Sales Productivity Dustbowl

By Chris Tratar

Sales Productivity DustbowlLate in 2017, I attended the first national conference of the Sales Enablement Society.  It was the first event of its kind, specifically for sales enablement professionals.  There were many valuable and lively discussions, but several key themes ran through the entire event.

First, there was a lot of networking and sharing of best practice; second, there was quite a bit of talk about the future of sales enablement; and third, there was a lot of debate about what sales enablement actually is and whether or not it is effective at boosting sales productivity.

One of the keynotes was given by Dr. Howard Dover, University of Texas, Dallas. Dr. Howard and the University of Texas, Dallas are at the forefront of more formalized education for sales and sales enablement professionals. Dr. Dover posed an interesting and serious question….

Are we in a sales productivity dustbowl?

While a sales productivity dustbowl is nowhere near the human tragedy that the dustbowl of the 1930’s was, he did make some very compelling parallels between the causes of the dustbowl and the current state of sales enablement and productivity today.  The three main contributing factors were the environment, population, technology.

Environment

Massive, sudden changes in the environment set the stage for a plunge in productivity and in the case of the dustbowl, human suffering and disaster.  Leading up to the dustbowl, parts of the country had been suffering a drought for up to 8 years.  In the case of sales productivity, the rapid changes in technology innovation have created the digital economy and have caused massive shifts in value creation and buyer behavior.  Buyers are now more sophisticated and educated and have much higher expectations about how sellers will engage with them throughout their journey and how much value and advice they will provide vs. just providing product or solution knowledge.  This constantly changing environment has set the stage for making selling much harder than it has ever been.

Population

The second major factor in the dustbowl was the US policy of westward expansion of the late 19th century where 1.6M homesteaders moved west to claim 270 million acres of free land.  In essence, the US government had a problem, they wanted to settle the western half of the US and they needed to incentivize people to move west.  They threw people at the problem of settling the western part of the US.  These dramatic increases in population contributed to falling productivity and over farming the land.  Today, many sales organizations face a similar problem.  They have steadily increasing sales targets to meet year after year, so they continue to throw people at the problem by hiring more sales people to increase coverage and drive higher sales numbers.  Recent research suggests that nearly 70% of sales organizations plan to increase headcount in the next fiscal year.

Technology

By the 1930’s the stage was set for the dustbowl.  The last contributing factor was new farming technology such as new tractors, combines and the steel disc one-way plow that made farming the land very efficient.  Because there were so many farmers and a surplus of produce, prices fell.  This drove farmers to leverage technology to produce more from their fields, which ultimately lead to over farming the land.  New farming technology combined with over farming and the drought, accelerated the erosion of topsoil causing the “black blizzards” of dust.  Something similar is happening today in sales enablement.  Over the past several years there have been massive investments, over $5B, in sales enablement technology and the number of sales enablement applications has exploded from a few dozen to over 425 in just a few years.  While arguably these technologies have made sellers more efficient, have they really contributed to making them more effective and boosting sales productivity?

The Current State of Sales Productivity

When the environment, population and technology combined in the 1930’s it caused the perfect storm that destroyed 125 million acres of farmland through topsoil loss.  The numbers suggest that the current state of sales productivity is in a very similar state today.  Despite hiring more sales people and investing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in sales enablement and technology, sales productivity continues to steadily decline.  Today, on average only 53% of sellers make quota and only 55% of all forecasted deals result in a win.  So are we currently in a sales productivity dustbowl?

A New Way Forward

I believe we are in a sales productivity dustbowl and in order to get out of it, we need to think differently and bring forward new solutions.  It is clear that just hiring more sales people or continuing to do what we are doing today more efficiently with technology is not working.  Now more than ever, a strong Sales Enablement function will be the key to leading the changes necessary to drive sustainable sales productivity increases.  The good news is that a strong sales enablement function is proven to increase sales productivity.  According to the 2017 Sales Enablement Optimization Study, by CSO Insights, 73% of sellers make quota when their organization has a dedicated sales enablement function with a formal sales enablement charter.  It also shows that when sales enablement teams have initiatives that enable dynamic alignment to the customer’s journey, they can improve win rates on forecasted deals by 10%.  The only way to dynamically align enablement to the customer’s journey is through the appropriate application of a comprehensive sales enablement technology platform, instead of simply automating random parts of the sales process.

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