Technology is the buzzword! A quick scan through the academic as well as practitioner literature would build a strong sense to believe that nothing in business is untouched by emerging science and technology. Expectedly, we have coined new terms such as Martech, Sales technology at a narrow functional level and, digital transformation at a broad organizational level. In a recent research article, Prof. Ronald Rust 1 offers insights on the future of marketing and broadly categorizes the determinants as technological trends, socioeconomic trends, and geopolitical threats. The technological trends which are driving change across business functions seek to amplify the marketing vision of the firms. However, these trends mostly relate to the technology aspect of the marketing function. For example, increasing usage of big data and artificial intelligence are facilitating better and more efficient decision making and this would in a significant way shape the future of marketing. However, the stronger surge of growth in services will make relationships even more critical factors thus pivoting customers and long-term customer relationships in the holistic framework of marketing. Prof. Rust argues that rising discrimination and inequality of wealth will present a new set of issues to the marketers. This would mean devising newer ways of customer value articulation and newer channels to deliver customer value.
From a sales function perspective, these trends present several implications:
- Move from digitization to digitalization: Sales function has made gradual progress in adapting sales force automation and CRM practices. With new applications backed by AI, the function needs to be geared for the next level of digitalization. This would warrant stronger and cleaner digitization processes to ensure information capture at all the nodes of the buyer-seller interface. From lead generation to the closing of a sale and the follow-up post-sale service, all data points in all formats (including visual) will be digitized. This process would ensure implementation of supervised and unsupervised learnings which could be channelized through chatbots to reduce routine tasks and make selling more focused. That would make the digitalization of sales function a reality. An important implication of such a shift will be on the salesperson’s skills; the technical capability will be no longer a differentiator in the marketplace. The emphasis on people skills is going to be even stronger.
- Service at the core of selling: The boundaries of products and services are getting blurred and the idea of a product and or a service is not sustainable. Sales function will have to align with the new reality of ‘market offering’ which would be a combination of product, service, programs, and systems. Essentially, this would mean an institutionalized obsession with customers and deeper understanding of the benefits these customers are looking for. Such an orientation will help the sales function in positioning service at the core of their market offering and attract new customers through value-based selling. An important implication of this shift will be for salespeople hiring decisions. Salespeople with an ambidextrous approach towards service and sales will be at the center stage driving this change. Therefore, while the technical capabilities of the sales force will still be in demand, the people aspect of sales competencies (e.g. empathy, pro-social behaviors, ethical orientation) will be more critical to fuel the expansion of service space.
- New channels of distribution: An important socioeconomic trend envisaged as a key challenge is about reaching customer groups emerging out of increasing income inequality. Reaching customers with a differentiated market offering would require a rethink on sales channels. Some of the emerging markets such as India is witnessing emergence of independent sales channels (such as project Shakti by HUL) and new opportunities to serve micro markets at the bottom of the pyramid. Sales organizations would need more salespeople with a ‘purposeful’ professional outlook to capture and service these opportunities.
The points outlined above make an attempt to operationalize the changes that are going to shape the future of selling. As argued, sales professionals will drive this function very well with adequate preparation to meet the new challenges. While technology integration to the selling process will be broad and general, a clear focus on developing salespeople with people skills will be advantageous. Salespeople who understand new technology and can adapt to digitalization and at the same time view sales and service with the same lens of customer obsession will lead the change at the forefront.
- T.Rust, The future of marketing, International Journal of Marketing.