As the World of Sales Grows More Complex, Organizations Need New Types of Sales Talent

As you know by now, the world of work has changed substantially in recent years, and it will only evolve more as major macroeconomic shifts like disruptive technologies and lower barriers to entry continue play out.

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However, our conversations about the changing nature of business rarely touch on how these changes impact specific roles and functions. The world of business is transforming – but what does that look like for the folks in the trenches, grinding out their day-to-day tasks?

According to Tom Schoenfelder, senior vice president of research and development at employee assessment and talent development solutions provider Caliper, the evolution of business may be more impactful "in the function of sales than in any other area of business short of IT."

Schoenfelder notes that up until the year 2000, the cost of sales was consistently going down every year – but that pattern reversed itself at the start of the new millennium.

"Around 2000, that changed dramatically, especially in larger companies, where maybe as much as 50 percent of large Fortune 500-type companies in the U.S. are experiencing a significant increase in the cost of sales," Schoenfelder says. "There are a number of reasons for that, but it largely boils down to how complex the world of sales has gotten."

The stereotypical – and now outdated – portrait of the salesperson presents them as a persuasive, ego-driven personality.

"They come in, fill the room with personality, offer the features and benefits of a product or service, and they let their charisma determine whether the sale would be made or not," Schoenfelder says.

But companies caught on to this sales method, and starting in the 1990s, they began to change their buying processes.

"They started putting a lot more structure around their buying processes, partially to protect themselves from the charismatic, ego-driven salesperson," Schoenfelder says.

But it wasn't simply a defensive maneuver. Schoenfelder notes that another primary motivation for implementing more structured buying processes was "making sure that the needs of all stakeholders were met – not just the end user, but ... everyone else that may have skin in the game."

As the sales process became more sophisticated, it started to change the idea of what sales had to be.

"Sales people couldn't just show up and do the features and benefits – now they had to really add value," Schoenfelder says. "They now have to focus on providing tangible ROI."

Salespeople today need to offer actual business solutions, rather than lists of features and benefits. Companies want to approach vendors as business partners that are invested in really solving their problems.

"And once you get Google in play and buyers have all the info in front of them before they even meet the salesperson, you can see how the salesperson definitely has to show up differently now," Schoenfelder says.

So what does it mean for the salesperson to "show up differently" in today's business environment? How must the function of sales change in order to succeed in this climate? Schoenfelder and the folks at Caliper have identified three new kinds of sales roles that organizations will need going forward:

1. The Collaborator

The collaborator specializes in consultative sales. They provide a certain level of expertise to clients and work alongside them to build the right solutions tailored to their needs.

"[The collaborator] is more of an active listener," Schoenfelder says. "You're drilling down to the true needs of the client and how the products or offerings might be able to provide a solution."

The collaborator takes a "build-it-with-me approach" to sales, Schoenfelder says.

"For example, maybe you have an HR director partnering with a vendor like Caliper where you are creating a solution together," he elaborates. "You have an expert in house, you have an expert on the vendor side, and you work together to develop joint accountability in coming up with a collaborative solution."

2. The Subject Matter Expert (or Technical Sales Role)

Subject matter experts are necessary when selling highly technical products or services that require very specific knowledge – for example, pharmaceutical products.

"Think of this in terms of a 'sales engineer,'" Schoenfelder says. "It can often be the person who is the primary salesperson, or a consultant the salesperson brings in to provide that subject matter expertise."

3. The Knowledge Broker

The knowledge broker engages in what Schoenfelder calls "full-blown strategic sales." He compares it to the popular "Challenger Sales" model.

"They have a full range of expertise in the product or service, but also in the client's industry," Schoenfelder says. "They come in as an expert, but not necessarily a collaborator."

Instead, the knowledge broker takes the "smartest guy in the room" approach.

"They establish credibility and establish full confidence in the client organization that they understand the problems and the industry and will provide you with the best solution based on what they know their competitors are doing and their client's competitors are doing," Schoenfelder explains.

Which roles an organization needs will depend on what the company is selling. Similarly, which role(s) a situation calls for will depend on the relationship between the client and the vendor. And while some individual salespeople may be able to fill more than one of these roles as the context demands, certain people with certain skills and personalities will be better suited to some of these functions than to others.

"Someone who is more of an active listen will be better at consultative sales, whereas someone who is more ego-driven and persuasive will be a better knowledge broker," Schoenfelder says.

Ultimately, organizations need to take a look at their sales processes and the sales talent they have on hand. Do they have what they need to succeed in this new climate? Or will competing vendors adapt to the new reality more quickly?