at first, but with practice, their best methods will become yours.”

Adopting what works for the best practitioners has always been a good way to learn any craft (including management), but it makes even more sense in sales right now. The coming shakeout will probably leave only the most productive salespeople standing, and no one has time to reinvent the wheel.

Get even better at the things a website (or a robot) can’t do. There’s little doubt that the skills employers will need most in the years ahead are all about interacting with other people. These include team-building, idea generation, and collaborating with fellow humans to set goals and come up with creative solutions to problems. If you’re selling customized systems to clients who need your advice on how to tackle their challenges, you’re already doing a lot of this.

Do more of it. “Take a course in active listening,” Esfahanian advises. “Study how to engage people, and how to read the things they don’t say. How do you defuse an angry client? How do you up-sell, or cross-sell, and introduce an additional product or service into the conversation?

“The more expertise you can develop in empathy, teamwork, and communication, the more ‘future-proof’ you’ll be.”

Good luck.

Talkback: If you’re in sales, do you think technology could replace you? Why or why not? Leave a comment below.

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