Are We Facing A World-Wide Sales Talent Shortage?

A week doesn't go by when I haven't talked to someone who is in sales or marketing about the work they're doing to help the sales team change how they communicate value. It seems that many marketing and sales leaders are working hard to "help salespeople sell higher" or "help salespeople differentiate the messages they deliver." A couple of patterns are emerging; like moving the sales conversations from being transaction-focused to a more consultative one, or moving a consultative conversation to a more outcome-focused conversation.

There is no doubt that changing the sales conversation means changing the behavior of the sales team -- many sales leaders believe that change can't happen fast enough. When it comes to making the shift, you have a short list of choices:

1) develop or expand the existing skill set of the current salespeople you have, or

2) work with the sales leadership team and HR team to hire the right salespeople who have the right skills and connections to have the right conversations you need to be successful

3) a combination of both 1 and 2

More and more technology vendors are deciding to invest in the salespeople they have. For most technology vendors, hiring for skill just isn’t working. One sales leader said, “We are realizing that the talent shortage in the profession overall is working against us. Many salespeople just haven’t been trained like they used to, and they have picked up some bad habits along the way."

We are at a sales "skills cross-road."

Obviously, being succesful today is more difficult then being successful 10 years ago. Product portfolios are becoming larger and more sophisticated, creating more complexity that salespeople need to navigate. Adding to this complexity on the vendor side, sales leaders, sales enablement professionals, sales managers, and sales reps must clearly define the behaviors required to communicate value in a world where more and more buyers are demanding outcomes, not solutions. Today's salespeople need to be able to improve their reach and their footprint within existing accounts at increasingly higher levels of decision-making power within more complex customer organizations, where a wider variety of buyers must agree on a) the problem that needs to be addressed, and b) the role of the technology vendor in solving the problem. Unfortunately, many salespeople today are finding these conversations to be increasingly difficult, and they're not getting the right kind of help they need (see our other blog posts).

What are the challenges we need to address?

  • Challenge 1:  The number of "net-new" salespeople entering into a sales career with a solid understanding of the sales profession is decreasing. There are a few colleges and universities that offer professional selling as a degree but most salespeople who end up in the sales profession come from "non-sales" backgrounds. Unfortunately, the incoming skill pool of highly skilled sales reps is not keeping up with a) the great reps who are leaving the profession due to retirement or a career change, and b) the mediocre reps who "cap out" at a mid-level of proficiency and who have difficulty selling higher, or changing their approach.
     
  • Challenge 2: Fewer sales reps have the benefit of robust on-boarding programs that teach how to sell. The average number of days for new hire training in most organizations ranges from 5 to 15 days; meaning the vast majority of salespeople will have to learn how to sell differently while on the job. On top of that, we recently audited a new hire training program and 90% of the content was about the vendor, and not the buyer. The lack of buyer knowledge and buyer understanding embedded into new hire training programs is shocking. For example, who is teaching reps what business drivers and market forces impact specific buyers and their agreement network (like the CIO and his two levels of reporting structure)? How are reps learning what catalysts exist leading buyers to buy, and more importantly, what specific problems do buyers most likely face in today's tumultuous business environment? It's hard to navigate complex accounts without a solid understanding of buyers. Sales conversations must be specific in order to be valuable -- and reps need help to make sure they have the right information -- salespeople are finding it more difficult to have conversations that are specific enough to drive a purchase decision.
     
  • Challenge 3: The impact of complexity with regard to the sales conversation is unprecedented. This is not the same business environment you or your sales managers "grew up" in. Reps who have been successful in acquiring new business while increasing market share don't necessarily have the same skill set required to up-sell and cross-sell business to existing accounts, and more importantly they may lack the buyer empathy to communicate value to a different set of buyers within those accounts. The skills required to coordinate resources internally and cut across business units in order to communicate value across the portfolio while mapping that portfolio to specific buyer problems couldn't be more different than what was required in the past. Today, it's not what you sell, it's how you sell it, and salespeople need the right skills to achieve any level of repeatable success.

With increased skill requirements, come increased content and tool requirements.

Obviously, salespeople cannot do it all alone. They need help from their marketing, portfolio, and sales colleagues. If salespeople improve their skill set dramatically and are able to gain access and have successful meetings with the right people at the right altitude level, they will still need something to talk about. That means they need the right content from their marketing, business unit, and sales training teams who equip them with the right messages. That means portfolio, marketing, and sales team leaders need to make sure their teams are focused on supporting sales rep skills.

Please help the community: A Question For You:

How has your organization addressed the sales skills talent shortage? Are you seeing the same thing?

Comments

Sales Talent Shortage

Brian,
I completely agree with your insights. Proof is the Top Ten Percent of Salespeople are increasing their share of total sales. The bottom Ten percent can be taken out for a "cost saving", with little or no Revenue/Margin impact.
In addition to skills shortage, there is a leadership shortage too.
The hire and fire approach is back!
BMAC Sales Consultants

Action against the Shortage

I agree with your thoughts on the talent shortage and the associated challenges. Overcoming the challenges is certainly a burden we are all faced with and getting a little creative is necessary. In our own environment, we have put a sales support team in place to ensure that we have folks on the right call at the right time, delivering the right message before, during and after sales meetings. This team is designed to couple the salesperson with a technical solutions person, resulting in defining a message around an outcome-focused conversation, not to mention that we have taken steps to redefine our portfolio to do the same. Further, we’ve put more emphasis on leveraging partnerships that can help us have broader discussions within accounts, making the hurdle a little lower.

As for training, it is and will always be something that has to forever evolve, the challenge now is making the training engaging and informative when much of your sales team works remotely. Through webinars, computer-based trainings and face-to-face (when we can), we are designing our training messages around how our solutions solve customer pain and, in effect, helping the salesperson better understand the buyer. While no one action will dissolve the challenge, you are spot on that we need to not only further develop our existing talent, but we ALSO need hire those that have the right skill set.