An article written by The Economist Intelligence Unit
Where customers go, sales executives must surely follow. Today, of course, that means online, and digital techniques to identify sales leads, engage with them, understand their needs and close deals are an essential component of any salesperson’s toolkit.
The impact of this digitisation is not lost on today’s sales executives. They see the impact of digital transformation all around them, from the way in which their teams are organised to the career paths available to them.
In a recent survey of 800 business executives in France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit and sponsored by Salesforce, sales executives say more often than their counterparts in marketing, IT and customer service that digital disruption requires their department to interact more directly with customers (24% v a 19% average across the survey base). They also most often say that digital disruption requires them to communicate more effectively with customers and prospects (21% v 17%).
“I can remember a time not so long ago in sales when the desktop phone was your primary work tool and you were pretty much expected to be on that phone all day, every day,” says Stuart Middleton, chief commercial officer at online travel site SkyScanner. Today, the average salesperson will bounce between emails, social media and messaging tools—as well as phone calls—to get conversations started and keep them ticking along.
SkyScanner, which provides flight comparison and booking services, is familiar with digital disruption. The travel industry has been utterly transformed by digital technology over the past two decades. Today, Skyscanner’s customers are digitally savvy, as are the travel agents, car hire providers and hoteliers it partners with.
“As a result, our sales teams have to be online, because that’s where the important conversations take place,” says Mr Middleton. “We’ve always needed good communicators in sales. Now we need people who are good at communicating over a wide range of media.”
Beyond digital communication, SkyScanner’s sales team must also be comfortable with data analysis. The company’s 60m-plus unique monthly visitors leave a rich trail of data relating to travel preferences and trends, and this can be a big help in luring new travel providers to the site.
“Data creates a strong bond between our sales team and our commercial partners. Airlines and online travel agencies, for example, want to know what routes and destinations travellers are searching for and our ability to show them exactly the information that they ask for is hugely important.”
Internally, data visualisation tools are used to prepare at-a-glance charts and maps to present to travel companies. And web analytics help sales understand how deals perform with specific customer groups and convey that information to sales targets.
Surprisingly, however, many sales executives remain unconvinced about the importance of analytics: compared with other departments, they are less likely to agree that data analysis will become significantly more important to their role in the next three years (29% v a survey average of 33%, see chart). This may reflect a lack of confidence, however. Less than two-thirds (63%) of sales executives surveyed say they are ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ about their data analysis skills.
At SkyScanner University, the company’s internal skills development programme, sales people are regularly trained in new analytics tools. Mr Middleton insists that willingness to adapt is one of the key things he looks for in potential recruits to his team. He also says a commitment to continuous skill development is a big factor in any employee’s success in the company.
SkyScanner’s sales team also take basic programming courses so they better understand challenges faced by their colleagues in engineering. This reflects the growing need for cross-functional understanding that arises from digital business.
Organisational division between, for example, sales, marketing, customer service and IT is not useful when the development of customer-facing systems requires the expertise of each function to be combined in close collaboration. As a result, many departments find their responsibilities expanding to overlap with other functions.
In the survey, the majority of sales executives say their department’s role has expanded to overlap with marketing (74%), customer service (74%) and even IT (73%), to some degree at least, as a result of digital disruption. And this merging of responsibilities is felt by senior management: 68% of respondents say their own role is merging with those of leaders in other functions.
The job of a sales leader is therefore evolving: 45% of those surveyed agree that their role is adapting due to digital disruption, second only to respondents in the IT function. In particular, 37% of sales executives say they have become “more focused on innovation and experimentation than process and organisation” as a result of disruption, the most common form of change.
In turn, the skills that sales executives need in order to lead their teams effectively are evolving too. The qualities that most sales leaders in the survey believe will grow in importance in the near future are transparency (71%) and empathy (71%). This, arguably, reflects the fact that sales leaders will need to understand and collaborate with other functions in order to deliver digital success.
“Collaborating with others in the business is all part of understanding where we are going and what makes us different from other businesses,” says Mr Middleton.
At Skyscanner, sales and marketing teams are working closely together to drive new business. In the past two years, the company has created “growth” teams, in which sales and marketing colleagues work side-by-side to develop new strategies “for product-market fit”. In other words, they collaborate on products for specific “types” of traveller—budget, luxury, backpacker and so on. Mr Middleton elaborates: “This level of collaboration was less prevalent a few years ago, but has undoubtedly contributed to the accelerated growth of the business in recent years.”
Despite the need for future capabilities, including this kind of collaboration, sales leaders are the least likely of any function to say their current role offers them the opportunity to develop the leadership skills they will need in future, and the least likely to say their employers encourage them to progress in their role. This may be because organisations expect a single, simple outcome from their sales teams—revenue growth—and so may be less focused on personal development.
In order to be eligible for the leadership positions of tomorrow, current and aspiring sales executives may, therefore, need to look beyond sales to expand their experience. Indeed, a quarter of those surveyed (25%) say it is “very likely” that they will take on a leadership position in another function in the next three years. And 58% agree that “business leaders can no longer expect to have a successful career with experience in just one department.”
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