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Discover the real SaaS; The coming age of ‘Sales as a Science’

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A look at the trends that every sales leader should be prepared to adopt, and the innovations driving the industry to evolve in the same vein as other functions of the enterprise.

Technological innovation continues to steadily revolutionize the way we work and communicate on a global scale, with long standing pain points and previously insurmountable issues seemingly melting away with each disruptive ‘eureka moment’. Products like Google Maps and Uber have made getting from A to B no more than a few clicks or taps away, and while conference calls to the other side of the world were once attached to a separate expense account, they now merely require a modest web connection and a Skype app. Consumers around the world are smarter than ever at managing their time and assets.

The sales profession, however, appears to have resisted the advancements that have been commonplace across the rest of the enterprise. Sales management is the only function where technology has made life harder. Take CRM, the major technological breakthrough in sales management over the last three decades. Rather than create opportunities, it acts as a tax on the time of the sales reps forced to use it with very little benefits to show in return for the time spent logging data.

Change is coming. The enterprise – and more specifically, sales – is poised for a transformation as dramatic, if not more so, than that experienced by consumers over the last 15 years. This change will be powered by a raft of new applications that combine science and technology to improve the selling experience, remove the wasted time on everything from data entry to travel, and grow revenue using external and internal data sources.

 

Productivity & Collaboration

Ask any sales management team and they will confirm what the data shows; roughly 80% of their time is spent on non-revenue producing tasks. Research from analytics firm Docurated, which surveyed sales and marketing executives at the end of last year, identified sales productivity as the chief driver in hitting new revenue targets. Smart sales management teams will be reviewing every process to find ways to help their teams work better together and reduce time wasted on tasks. Document management systems like Box and Dropbox, contract management systems like Docusign and Echosign are now table stakes along with internal tools like Google Docs. The next level of productivity gains will come from new applications designed to reduce the friction of how teams work with one another. Their stickiness can make talking to colleagues both fluid and more efficient, and could even help shake up the traditional separation between various teams within businesses.

Plenty of companies are focused on improving how teams communicate with each other including Jive, Yammer, Zyncro, Socialtext, and Tibbr and the new poster child for collaboration, Slack.  

The company’s growth rate has by any measure been truly astonishing. In moving from zero to unicorn posterchild in just eight months, Slack was crowned the youngest billion-dollar valued company ever in late 2014.

The growth of Slack and this sector makes sense given how much faster decisions are being made. It’s estimated that the current access to information has changed how buyers buy, with up to 80% of the purchasing decision made before speaking to a sales professional. In the age of the empowered consumer, no company can afford to let bad communication get in the way of revenue growth. As one senior executive puts it, “Slow is the enemy of good. Being late to the sale or seemingly unresponsive in any way means missing it entirely”.

Helping teams to work more efficiently is a crucial part of sales management, and removing some of the guesswork from what happens to emails after the ‘send’ button is clicked can be a significant step in the right direction. By offering the ability to build their own processes for generating sales development emails, phone calls, and other activity, SalesLoft is something of a no brainer for sales management teams.

The company offers two products, SalesLoft Cadence and SalesLoft Prospector, each offering a significant boost to the day-to-day processes which sales teams rely on.

Cadence simplifies sending groups of messages at once, but also gives users the power to tweak or adjust messages before hitting send. Essentially, sincerity in communication can be maintained, while keeping mass communication lightning fast. It connects directly to the company mail server meaning that all emails are ‘genuine’ and not bulk, promotional email. In other words, not spam fodder. These even show up in your Sent box, and as such are as manageable as regular email.

Prospector allows the building and organization of prospects lists, which once created are searchable by numerous criteria including industry, title, role, location, and even LinkedIn affiliation. Speaking of the latter, the Prospector LinkedIn plugin lets users add prospects from their profiles, and even from private groups that they are not members of.

This range of solutions enabled SalesLoft to raise a $10 million Series A from Silicon Valley’s Emergence Capital in May 2015. Having gone from strength to strength ever since, SalesLoft’s products are perfect examples of thoughtful tools perfectly suited to shifting time spent guessing to selling.

 

Time Travel

Every sales management team knows the value of a personal relationship. Working in an evermore globalized world and increasing pressure to cut costs has forced many sales teams to cut back on travel in favor of digital alternatives likes Google Hangouts, Skype and other forms of video conferencing. Research from Harvard Business Review found that while business leaders were more likely than ever to use such tools, 79% said that in-person meetings are the most effective way to meet new clients to sell business. A further 89% agreed that face-to-face meetings are essential for ‘sealing the deal’.

The same study revealed that 69% of businesses had made cuts to travel to make cost savings. The implications for sales are self-evident.

Denver based firm Boom is hoping to realign such attitudes by ushering in a new era of quieter, more efficient, and much, much faster trans-Atlantic supersonic commercial flight.

761 MPH – the speed at which pressure waves formed around the middle section of the now commercially defunct Concorde fuselage, in turn creating the conditions for sound waves to bunch up around the aircraft and compress. As the plane caught them up, the waves coalesced to form the characteristic, earth-shattering sound known as a sonic boom.

A few high profile technical hitches aside, the principle catch of course was the cost incurred to achieve this speed. So much so that ticket prices barely covered the fuel, let alone the technological wizardry that it powered.

Blake Scholl, Boom’s Founder & CEO, claims that advances in technology – including improved types of lighter carbon fiber – have slashed the production costs for its new breed of passenger jet that can fly at Mach 2.2 from London to New York.

The Boom website suggests passengers can ‘get business done, and be home the same day.’ Its claim of being able to complete the trans-Atlantic flight in a mere three hours and 20 minutes suggests that is a possibility.

With prices promised to be on par with business class when the company’s fleet eventually launches, the barriers to visiting prospects face-to-face are significantly lessened.

For something that requires a little more future-gazing, Hyperloop could well be the transportation revolution that changes the way the business world operates. Originally the brainchild of SpaceX and Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, Hyperloop is a transportation system that will move both goods and people through sealed tubes operating in a low pressure environment.

The driverless vehicles – or ‘pods’ – levitate slightly above the track on a cushion of air, allowing them to glide along at speeds promised to be ‘faster-than-airline’ over considerable distances. How fast and how far? The team behind one of the projects has claimed a Hyperloop journey from the Los Angeles region to the San Francisco Bay Area could be completed in as little as 35 minutes.

As an open source project (Musk has deemed himself too busy to run this one), a number of aspirant companies have thrown their hats into the ring to actually build Hyperloop systems. Perhaps the furthest down the track is Hyperloop One. The company has raised over $90m in funding to date, and has run a number of tests in the Mojave desert ahead of construction of their first proposed line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

With Dubai recently inviting pitches to build a prospective mass transit system based on Hyperloop, this is a technology that has a potentially global reach, and one that could make previously unworkable face-to-face meetings a commonplace occurrence.

While faster and cheaper versions of travel have obvious benefits, what if you never needed to be physically present to have the same experience of an in-person meeting? For those who wondered why Mark Zuckerberg spent $2 billion on Oculus in 2014, the answer is clear. Augmented reality and virtual reality (commonly referred to as AR/VR) are no longer just for gamers, now offering the ability to replicate the value of in-person interactions with the flip of a headset.

The technology advisory firm Digi-Capital estimates that the virtual reality market will grow to $30 billion by 2020 and for good reason. Everything from taking prospects to court side seats of the hottest game, to hosting international meetings from your home office may no longer require the current tradeoffs of time and money spent on travel, entertainment and meals to build deep and meaningful relationships. While this set of technologies may take months to years to perfect, smart sales management teams will keep their eyes on it and be poised to embrace it when the time comes.

 

Big Data, Networks & AI

It’s a phrase which has been doing the rounds for some years, yet for many companies, big data is still the Big Bad Wolf. GE’s Global Innovation Barometer 2016 identified that 61% of senior innovation executives now use big data to inform their decision-making, up from 53% in 2014. While certainly a step in the right direction, this means that four out of ten ‘innovation’ execs are still in the dark. What chance then for the rest of the C-suite who may not be so at home with such ideas?

It’s a concept that needs to be addressed sharply, given the increasing levels of sophistication with which data is now being processed. Market research firm IDC has forecasted a 50% increase in revenues from the sale of big data and business analytics software, hardware, and services by 2019. Big data is big business, and in the case of sales management teams, it’s often CRM that provides the key to untapping potential gains.

However, the statistics in sales tell a different story. Immense amounts of time wasted (some estimates as high as 80%), enormous turnover (upwards of 25%), missed targets and inaccurate, and buyers who have lost faith in the sales process. Figures from The Brevit Group stated only 13% of prospects believe that sellers understand their needs.

According to Heidi Messer, Co-founder and Chairperson of New York based Collective[i], that’s all about to change. “B2B sales management has been asked to do the impossible. It has had to guess what the buyer is thinking, manually input data, navigate through complex webs of decision making using only human gut, and be punished severely for outcomes that were in many cases, impossible to predict. What is striking about sales is the lack of science, and the absence of innovation designed to make executing easier. It’s miraculous what sales management leaders have done with so little.”

Messer’s view is that sales is about to undergo the same transformation the consumer world experienced over a decade ago. She believes it will all come down to networks, data and AI.

“The sales network will become the enterprise’s version of the social network, transforming everything as we know it.” Messer’s latest venture, Collective[i] (short for Collective Intelligence) is the leader in this trend. Offering applications built off of vast troves of sales data that incorporate Artificial Intelligence and Predictive Analytics, the company has mapped out the B2B buying graph to launch applications that enable personalized selling in a way never before possible.

Collective[i] combines the best of professional networks like LinkedIn and replaces the most resented aspects of CRM with applications that maximize the value of every action sales management, operations professional or representative makes. Messer and her co-founders (all world renowned technology entrepreneurs) enlisted the help of scientists from around the world to bring the science to selling.

As Messer says, “We thought sales had suffered long enough. Trying to gather intelligence about the buying process through a recruiting network like LinkedIn or a social network like Facebook and doing research on Google’s consumer network, wasn’t good enough so we set out to build tone for sales. Collective[i] came from our belief that it was time to build a world class network that combined data, artificial intelligence and analytics to make the job of selling easier, not filled with more tasks or uncertainty.”

Collective[i]’s focus on using a network to transform sales ignited a trend. As the foundation of all business development, maintaining a personal network is an essential skill for any line of work. For sales, it’s the lifeblood of the business. Although some of the rules of engagement may have changed in the digital age, networking is as fundamental as ever, and sales management teams will need to gear up quickly to take maximum value from the (often free) tools available today.

Collective[i]’s network for sales professionals, named Intelligence.com, has been in stealth mode but initial reports indicate that it may be the single most important advancement for sales yet.

Having been acquired by Microsoft in June of 2016 for over $26bn, LinkedIn has enjoyed considerable time in the spotlight of late, widely touted as the most strategically savvy deal done for the enterprise in decades. LinkedIn’s popularity shows no sign of slowing down, with total users for Q2 ‘16 quoted as in excess of 450m, up from 414m at the close of Q4 2015. Central to that popularity is a solid feature set that has brought networking and attracting new business into the digital arena.

Having had to cope with (and shed) its early image of ‘Facebook for boring people’, LinkedIn has evolved into a platform that aids maintaining links with prospective customers, clients, old colleagues, potential new hires, and just about any other contacts deemed valuable to your business network. Introductions to new contacts via the ‘shared connections’ feature allows you to ask someone in your wider network to connect, which might make that follow up call easier to execute than coming from out of nowhere, or attempting to build a relationship from cold.

For sales teams, LinkedIn’s combination of thought leadership availability, personal brand building, networking, and researching potential prospects makes it a powerful resource that should not be dismissed as just a digital resumé.

Where Collective[i] and LinkedIn offer AI built into a network of data, the companies lacking equivalent access to data have been focused on building it or, in the case of Salesforce, making marginal improvements to their existing technology using AI. IBM’s Watson Project has been quietly snapping up data sources, (like The Weather Company for $2B) in the hopes of having unique data sources from which to create intelligence.

Salesforce co-founder and CEO Marc Benioff, who is lacking a network (and who recently admitted that he was outmaneuvered by Microsoft with LinkedIn), is doubling down on technology through a slew of high profile acquisitions of AI related startups, including RelateIQ ($392m, 2014) and BeyondCore ($110m, 2016). The reason for the spending spree: the pursuit of the company’s own project, currently dubbed ‘Salesforce Einstein’.

The exact function of Einstein remains shrouded in mystery at the time of writing, but according to Forbes, much will be revealed before the end of 2016, most likely at this year’s Dreamforce conference. It’s likely that the project’s eventual ambition is to power Salesforce’s existing products for sales management, commerce, and marketing automation with the kind of advanced AI that will learn from the data it collects, and will be able to spot trends or flag potential pain points to human managers.

Whatever its eventual feature set turns out to be, Collective[i], Intelligence.com, Microsoft/LinkedIn, Watson and the Einstein project are all indicative that science is coming to sales management in the forms of networks of data, artificial intelligence and technology that promise to drastically improves the life of sales professionals and change the way sales teams operate forever.

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