A New Breed of Salesperson

Sales, the lifeblood of business, is undergoing a sea change.
David RosenbaumFebruary 7, 2013

Nothing is immune to change, not even one of the world’s oldest professions — sales. According to a 2009 survey of more than 400,000 U.S. companies by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and South Korea’s SKK University, sales may be shifting toward an inside sales model. The survey predicted 7.5% growth in inside sales positions (people working phones and computers) by 2012, compared with 0.5% growth in outside sales jobs (people meeting with customers in the field).

This shift toward a model with “a younger, less highly compensated, more heavily managed sales force” makes sense — especially for more-growth-focused businesses, says Toffer Winslow, a general manager at business-intelligence software provider Lavastorm Analytics. Inside sales is less expensive to run than outside sales, and inside sales activities, such as phone calls and e-mails, can be tracked more easily than traditional outside sales.

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With more tools at their fingertips, inside sales representatives are also quicker to respond to leads. Just as important, conversion rates (contacts turning into names on dotted lines) are more transparent in the inside sales model than they can be in the relatively opaque outside sales model.

“We used to hire salespeople for their experience and give them a big base salary,” says Winslow. “We measured their performance by deals closed. So given the average length of a deal cycle, we wouldn’t know anything about how the salesperson was doing for 6 to 18 months.”

Businesses are no longer willing to wait that long, or to invest in the traditional salesperson famously described by Arthur Miller in Death of a Salesman as “a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” With new technologies automatically serving up leads on computer screens, and automation tools such as Salesforce requiring salespeople to track everything so finance officers can monitor the progression of deals through the sales funnel, companies are looking for a new kind of salesperson who will fit into a new kind of sales process.

Death of the Old Salesman
Dominick DiPaolo, head of worldwide sales at BlackLine, a financial-close software vendor, recently suggested to his company’s human-resources manager that a potential hire might be too aggressive — a huge shift in thinking, he says.

“The most important thing for us is team performance, team success,” explains DiPaolo. BlackLine, which depends on recurring revenue as a software-as-a-service provider, doesn’t want its salespeople to subscribe to what DiPaolo calls the “kill, close, and move on” credo.

“I will stay away from old-style sales folk,” he says. “We team people up because they learn from each other. It’s nice to be able to turn to a person who does the same job as you, maybe in a different territory, and ask, ‘How’s that working for you?’ When people get along, it’s good for the employees. It’s good for the business.”

The shift to inside sales is also good for the bottom line. Benjamin Nye, managing director of the software and infrastructure group at Bain Capital Ventures, says that looking across his portfolio of software companies, “there’s not one outside sales guy on the street. We run either lower-cost, inside sales selling teams or marketing, e-commerce software sales teams. But we don’t have the traditional outside direct-sales model that we had in the 1990s and 2000s.”

Thanks to its high overhead, outside sales drives up the price of a company’s product, making the business less competitive, says Nye. One number a CFO must keep an eye on — especially at a young or small business where working capital is critical — is the ratio between the cost to acquire a customer (including sales, marketing, salaries, and support) and the lifetime value of that customer. If the ratio is too high, it will be difficult to get funding for the business, let alone keep it going.

Birth of the New Salesperson
The biggest change in the sales landscape, says Matt Bertuzzi, business-to-business marketing consultant for The Bridge Group, is that the “asymmetry of information” between customer and salesperson no longer exists, because of the Internet. “The salesperson,” he says, “used to have all the information.” Now, the customer can see case studies, compare prices, and find information about competing products. Consequently, says Bertuzzi, “if you can’t give me, the buyer, new insight or new ideas, you’re just adding to my workload, and I don’t have time for you. You have to know more than the buyer.”

In order to do that, the salesperson has to be able to learn his customer’s business at a deeper level than simply noting how many units it bought last year. “It’s about the customer’s needs,” says Preston Flowers, one of BlackLine’s first employees and a top-performing sales team member. “What have they already seen? What do they like?” Lavastorm’s Winslow says the people he hires have to be “intellectually curious.”

Kevin Akeroyd, senior vice president of field operations for gamification provider Badgeville, has been hiring sales staff for 20 years. He looks for people who can excel in what he calls both the art and the science of sales. The art, he says, consists of the salesperson’s presentation skills, charisma, and likability. “That’s important,” says Akeroyd, “but you also have to be quantitative. That’s the science. That’s discipline, process, and metrics. You have to be able to learn from success and capture it so you can repeat it.”

Akeroyd emphasizes that the new salesperson is not necessarily a youngster. “I look for people who are willing and able to learn. People who are change-averse, no matter their age or demographic, are struggling in the sales profession today,” he says. “I’ll take a 55-year-old willing to adapt and update his tools over a 20-year-old hotshot who thinks he knows it all just because he grew up in the right era.”

But that 55-year-old also needs to get into the swim. “Customers are living their lives on social media,” says Akeroyd, “so our salespeople need to meet them there.”

Bertuzzi suggests that even with all the technology at the salesperson’s command, technological skills are less important to a salesperson’s success than the ability to empathize with a prospective buyer. “I can fudge the tech,” Bertuzzi says. “I can’t fudge the buyer.”

And talent still goes a long way. “You can overdo the technology,” says Akeroyd. “There are some superhuman salespeople, rock stars, that don’t need this stuff. But if you can capture what makes Joe such a rock star, how he handles objections, the anatomy of deals he got that no one else did, you can disseminate that to the other 99%.”