When 2020 began, no-one could have predicted what was around the corner. COVID-19 swept the globe, affecting everyone. Naturally, this had a profound effect on businesses and sales teams and will continue to do so into 2021.
Already, sales managers are looking ahead to next year and anticipating what trends they can expect to see. How can sales teams prepare for the year to come? What sales processes are likely to change and what’s likely to remain the same?
We’ve analyzed the state of sales at the start of the year and researched how sales teams have reacted to the pandemic, identifying 11 sales trends that are set to continue into 2021 and beyond. By adapting your processes and procedures based on this sales trends analysis, you can be in the best position as we prepare for the new year.
Table of contents
- Increase in adoption of new technology
- Increase in training and skill development
- Changing incentives and compensation
- The challenge of prospecting and lead qualification
- Changes to the amount of time spent on sales
- A shift to remote work
- Budget cuts and layoffs
- Increased activity to make up pipeline shortfall
- Increased focus on digital channels
- Increase in relevant messaging
- The new normal?
Increase in adoption of new technology
In response to the current crisis, it’s only to be expected that companies are looking for different ways to cut costs and remain profitable. In spite of this, many sales managers are still willing to spend money when it comes to new tools and technology that can improve their team's performance. Sales trends analysis carried out by Aberdeen revealed that 78% of companies are continuing or increasing their spend on new and existing technology.
This sales trend of companies adopting technology covers a wide range of services. Our Pipedrive State of Sales Report 2019-2020 found that 84% of respondents relied on a CRM for selling, while LinkedIn’s State of Sales report revealed a 54% increase in the use of sales intelligence tools since 2018.
However, while more companies are willing to invest in sales technology, there are still those who rely on more traditional solutions. For example, while the majority rely on a CRM, there are still 11% of salespeople who are using pen and paper to track sales, according to our survey results.
While there has been a massive increase in the use of sales intelligence tools, that still only represents 43% of salespeople. When it comes to sourcing leads—one of the biggest challenges in sales—only 51% are using any kind of technology or automation. In other words, while more companies are making use of the latest technology, it's still not common-place and there’s lots of room for further growth in 2021.
Of course, the big question is whether following this sales industry trend is worth it. When companies around the world are cutting costs, is it a smart time to invest in new technology? Well, our State of Sales report found that the use of tools improved sales across all metrics.
For example, people who use a CRM tool for sales were 9% more likely to have hit their annual sales target and were also more likely to be more satisfied in their role. For happier and more successful sales teams, adopting the right tech is a great place to start.
Increase in training and skill development
Some people believe selling is an innate talent; you’ve either got it, or you don’t. As a result, there’s traditionally been a lack of sales training, with new hires thrown into the deep-end and expected to fend for themselves. For many salespeople, as we revealed in our report, the only training they’ll ever have is on the job.
While some undoubtedly have a natural gift for sales, like any other skill, it can be taught and improved. It’s now easier than ever for both sales managers and salespeople to access high-quality sales training, in many cases for free, and to improve their sales process.
This doesn’t just apply to specific sales training. Salespeople who regularly work on improving their soft skills and developing highly effective traits—such as relationship management and communication—are more likely to consider themselves successful. They’re also 7% more likely to have hit their sales targets, so the companies who are investing in training their sales teams are likely to see a positive ROI.
With the increased availability of training and a greater awareness of the benefits, companies are likely to put a greater emphasis on sales and soft skill training in order to retain their competitive edge in 2021.
Changing incentives and compensation
According to our survey results published in our report, the most common pay structure for salespeople is base salary with commission, accounting for 38% of those involved in sales. It’s also the most common pay structure among those who consider themselves successful, as they are provided with an incentive for better performance. However, those results were from the beginning of the year and, although they still ring true, a lot has changed since then. How has the pandemic affected the way salespeople are compensated?
Companies have been forced to introduce new policies and procedures to deal with the situation, coming to grips with sudden and monumental changes to the way they do business. Everyone knows they need to adapt, but many aren’t sure how. While it might be tempting to lower costs and cut back on incentives, it’s also vital to keep sales teams productive and motivated. With no rule book available with best practice for this situation, we’ve seen companies react with drastically different responses.
For example, McKinsey reported that more than 80% of B2B companies had adjusted their incentives for sales teams as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but what those adjustments actually looked like varied considerably. For example, 30% of the companies surveyed had lowered quotas, but 20% increased them.
Either way, as the situation develops and companies see their results change, we’re likely to see further adjustments as we seek to redress the balance. Lower quotas will inevitably rise again as companies chase growth, and higher quotas will fall to keep hold of key talent.
The challenge of prospecting and lead qualification
Sales isn’t an easy job. It’s full of challenges and, according to the sales trends analysis section in our study, the biggest of those challenges is prospecting and lead qualification. In fact, 34% of the people we interviewed anticipated it would be the biggest challenge in 2020. Even with the easy access to information that we have today, finding leads and checking that they’re the right fit for your product or service is hard work.
As 2020 has progressed, it’s fair to say that lead generation has become more challenging. Overnight, people’s priorities changed and budgets were slashed. Buyer personas and ICPs from January 2020 are now hopelessly outdated. As a result, we’re seeing a need for improved targeting.
As people readjust, it seems inevitable that many will try and solve this by resorting to spray-and-pray techniques—trying to target anyone with a pulse—but this has always been an inferior approach. As mentioned previously, only half of sales representatives are using technology to source their leads, despite the wide availability of tools. By taking advantage of technology to focus efforts on those prospects who are a perfect fit, companies can make the most of their sales enablement and marketing resources.
Changes to the amount of time spent on sales
According to the sales trends analysis section of our report, salespeople are working seriously long hours. In fact, it’s quite common for them to work through their evenings and weekends, often without any additional compensation. This is particularly true for sales managers, 68% of whom work more than 40 hours a week on average.
Ironically, despite regularly working long hours, only 62% of salespeople—that’s excluding sales managers and business owners—said they spend most of their time selling. That means 38% of people in sales were spending more time on auxiliary activities than actually selling.
However, with the increased adoption of technology, savvy salespeople will be able to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to take care of more of the mundane tasks, freeing up their time for high-touch sales activities. As a result, we should see more salespeople spending more of their time on sales.
A shift to remote work
Remote work certainly isn’t a new trend, but 2020 is the year it went from being a nice perk to a critical part of work and essential to many businesses’ survival. At the start of the year, our State of Sales report showed 23% of people in sales worked from home. By March, with large portions of the world in lockdown, McKinsey reported 90% of B2B sellers were working remotely, either by video-conferencing or phone. In some sectors, such as technology and media, the figure was close to 100%.
Will this trend continue after lockdown? Although many workers are now slowly returning to their office cubicle, there are a growing number of companies who are promising that working from home will be an option going forward. Tech companies have led the charge, with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey going as far as saying that staff will never have to enter an office again if they don't want to.
There are still questions about the long-term effects of a remote-first model, but the advantages of lower costs and access to a worldwide talent pool mean that remote selling is one online sales trend that’s here for the long haul.
Budget cuts and layoffs
The global economy has been hit hard this year, with many countries experiencing record numbers of unemployment. As a result, companies are generally reducing spend and cutting costs wherever they can and, in some cases, this has meant letting salespeople go.
When Tenbound released their research into the impact of the pandemic on B2B SaaS sales development organizations, they reported that 20.8% of companies had laid off some of their SDRs. However, even where layoffs haven’t happened yet, 61.1% of respondents were still concerned about potential layoffs in the future.
While salespeople may be working harder to prove their value, it’s difficult to imagine how they can be effective if they’re worried about their job. To help ease these concerns, it’s vital that sales managers take the time to regularly communicate with their teams to keep them motivated and engaged. Encourage them to share how they’re doing and how they’re coping with all the changes.
These are challenging times for everyone, so be empathetic and ensure they’re kept up to date on any changes. For example, why not prioritize internal communication with your sales teams? This approach to communication will enable your sales team to work effectively and confidently, despite the circumstances.
Increased activity to make up pipeline shortfall
Many companies are now feeling the pinch, as pipelines from the start of the year have now either been closed or dried up and the difficulties facing prospectors in Q2 have now led to empty pipelines for Q3. TOPO’s Coronavirus Impact survey found that 72% of respondents anticipate at least a 20% decrease in their pipelines, while 30% of respondents said pipeline shortfall is anticipated to be over 40%.
When the pandemic first hit, many salespeople reacted by reducing the number of calls made and emails sent each day. For example, Tenbound’s study reported that 36.5% of SDRs reduced their number of daily dials, 30.8% reduced the number of daily emails and 38.5% reduced the number of cadences/sequences.
It was an understandable reaction in view of the situation, but for companies to remain in business they need to take control and manage their sales pipeline. While the channels and messaging almost certainly need to change, that doesn’t mean sales activity has to drop. Rather, activity needs to be maintained or even increased in order to make up for the shortfall.
According to Gartner’s report on CSO Actions in Response to COVID-19, which was last updated in mid-June, one CSO notes that, “Right now you have the 'air cover' to make some big moves. If there has ever been a chance to reshape an organization, now is the time.”
Reexamining your core sales processes and activities is key in order to maintain a competitive advantage in this new climate. Rather than continue to operate an old model that isn’t fit to the new terrain, it’s important to adapt, innovate and reshape your foundations, need be.
Increased focus on digital channels
As well as changing where we work, coronavirus has had an inevitable impact on how we work and, in particular, how we sell. The last few years have seen the start of some interesting online sales trends.
McKinsey found that sales leaders now rated digital channels twice as important compared to before the outbreak. Companies who are able to create an omnichannel sales experience, where multiple different channels are used to reach out to prospects, will benefit the most.
What digital channels are the most effective? McKinsey’s survey of B2B decision-makers found they rated live chat as the most beneficial channel for researching and considering suppliers, up 93% compared to 2019. Pipedrive users can currently get Live Chat added to their website as part of the LeadBooster add-on. The perceived benefits of posts on social media were up 85% over last year, while text messages from sales reps were up 70%.
As these channels have exploded in popularity, others have fallen sharply. Unsurprisingly, meeting sales reps in person—the most popular method of researching suppliers in 2019—fell by 47%. Trade shows also fell by 57% and it seems unlikely we’ll see any significant trade shows or in-person events before 2021. While many of the big names have managed to pivot to digital events, it remains to be seen if these will continue to be as popular when people are logging in from home.
Increase in relevant messaging
Buyers want to be heard. LinkedIn’s State of Sales report found that ‘active listening’ is the most valued attribute in a salesperson, according to buyers. For sales managers though, it didn’t even make the top five.
But while salespeople have traditionally been seen as pushy, some are re-evaluating how they interact with prospects. The seller/customer relationship is more important than ever, with top sellers seen as trusted consultants that can be relied on in difficult times. As a result, sales teams are paying more attention to long-term goals, such as customer experience and retention. This is reflected in the messaging that salespeople use, such as increased personalization, which is even more important in 2020.
Tenbound’s report found that 75% of SDRs were using new messaging as a result of the pandemic. As potential customers have vastly different pain points and priorities from a few months ago, salespeople have to make sure the messaging they use is in line with those changes. As further changes happen on a near-daily basis, successful salespeople will regularly revisit their messaging in the coming year, ensuring it always matches the conversation their prospects are having.
The new normal?
While we've seen a lot of changes already this year, it’s important to ask whether these changes are just a blip, or whether they represent a fundamental shift in sales. Will the sales industry go back to the way things were, or is this the new normal? What sales industry trends can we expect to see in 2021?
The answer depends on how effective these changes have been. If the results of these sales trends have been positive, despite the economic uncertainties, it makes sense that the changes will become permanent. The McKinsey survey reported that 65% of B2B decision-makers rated their new sales model as equally or more effective, compared to their previous models. Interestingly, this represents an ongoing increase in the perceived effectiveness, up from 60% in early April.
As a result, it’s likely these changes will be around for a while. 79% were either somewhat or very likely to sustain their shifts for more than 12 months after COVID-19, meaning this new normal will still be around in 2021.
While many of these changes couldn’t have even been imagined at the start of the year, many of them represent sales industry trends that have been growing for some time. The shifts to new sales tools and technology, remote selling and digital channels have been on the horizon for a while, and have merely been sped up by the coronavirus.
Nick Toman, chief of research for the Gartner Sales practice, says that innovative practices that address unique challenges are key in a COVID-19 world.
“Well-developed but flexible plans that help the business evolve, to shifts in customer behaviors, and related impacts on sales team morale will be critical in providing clearer points of engagement for customers, partners and sales teams alike,” he says.
While the economic repercussions are still being felt, they’re also forcing sales managers and their teams to think more carefully about their methods, encouraging them to focus on relationship building and refining their message.
As a result, we can expect salespeople to show the same resilience they always have and continue to be the core of successful businesses in 2021.