Dinosaur at the American Museum of Natural History
Salespeople have been threatened with extinction for a while now. But it is still possible to survive — and even thrive — in sales PHOTO: Don De Bold

The threat of extinction has loomed over the salesperson for a long time. 

Doomed by the inevitable march of technology — sales force automation, then artificial intelligence and internet of things, and whatever comes next in the technology parade — numerous firms (most notably and recently Forrester) have stated that sales jobs are on the verge of disappearing. 

Yet we’ve seen that isn’t really the case. Sales jobs have increased as sales teams add more technology to their toolbox.

Secure Your Sales Job

If you’re a salesperson — or a sales manager — the numbers can be deceiving. They may suggest there will always be a need for salespeople, but there’s some nuance to that argument. 

The sales roles will remain, but the definitions of those roles will shift. And, if sales professionals don’t shift with them, you will be replaced. 

But how do you secure your sales role in a world that’s changing faster than ever, driven not just by technology advances but by the buyers’ evolving desires and capabilities? 

Throwing up your hands and consigning your future to the whims of the market isn't an option. Master the following skills to make you a more efficient salesperson today and “futureproof” for tomorrow. 

Skills for the Salesperson of Today (and Tomorrow)

Learn to Listen

Every salesperson has been admonished to improve their listening skills. It’s what you do to make sure you’re approaching the prospect with the right story, or the right solution to a problem. 

When done right, it’s also something a sales pro can do that technology can’t — at least, not without the nuance a knowledgeable and effective sales pro can apply to it. 

However, we all know salespeople who possess a remarkable gift of gab and who are relentless when it comes to delivering their sales pitches. Glib gabbers, I hate to tell you this: your days are numbered. 

In the future, sales pros will have to be great interviewers first. That doesn’t just mean knowing how to shut up and listen, and how to nod your head in an understanding way. It means being able to empathize with the buyer and quickly understand their needs. 

Great interviewers don’t walk into the interview cold, either. Like NPR’s Terry Gross, one of the very best interviewers around, they come to every meeting well-versed on the background of their subjects, the result of earnest, diligent prep work.

Can technology do this yet? Absolutely not. A great listener who asks the right questions is hard for tech to top.

Add Value Through Judicious Use of Technology

Technology has its place. The sales pros who evolves for survival will use it— not slavishly, but in ways that serve their missions. They’ll take what tech does and use it to benefit the selling relationship. 

One perfect example of this is the idea of adding value during the selling process. This used to be simple: since customers knew very little about your solutions and, often, the real nature of their problems, any information you could offer was valuable. 

Now, however, buyers have a universe of knowledge at their fingertips. They don’t need the basics from sales; those interaction now actually diminish your chances of closing deals. They want answers to very specific questions framed within the context of their businesses.

Technology like sales enablement (and soon, AI) is good at feeding content to customers in some cases — namely, cases where the buyer can articulate his or her needs in a way that the technology recognizes. 

As a sales professional, you can avoid obsolescence as this technology evolves by becoming adept at helping customers define their problems accurately. Part one of this is to do the homework ahead of time to prepare for likely questions. Part two of this is listening with a translator’s ear — terminology varies from vertical market to vertical market, and businesses may have narrower or broader views of how deep problems go. 

Only a human sales pro can apply experiential information to a buyer’s story to help them better understand the real nature and scope of their problems and get to the right solutions quickly. 

Become a Conduit for Content

We just mentioned sales enablement and AI. Enablement is going to become even more powerful as AI and machine learning sharpen our ability to deliver the right content during the sales process. 

But what happens after a customer closes? In the era of the subscription economy, renewals and up-selling to existing customers are the secrets to success. You probably do not employ your enablement system to deliver content to existing customers. 

Unfortunately, few businesses are so well aligned that marketing can use what is seen as sales technology to deliver personalized, specific nurturing campaigns.

That’s an opportunity. 

Marketing may not be able to use sales tools, but in some cases sales can use marketing tools to reach your existing accounts with new and appropriate content as it comes out. Content becomes a great excuse for a personalized check-in and sets the stage for not only a renewal — the technology can manage most of that process —but for a deeper conversation that may reveal new opportunities.

People Still Make Relationships Work

Even as technology races forward, sales pros will need to become adept in a host of skills in order to sustain their sales success. Technology still can't do everything. 

For instance, every salesperson likes having a reference customer (or, better yet, a library of reference customers) at their disposal. Some may get a monetary incentive for cultivating them. 

Is there an app for that? No. Probably because it would have a minuscule success rate compared to sales people who have relationships with customers. 

Making the connection from client to marketing is still a sale pro’s job. Inviting customers to pilot programs, or events, or to speaking opportunities can’t be done effectively by technology without the intervention of a human who knows the customer. And in most cases, that’s a salesperson. 

At the same time, salespeople know much better how to reward their customers and incentivize this behavior. Marketing will do a lot of work on such things, in many cases, but the ball starts rolling thanks to sales. 

If you want to become indispensable, don’t just sell. Do the things that help everyone else in the sales organization sell. These are little things that technology isn’t being tasked with, and may not be particularly good at doing, anyway. 

Will technology change sales? It always has. But ultimately, selling is a very human activity. Technology merely makes salespeople more efficient and puts better information in the salesperson’s hands. What the salesperson does with that time and information will always determine which people are successful.