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The Top Sales Trends for 2022: A New Normal Emerges Post-Pandemic

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Technology had been moving at a breakneck pace, forcing sales departments to adjust their selling techniques. Then COVID-19 hit, and business processes were instantly, dramatically, and unprecedentedly interrupted.

“COVID provided a shock to sales teams,” explains Jon Aniano, senior vice president of product for CRM applications at Zendesk. “A lot of the typical sales behaviors (salespersons on the sales floor, in-person learning, face-to-face meetings with customers) were no longer possible.”

Indeed, the pandemic decimated many of yesteryear’s tried-and-true sales processes. New customer interactions were put into place; supply chains were gummed up; and revenue dropped like a stone in markets like hospitality and drove unprecedented growth in other verticals, like grocery stores.

Business drivers changed constantly, and every facet of the enterprise was in flux, including goal setting and sales forecasting.

“Traditionally, sales forecasting was done annually, but companies needed more agility once the pandemic hit,” notes Karen Clarke, senior vice president and managing director for the Americas at Anaplan, a business planning software provider. “They had to optimize their plans throughout the year as conditions changed. Most companies knew what historically happened, but that did not allow them to respond to what was happening now in their markets. They needed more visibility about which sales activities were where in the pipeline on a day-to-day basis. They had to move to a real-time forecasting model, one agile enough to adapt to the volatile market conditions.”

Now a new normal has been gradually setting in and reshaping the sales process. Companies now must change their forecasting techniques, embrace digital technology, integrate sales with other applications, and deploy artificial intelligence technology judiciously.

Yes, companies nowadays have to adjust quickly: Eighty-eight percent of sellers say their jobs have become more about how to respond to unexpected changes, according to Gartner.

Yet many businesses are not equipped to deal with such volatility. A survey by the Sales Management Association and Anaplan found the following:

  • Eighty-eight percent of companies said establishing incentive compensation is important, but only 36 percent are good at it.
  • Eighty-seven percent of businesses think setting quotas is important, but only 36 percent excel at it.
  • Seventy-six percent of companies said creating clear territories is important, but only 40 percent are good at it.

In sum, companies found that existing business processes did not mesh with the new landscape. So they began making significant adjustments.

EMBRACING DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY

To cope with the changes, companies invested in technology. Digital became a common way to interact with customers, and companies activated new virtual interactions. Demonstration videos on websites replaced requiring potential clients to book salesperson meetings at the first sales touchpoint

The results were unprecedented. Companies increased the digitization of their customer interactions and internal operations by three to four years, and the share of digital or digitally enabled products in their portfolios rose by seven years, according to McKinsey.

Companies turned to new technology to provide prospects with frictionless digital experiences. Smartphone use increased, so companies today must ensure that their websites provide rich mobile experiences. Companies deployed new technology to automate many functions, adding chatbots and conversational messaging to their websites to help potential clients find information.

SOCIAL SELLING TAKES HOLD

In addition, new information and sales channels emerged. More than 90 percent of consumers now do online research before buying something.

As a result, social selling is becoming integral to the sales process. “Technology is opening up so many new opportunities to companies,” explains Colin Crowley, a customer experience adviser at Freshworks. “They now have new types of conversational engagements with live chat and new channels like WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, and Facebook Messenger. Customers may start a conversation via chat but then end up in a buying scenario. Increasingly, the entire process takes place in the chat window. The customer does not have to visit a website. These solutions simplify the process, so sales are closed with a few clicks.”

THE SALESPERSON IS NO LONGER THE INFORMATION GATEKEEPER

As noted, the quick and dramatic adoption of digital technology changed the sales process. Historically, sales reps acted as technical support representatives as well as marketing and sales agents. They had the information that customers needed to make purchasing decisions.

That role has been morphing as technology has evolved. Increasingly, customers do not interact with salespeople as much, or in some cases, at all. More of the preliminary functions, such as providing product information and demonstrating how they work, are being automated.

In addition, new drivers are emerging. For instance, online purchasers rely heavily on customer referrals: 70 percent of companies reported that referrals convert faster than any other type of lead.

Increasingly, salespersons act as closers, coming in late in the sales cycle and tidying up any loose ends for the customer.

THE NEED FOR WIDESPREAD INTEGRATION

Traditionally, companies broke their organizations into departments that each relied on unique solutions to perform their work. Consumers see the corporation as a cohesive entity and expect every company representative to know who they are, what they desire, and how they interacted with the firm previously.

So the focus recently has shifted to breaking down traditional barriers. “Simple and easy-to-use integration capabilities have become table stakes for sales solution providers,” explains Doug Bushèe, a senior director analyst covering the sales enablement key initiative inside Gartner’s sales research practice. As a result, businesses have been tying these products to other solutions.

Often, they start by connecting sales and marketing. “Seamless integration with marketing solutions enriches customer data and helps companies gain new insights,” notes Anaplan’s Clarke. “Marketing knows who the customers are, how engaged they are, what content they are viewing, how any demand generation initiatives are working, and what changes occur from day to day. Salespersons can use that information to understand what interests their customers and prioritize their own time.”

CRM is another area where integration is key. Increasingly, companies are using such interactions as opportunities to upsell to customers.

In addition, sales applications are being linked to finance applications. “Sales play a clear and direct role in the organization’s finances,” Clarke states. “Management is looking for a more immediate understanding of how the process is going so they can adjust if needed.”

They are also connecting with human resources. In November 2021, a record 4.5 million Americans, or about 3 percent of the workforce, quit their jobs, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Since the pandemic, businesses have struggled to find workers. Some individuals felt the workplace was unsafe, and others desired more meaningful jobs. “Talent acquisition has become one way that companies differentiate themselves,” Clarke says.

The integration work is significant, and deployments are uneven. “Some businesses do not even have a CRM system yet,” Bushèe adds.

So where should such firms start? “Companies need to begin by focusing on what is relevant to the customer—and not themselves and their business processes,” explains Prashanth VK, head of CX market strategy at Zoho. “After they address the customer needs, they should look at how to make their internal business processes easier for employees.”

AI’S ROLE GROWS

As businesses connect sales applications to other systems, they generate more information, but that is only the first step in leveraging it to improve operations. They need to correlate it and make positive changes.

A number of new possibilities emerged. “AI chatbots can make purchase recommendations,” notes Freshworks’ Crowley. They can also do the following:

  • Identify steps in the sales process that are slowed down, perhaps because the website is not intuitive.
  • Predict sector sales trends.
  • Identify leads with a higher chance of conversion.

Consequently, AI adoption for sales teams is projected to rise by 139 percent in three years, according to Salesforce data.

EMBRACE AUTOMATION

Time is the most precious asset that a salesperson has, so businesses try to maximize it. “Currently, salespeople perform a lot of boring tasks, such as lead qualification, that could be automated and free up employees’ time so they have more meaningful exchanges with customers,” Crowley argues.

In fact, about 40 percent of sales tasks can be performed by AI. This could include taking notes and scheduling appointments.

AI can also streamline business processes. “Companies want to grab customer email data, automatically put it into the CRM, analyze what the customer is saying, and use the information to provide direction to the seller about what they can do next,” Bushèe points out.

However, automation is not a panacea. “There are places in the sales process where automation is not a good fit,” explains Zendesk’s Aniano. “A customer is struggling to determine what to buy and needs an explanation about different subscription levels. The system needs to recognize its limitations and route the call to the right person. Ideally, customer service reps spend more of their time on necessary, close interactions and less on providing customers with routine information.”

SENTIMENT ANALYSIS POISED TO GROW

Technology offers companies ways to improve sales processes, but it is not a cure-all. Besides the inevitable technical issues, sales processes can also be hindered by personnel problems. That’s where sentiment analysis can prove helpful. These solutions are designed to listen to conversations or see strings of text messages in interactions, understand customers’ emotional states, and suggest what to do next to satisfy them.

But they run into problems. The tools are getting better at understanding the first two steps in the process, but the third and most important, offering suggestions, is still a work in progress. “Companies sell products in the global market, so they need to recognize that two people with different cultural backgrounds would not respond in the same way,” says Ryan Tamminga, senior vice president of products and services at Alchemer, an online survey tools provider. “Enterprises need to teach their data models to address each properly so they avoid any misunderstandings.”

As a result, the technology is in an early stage of development. Most companies (about 75 percent) are using AI to automate and improve some part of the sales process, but only 10 percent to 20 percent are dabbling with sentiment analysis.

SALES TRAINING’S IMPORTANCE INCREASES

These moves have helped streamline business processes; however, they’ve also created new challenges for sales professionals. “Digital transformation does offer companies a lot of needed functionality, so enterprises bought a ton of it during the pandemic,” according to Bushèe. But many sellers became overwhelmed. They now work with, on average, more than 16 pieces of technology, and more than three of four (76 percent) stated that technology was too complex. The end result? Sales professionals spend only 25 percent of their time interacting with customers; the bulk of their time, 75 percent, is spent on internal business processes.

How can companies close the gap? Businesses sometimes neglect the importance of employee training. Inexperienced employees can cause damage. So it’s crucial to invest in training. New sales representatives need an average of 10 weeks of training for their roles, but only about one in four (26 percent) of reps say that their training is sufficient.

Sales reps need help transitioning to the new and existing tools, and technology can help. “Companies now collect customer interactions via recordings and chat transcripts,” Bushèe says. “They can use artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to understand what information customers need at key transition points and with adaptive learning address any gaps that their staff has in those areas.”

Sales have rapidly evolved in the past few years because of technological advances and the global pandemic. Companies have been trying to move past the initial shock to their business processes and position themselves for success in the short term and long term. Embracing digital technology, adopting social media, automating routine functions, and investing in training help them make that transition. 

Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in technology issues. He has been covering speech technology issues for more than two decades, is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at paulkorzen@aol.com or on Twitter @PaulKorzeniowski.

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