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I’ve worked in the worlds of sales and CRM for over 17 years. The biggest difference between the first and second halves of that timeframe is, undoubtedly, the rate of change. In 2000, smart selling might have meant leaving better voicemails. Back then, millennials were still chatting on AIM and listening to portable CD players. And CRM itself was a new topic among sales teams.

Fast forward to 2018. When I think about trends and technologies rocking the sales industry today, it’s a daunting list. But to pare it down to those making the biggest impact, here are my top three sales trends to watch.

3 sales trends to watch in 2018 — the influence of AI, millennials, and account-based selling. [click to tweet]

 

Sales Trend #1: Artificial Intelligence (AI) Transforms Selling

AI is not only one of the most exciting tools for sales teams, it’s also one of the most transformative technology sales has seen in decades. Imagine waking up each morning and immediately knowing which leads are most likely to close. AI makes that a reality for sales teams with the gift of prioritization.

Once equipped with who to contact, AI helps with how to contact.  AI can coach sales teams by offering guidance along the way, helping them understand the next best actions to take on any given account (based on insights we as busy humans can’t see on our own). Research shows that 78% of sales teams, over the last 12–18 months, have increased their focus on anticipating customer needs.

Perhaps the greatest impact of AI is its game-changing effect on sales productivity. That doesn’t just mean doing more. It means being able to do more of what matters. AI does this by automating the manual, time-consuming tasks that eat away at sales reps’ days (logging customer emails and calls, generating invoices, etc.), and giving them more time to strategize and actually sell.

But none of this is possible without AI embedded directly into the sales process. For reps to work smarter, AI must be built into the CRM where they’re spending their time cultivating and closing deals, and the predictions and recommendations delivered need to address the reps unique business processes and customer data.  

 

Sales Trend #2: Millennials (as Buyers and Sellers) Are a Rising Powerhouse

Millennials — with their increased purchasing power and representation in industry — are now a force to be reckoned with as both buyers and sellers.

As buyers, millennials bring a brand new set of expectations. For them, constant connectivity is a way of life. In fact, 84% of millennial business buyers agree that their mobile device is essential to the work they do. This mindset will only expand as millennials’ influence on the marketplace grows, and Gen Z masters the smartphone while still in diapers.

Millennials also have sky-high expectations that their interactions with companies will be personalized and real-time. In fact, 84% of millennial business buyers expect that companies will respond and interact with their business in real time.

And the stakes are high: 85% of millennial business buyers agree that technology has made it easier than ever to take their company’s business elsewhere. As Google’s research around the “zero moment of truth” shows, so much of the purchase decision happens before contact with a company ever happens. Another 83% of millennials say that technology makes them feel significantly more empowered as a business buyer than they did five years ago. Companies need to give buyers the ability to self-educate, but also provide always-on, consultative service through trusted advisors when it's needed.

Even as sellers, millennials are making waves with new ways of doing things. For one, millennials are more likely than older generations to adopt new sales mandates, perhaps because their digital-first expectations influence how they work; 66% of millennial sales professionals (vs. 43% of baby boomers/traditionalists) say their companies have increased focus on giving customers an easy-to-use mobile experience over the past 12–18 months. A similar gap exists between those focused on personalizing customer interactions (81% of millennials versus 65% of baby boomers/traditionalists).

As digital natives, millennials place higher value on emerging technologies. For instance, 60% of millennial sales professionals say that using predictive intelligence to anticipate customer needs and prioritize tasks is absolutely critical or very important to their overall sales process — compared to only 43% of baby boomers/traditionalists.

 

Sales Trend #3: All Eyes Turn to Account-Based Selling

Another key trend to watch in 2018 will be account-based selling (ABS). Why? When used correctly, account-based techniques not only shorten the buying cycle, but decrease customer acquisition costs and churn. Plus, the ROI is relatively easy to track.

Expanding on the success of the account-based marketing trend, ABS rejects the one-size-fits-all selling mindset and, instead, sells from an account-specific perspective. Rather than selling to the masses and treating every lead as worthy of the same investment of time and money, accounts are evaluated for their propensity to become great customers, and intentionally and thoughtfully targeted. Then begins the process of determining the best ways to penetrate, develop relationships with, and sell to those accounts.

That sales organizations can no longer exist in silos is a given; they must connect across different departments, channels, and partners to meet customer expectations. This is easier said than done since true ABS is only possible with a single view of the customer across the business — not just the parts helmed by a salesperson. But leading sales teams are already making progress. In one study, top sales teams were 2.1x more likely than underperformers to be outstanding or very good at having a single view of the customer.

Is the collaboration worth the effort? In short, yes; 60% of sales professionals say collaborative selling (e.g., integrating other departments such as marketing, service, etc., in the selling process) has increased their productivity by more than 25%. And technology advances have made the process less arduous, and more scalable and cost-effective. Decision makers are more easily identified, while establishing and maintaining contact with specific, relevant information is simplified through integrated CRM and marketing platform applications.

Stay up-to-date on the latest trends and technologies shaping sales in 2018 by visiting Quotable, Salesforce’s digital magazine featuring articles and podcasts that inspire and empower sales leaders, managers, reps, and those who support them.