The sales revolution

July 17th, 2017
La révolution de la fonction commerciale - ©Kentoh-AdobeStock

The conference focused on the challenges facing 21st century salesforce management. New players with disruptive strategies are forcing many major companies to reinvent their salesforces. The internet and cloud services are altering the nature of customer relations and there is a sharp rise in the technical competencies required by today’s salespeople. These are driving big changes in the role of marketing and sales requiring new attitudes, tools, and competencies to effectively manage sales performance. Director General of HEC Paris, Peter Todd, gave an exceptionally insightful keynote speech signifying that business schools were aware of these trends and working to create and share the knowledge necessary for successful salesforces in the 21st century. 


The conference brought together nearly 160 international industry experts and academic participants who brainstormed and shared ideas about these challenges. Practitioners discussed their preoccupations and experiences while researchers shared their perspectives, research findings, and projections about the theoretical direction of sales force management. Coupling academic presentations with practitioner feedback created a rewarding exchange that channeled the best ideas from both worlds into productive exchanges of information. This original format enabled participants to deeply explore the challenges facing sales organizations today. On the first day, two of the world’s experts on salesforce management explored the human and organizational changes driven by the increasing sophistication of artificial intelligence and big data approaches to the selling profession.

Byron Matthews spoke about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the sales profession. Spotlighting an array of new perspectives, Matthews argued that sales is both an art and a science. To match accelerating developments in science, it must devise new, original ways of thinking and implementing decisions. Byron Matthews (CEO of Miller Heiman ) emphasized that the key factors for success in sales are evolving: intuition, relationships, persuasion and emotional intelligence were crucial in yesterday’s world. In the world of tomorrow, however, the expertise of sales leaders will be backed up in strength by new systems.

Everything is changing in sales

When it comes to selling, the aim is no longer so much to negotiate prices but to offer, in tandem with other stakeholders, value propositions to clients. It is a shift in outlook that inevitably causes disruption in an organization. Gilles Grapinet (CEO of Worldwide and SEVP at ATOS) explained that his firm is removing organizational silos. Sales teams previously grouped by product lines are now organized by customer in "customer-facing organizations" that permits to better support all the group's offers. Moreover, while the pay for salespeople was formerly based on revenue, employees are now assessed using customer satisfaction scores. His message is clear: the customer’s voice is paramount and it is articulated through salespeople — a point of view on which Kris Vervaert (SEVP at EDF), Hajo Rappp, (VP at Siemens) and Carl Roberts (SVP at Epsilon Telecommunications) were in unanimous agreement.

Processes reworked by artificial intelligence

Experience shows that more formal sales processes lead to stronger performance. It follows that processes are useful and that they need to be reinforced. However, they may also be time-consuming and demotivating. In fact, formal assessment processes tend to involve a large number of actors and generate political games galore. A sales person today spends on average 14% of his or her time in meetings or handling administrative tasks; 16% on managing customer accounts; 22% on looking for new business opportunities; and 12% on training or on trips. Only 35% of his or her time is left for selling. What’s more, closing a deal is becoming more difficult. Potential clients benefit for numerous new sources of information and are already highly informed when they first come in touch with salespeople. The latter, therefore, must intervene further and further upstream in the purchase decision-making process. This double constraint may seem insurmountable. Thanks to new analysis techniques derived from artificial intelligence, however, salespeople now have access to tools that can help them save time. "AI helps them, for example, to spend 70% of their time face-to-face with clients instead of the current 35%," Matthews notes.

Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing the sales profession

The sales sector is overflowing with new technologies. AI offers much to sales forces at every stage of the sales process. In general, it facilitates the implementation of processes. It can also be used to identify new business opportunities and classify them so that only those with the best chance of succeeding are included. In addition, AI can be used to specify the conditions under which a salesperson is ready to sign an agreement. AI can guide salespeople, encouraging them to avoid going down futile paths and helping them capitalize on the knowledge acquired through previous situations. Very precise indications can even be passed on to sales representatives during discussions with customers, such as: "Careful — you’re talking too much". It is even possible to find out how the salesperson deploys these lessons so that training can be improved. "With artificial intelligence,” says Matthews, “it's easier to become a strategic partner and not just remain a simple provider.” This is especially important because buyers are increasingly using artificial intelligence to boost their expertise. "Artificial intelligence brings a lot of transparency and revolutionizes relationships," Matthews concludes. 

Expanding winning approaches

In this new context, how can we improve sales performance? Andris Zoltners, emeritus professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management and founding president of ZS Associates, claims there are four keys to success:

1. The most experienced salespeople are not necessarily the best talent.

Zoltners argues that you do not need to hire experienced sales representatives: "What you have to do is choose the right profiles: people whose particular characteristics will result in commercial success for your business. Skills, meanwhile, can be developed through training."

2. It is better to be an excellent manager than an excellent salesperson.

A good salesperson brings results in the short term but a first-rate sales manager is a means to achieve outstanding results in the medium and long term. 

3. You may need to apply a different kind of competitive pressure to motivate sales teams.

Ranking salespeople in order of their commercial success is a good idea, and it is important to identify the top individuals and let them know it. But, for the remainder, you should only tell them about their position in private. Everyone should be able to carry on dreaming of being the best.

4. Setting the correct goals is critical. When targets are too low, salespeople are overpaid.

When they are too high, they are demotivated. You should factor in the “carry-over effect” that creates sales without salespeople having to expend any effort.

Key Take Away from Day One

Successful salesforces depend on companies that introduce new technology and tightly align it with their marketing strategy, performance evaluation, remuneration systems, and career management. Senior managers and guest researchers tackled these very subjects at the three-day conference “Thought Leadership on the Sales Profession,” where the challenge was to anticipate changes and help companies prepare for them. The conference was supported financially by the EDF Chair, the Sales Excellence Institute at the University of Houston, the Agence Nationale de la Recherche-Labex-Ecodec, the Sales Management Association and the Marketing Science Institute.

At the end of the conference, several of the senior executives attending the conference responded to the appeal of Dominique Rouziès to help create a think tank at HEC Paris that will continue developing high-level conferences bringing together and mobilizing practitioners and researchers around issues related to sales organizations.