How business-to-business salespeople can be ‘A-Graders’ in today’s shifting sales landscape


The sales profession is undergoing a big cull with over 20%  of sales roles expected to be cut by 2020 according to some analysts[1].

There are three macro shifts responsible for this rather ominous reality. Firstly, buyers are more discerning than ever before as they turn online for identifying and acquiring products and services without the need for human interaction. Secondly, technology is facilitating automation and self-service transaction, removing buyers’ reliance on sales people and cutting out the middleman in many instances all together. And thirdly, cost optimisation in order to remain competitive means vendors have to lower the cost of customer acquisition and are turning to more flexible and cost-effective sales alternatives, such as engaging professionals on a contract basis.

These landscape changes leave the sales person under more pressure than ever before to deliver results and to deliver them quickly. Where sales used to be fun, now it’s a real grind. Where the sales person used to feel respected, now they feel rejected.

One of the greatest failings of the sales profession is that there is very little attention devoted to career development and long-term career goals — instead, it is plagued with the pressure to meet short-term targets. So while the high level of scrutiny on the sales person brings great rewards for high performers (A-Graders), for the increasing number who are now failing to meet quota expectations this exposure creates massive stress and pressure.

The problem is that the short-term focus makes it very difficult for sales people to focus on their long-term career path. It’s difficult for them to think about where they want to be in the next three to five years and plot out a plan to reach that goal when they need to meet this week’s targets.

So how can sales people transition from a month-to-month mindset to a mindset that looks six, twelve and twenty-four months into the future?

Over the next two weeks, I will run through five steps to help the B2B sales person shift their focus, to set them on the path towards becoming an A-Grader.

1. Reconcile your conflicting priorities

The first step is to recognise that shifting your focus to the long term is critical to your survival in this profession. Unfortunately, if you only focus on meeting your immediate targets, you’ll never be able to direct your career.

You’ll never make the time to educate yourself, to develop specialist knowledge and commercial insights, to build your personal brand or to connect with your customers. The end result will be that you will continue to be indistinguishable from all of the other sales people on the market, and your customers (and employers) will move on as soon as a better offer comes along. By contrast, when you shift to a long-term focus, the benefits will come back ten-fold.

The simplest way to do this is to take the pressure off your immediate targets. First, consider your existing prospects and past customers. Is there any low-hanging fruit you can pick to keep your numbers up in the short term? Who do you know who is already in a purchasing window?

The second option to consider is coasting. How long could you get away with not making (or barely making) your quota? One month? Three months? If you can maintain your current numbers, or close to them, without all of the extra hustling, coasting can be an effective way to get back some time to focus on your development. Remember, your career now depends on your ability to break away from the monthly grind to start developing your career plan.

The third option is speaking to your manager. Short-termism is usually a company-wide problem, so addressing the short-term mindset requires the involvement of all key stakeholders. If you can engage your manager about the benefits of focusing on long-term career development, you will have a powerful ally who can make the case for any investments of your time and company money in areas that may not look like they will deliver an immediate return.

The average tenure for B2B sales people is at an all-time low, sitting at 16.8 months.[1] In order to attract the best sales talent, a company must now demonstrate a whole lot more than just a nice compensation plan.

Salespeople who have failed to develop deep domain expertise and knowledge are often viewed as ‘generalists’ who add little value to the buying process. Treating sales people as robots, sending them out into the field to harass and cajole customers into buying something, is now ‘so last century’.

Buyers expect a salesperson to be able to educate them, and if an employer fails to provide this type of specialised learning and development program they will not only find their own business suffering, but they will fail to attract savvy sales personnel who are now acutely aware of their needs for on-going career development.

To be clear, all salespeople are now being required to re-skill around some type of specialisation in order to survive into the future. Employers who fail to offer their salespeople career development and advancement will continue to see a revolving door of poor performing salespeople….and that is just really bad for business.

2. Set your long-term goal 

Now that you’ve taken the pressure off your short-term targets, it’s important to define your long- term goals.

Setting clear goals, and committing them to writing, has a range of benefits.

First, setting goals forces you to clarify what you want. Without committing to a specific goal, you could potentially do anything. This leads to a lot of unfocused activity, hoping that something will work, or, more often than not, no activity at all. By contrast, when you have a clear goal, not only does it help guide what you should do, but it helps you figure out which activities are superfluous. This then allows you to use your time, and your resources, more effectively.

Second, having a clear goal is the first step towards figuring out how to achieve it. To continue the previous point, not having a goal leads to unfocused activity. Setting a clear goal, on the other hand, gives you a destination to work towards, and the ability to plot a course between where you are now and where you want to be.

Third, goals are motivating. They create a purpose for your day-to-day activities, making it easier to do the things you don’t enjoy because you know what the ultimate payoff will be. Breaking your bigger goals into milestones increases that motivation by giving you a chance to appreciate and celebrate the initial results of your efforts, which motivates you to do more.

Finally, clear goals allow you to measure your progress. If you only have a vague idea of what you want, how will you know when you’ve achieved it? If you add clear metrics to your goals – deadlines, dollars, percentages, feedback, and so on – you can easily see whether you’re moving closer to your goal over time, and know when you ultimately reach it.

Next week I will take you through the remaining three steps (‘assess your current position’, ‘analyse the gap’ and ‘educate yourself’) to assist you in becoming an A-Grader sales person in the ever-competitive B2B sales landscape.


About the author

Graham Hawkins, co-founder of SalesTribe, has more than twenty-eight years of business experience in executive B2B sales and sales leadership roles. Graham is a highly experienced and versatile business executive with proven strengths in strategic business development, go-to-market planning, and sales and marketing. Graham has worked in the UK, Australia and across Asia Pacific as a representative of some of the world’s most innovative IT, telecommunications, finance and media organisations.

[1] Hoar, Andy. Forrester Research, Inc. Death of a (B2B) Salesman, Cambridge, MA. 2015, 7