Sales Competencies of the Future

As companies continue to navigate through changes in the market, sales strategies must also continue to evolve. Top performing companies must identify competencies of top performers and assess those competencies to scale.


A More Challenging Future for Sales

Given the headwinds that exist in the current economy, it is probably safe to conclude that growth will continue to be an issue beyond 2020. The hangover from the  2009 recession left many Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) wary of investment and more comfortable achieving profit growth through expense reduction. We can see  the drag on organic revenue growth in any number of charts:

Many companies realize that this path is unsustainable and have embarked on M&A binges in record numbers. Integrating acquired companies, however, just  exercises the same financial “muscles”, cutting out redundant staff and recognizing synergies. On top of this, several industries (e.g. retail, healthcare, financial  services, and energy) and countries are in a state of significant disruption. Quantitative easing is ending and mature economies just don’t grow as fast as emerging  markets. At some point, companies must re-commit to growing markets, taking share and driving organic growth or risk being acquired themselves (at best, slipping  into oblivion at worst). This will involve building new muscles, the sales competencies  of the future, from the top of the house to the bottom.

Top Executives Must Lead the Change

At the top of the house, the competencies of the future for sales management will look more like strategic marketing skills. While top sales leaders in the past may have focused on recruiting and motivating the masses (the traditional infantry), the best sales leaders of the future will focus on building the intelligence to know where to deploy sales people for success (more like special forces). If we look at the sales management skills that historically worked in a 4%+ GDP growth environment, they are the kinds of capabilities that depend on natural market momentum to be successful:

  • Operating in a command and control, top-down environment
  • Communicating the story of the company to recruit masses of new reps
  • Motivating reps with commissions, trips and perks
  • Coaching reps on closing techniques
  • Swooping in to help close the big deal
  • Disciplining reps demonstrating the wrong behaviors

In the future, the sales leader must be able to hold his or her own with other members of the C-suite. This can entail creating a long-range strategic plan that shows how selling channels will evolve to address new customer needs, how sales head count and expense will trend based on organic growth goals, and how close rates have varied with different types of customer touch models.

Many companies have recognized that a new skill-set is required and are deploying new leadership roles such as:

These elevated modern leaders must possess and also be able to teach a series of new skills and competencies that reflect a deeper vision into customer needs and a faster, more sophisticated approach to facilitating purchases even when customers are capable of educating themselves about the market. Kathy Ledford, Executive Board Member of The Sales Management Association, sums it up:

"I think the old pharmaceutical industry model was a perfect example of what is being left behind. Much of the coaching then was rote and drilled into lower level reps who were then measured on activities. It is no coincidence that some of these companies are being cited for Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations… many worked on pressure, favors, and repetition and haven’t set their reps up for success in the new world. In the future, customers will be further along in their buying process before a rep ever gets a chance to interact with them. They will have to be able to diagnose where the customer is in the process, how they got there, and be able to counter any pre-conceived ideas that run afoul of the desired progression quickly. There are many new technologies that can help reps do this, but sales leaders are going to have to choose the combination of tools that will be used. Sales management will need much more technological fluency in the future.”

So if we think about the skills and competencies of the best sales leaders of the future, we could conclude that they will have:

Strategic vision

This is the ability to see the true differentiators in their company across multiple customer segments not just at one point in time, but in the context of their industry’s evolution.

Increased business acumen

This translates to a higher ability to understand not only how their company creates value, but how multiple segments of customers create value in their organizations.

Leadership through influence as much as control/authority

Complex, matrixed organizations require the ability to recognize the agendas of individuals or departments (internally and externally) and create win/win scenarios that compel them to action.

Communicating for cross-functional influence and alignment

Sales interacts with Finance, Operations, Marketing, Procurement, IT, Legal, and HR… each of these departments have different points of view and predispositions toward collaboration (or conflict) with Sales. The best sales leaders can bridge these divides with effective communication and coordination.

Organization acumen

Sales leaders will need to be able to coach their teams on techniques to navigate internal and external decision processes through multiple levels of buyers/ approvers. Different organizations make decisions in different ways, and diagnosing this quickly will shorten the sales cycle and increase win rates.

Complex problem solving

In a world more focused on true solutions, we are finding that a single organization rarely provides the entire answer. Sales leaders of the future must be able to see the full customer problem, the root of that problem, and collaborate with third parties to solve that problem in a replicable, commercially viable way.

Technological fluency

Marginal returns on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) investments were the first phase of the technological evolution of Sales. Mobile technology, communication aides, and Artificial Intelligence will stretch the Sales leader of the future’s ability to keep up.

Do or Die for the Field

For the field, the challenges of the future are perhaps even more existential. There are rumblings among the cognoscenti that the traditional sales force is in decline as a result of e-commerce and other technological innovations. The assessing of customer needs and closing of business deals will no doubt continue, even if those responsibilities are assigned to roles that do not carry historical sales titles. The task of building awareness, comparing offerings, reviewing price, and evaluating vendors may move to digital platforms. But the task of persuasion should continue to create differentiation at the point of sale for companies that can execute and demonstrate return on investment.

If we look back at the types of front line sales competencies that have been prevalent in late 20th century, we will see some good old standbys:

Besides the headwinds for organic revenue growth discussed earlier, the force that is impacting the competencies required by front line sales reps most is commoditization. While our society has become significantly more innovative, the speed of the R&D cycle and prevalence of disruptive competitors drive the price of even a new product or service down faster than ever before in history. The sales rep of the future needs to be able to help counter this force.

To address this, companies are trying to deploy more consultative or solution selling approaches. This means that sales reps are expected to not only understand their product, but their customers’ businesses model at least as well as the customer does. If reps can do this, they can show how a product they are selling for $10,000 can create $100,000 of positive business impact. This overcomes price objections (who cares if I buy it for $9,000 or $11,000 if it is really creating that much impact) and builds a stronger bond of trust with the sales rep than a bottle of wine or a round of golf. The challenge with consultative selling is that it is a sophisticated skill, and most Aon clients estimate that only 25% of sales reps can master it. Keith Jackson, Vice President of Human Resources in AT&T’s Consumer & Mobility business agrees:

"The most important front line sales competencies traditionally have been communications skills, relationship management, sales (includes persuasiveness and persistence), competitive differentiation, and industry knowledge. For the future, most of these same competencies will continue to be important, however, there is a shift toward being more consultative and comprehensive. This means applying business acumen and broader business operational knowledge to solve a customer business problem. This must be coupled with a need for deeper knowledge of more complex products, services and solutions because customers continue to be more sophisticated through technological advances, applications of technology, globalization, etc., and they fundamentally expect more from their sales rep.”

There are training courses popping up everywhere that specialize in building consultative sales skills. However these skills are developed, they need to align with the company’s business model and market value proposition. This requires an organization to think deeper, building the sales force’s competencies from the ground up, brick by brick. Many executives who have been through that building process state that the following competencies have more pull in their sales forces going forward:

Analysis/Diagnosis

Reps must be able to identify the root issues affecting their customers and quantify  the impact of the solution.

Problem Solving

Reps of the future do not pitch a product or service on its features and benefits, they act more like an employee of their customer… driving the organization toward a  better outcome.

Financial Acumen

If reps of the future are using the financial impact of their product, service or  solution to differentiate their company, they should be able to confirm that calculation in the context of multiple customer business scenarios.

Business Acumen

A truly consultative sales rep understands the evolution of his or her industry and  the customer’s industry, how different competitors go to market, and innovations  on the horizon.

Leading with Influence

Much like their leaders, the sales rep of the future will have to get different stakeholders with different agendas from different departments to move forward with little real authority to do so.

Born Not Made?

The competencies required of the new sales rep are not simple to develop, so many thought leaders have started to put just as much emphasis on identifying sales reps with the right behavioral personality traits as on developing their competencies. New models are coming to the market that use proven testing methodologies to help sales leaders determine if a candidate or current employee even has the basic disposition to fit in a role or master these new competencies.

Specific personality characteristics are seen as strong indicators of success in sales, even in specific types of sales roles. As demonstrated in the behavioral profiles above, Adaptation is an important requirement in many types of selling roles and is a key enabler of acquiring the competencies required of the new sales force. Keith Briscoe, Vice President of Sales Operations at Dell, has seen many facets of this through his company’s evolution:

"With every product or service added to the portfolio, acquisition completed, or change to the sales strategy, successful sales reps demonstrate the resilience and adaptability to identify the impact to customers and the effect on our value proposition.”

If the sales rep of the future can function with these behavioral traits and competencies, then there should be two key outcomes in the eyes of customers… trust and insight. This will put pressure on  sales reps (especially new ones as Millennials and Generation Z flood into the market to take roles once held by baby boomers) to be as open as possible, but still position the company as different from competitors who may have similar offerings. Gary Keeler, President of McKesson’s Medical-Surgical distribution business, says that there is a delicate balance between these two disciplines:

"Good sales reps in the future are not trying to fool their customers. Real trust is built on transparency and alignment. Customers need to understand your costs and the value you provide, and if they do, and that value is in alignment with their vision of their business model, they will pay a fair price for it.”

Conclusion

Top performing companies are already using these techniques to rate and rank candidates for sales jobs and employees already in the roles. They can map these behaviors to the competencies that are specifically important to their business model, and have shown 18% higher performance in top rated reps in the example below. This creates a significant ROI for companies to proactively identify these competencies and deploy a more structured process for evaluation.

If the sales reps of the future can adapt and show the inner workings of their own shop and convey that they are being wise with their time and resources on behalf of the customer, they will be rewarded. This may make all product and/or service sales feel like solution sales in the future and slow commoditization’s corrosive effect on growth and profitability. In addition, it may win more respect and longevity for a function and a profession that has experienced its share of bumps and bruises over the past 50 years.

How Aon Can Help

Many organizations can help you assess your candidates. Many others can help you measure  and work to improve employee engagement levels. Only Aon can help you take a holistic, global approach to building the ideal workforce for your organization. We understand that elite results require extraordinary talent. We can help you build that talent from assessing candidates, building strong leaders, engaging employees, and supporting it with the right human capital strategy.  To learn more about Aon’s Talent capabilities, please contact one of the authors listed on the Contact page.

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