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Salespeople and the CRMs they use are going away

Death of a Sales Force

By Chris Smith  |  Co-founder of Curaytor

Salespeople and the CRMs they use are going away. They will die a swift death, and due to self-inflicted wounds.

Two years ago, I wrote the book on sales for the internet era. It made the USA Today, Amazon, and Audible bestseller lists and has been released in countries all over the world. Now I’m going to explain why sales is dying, why the terms "salesperson" and "CRM" (Customer Relationship Manager) will soon cease to exist, and why the people holding the smoking gun will be Salesforce themselves.

My “life” as a salesman

I tried to start a business with a friend when I was in my early twenties. It failed. I found myself living back at my parents’ house at the age of twenty-five with a car that barely started, without a penny to my name. Like many who get into sales, I had no other option. I found a company that was hiring in Orlando, Florida called Fashion Rock. It was owned by boy band mogul Lou Pearlman, the man who discovered The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears, so I was pretty excited for the opportunity!

The only way I can describe the environment at Fashion Rock is to have you imagine if Glengarry Glen Ross, Boiler Room, and The Wolf of Wall Street had a ménage à trois. After I quit, I found out my first sales coach had actually been arrested on telemarketing fraud charges back in the ’80s. His boss was Lou, who owned the entire organization. Lou ended up dying in prison several years after being convicted of conspiracy and money laundering related to a massive Ponzi scheme.

Their sales scripts were super shady and the people I worked alongside seemed like they averaged about a felony and a half each. We were the scum of the earth and often treated accordingly. One day, instead of the usual fifteen-minute sales huddle where our manager would fire us up, he walked into the room carrying a list of names. “If you hear your name, you still have a job. If you don’t, you have five minutes to turn in your badge and leave the building.”

Half the people in the room heard their names called… and half didn’t. Tears flowed and anger ensued, but the badges were promptly turned in and those who went uncalled left the building. When our boss emerged to wrap up his “lesson” for those of us that remained, he drew a square on his chalkboard. He said, “I know a lot of those people were your friends and your family, but I need you to know one thing: I didn’t fire any of them. They all fired themselves by not hitting their numbers.”

He told us that a few of them had come to his office to beg for their jobs, saying they had valid reasons for missing their quota. One of the people he fired was pregnant, another had a child who was ill. But he still fired them because, “When I look at your production each month, the square on our spreadsheet is only large enough for your numbers. Excuses don’t fit. Now get back on the goddamn phones.”

My next job in phone sales wasn’t nearly as shady, but the hours were so intense that, even while making good money, I burned out after eighteen months. 7:30am to 7:30pm days were fairly normal and I was expected to work a half day on either Saturday or Sunday each weekend. One hundred or more dials a day was the bar. On a good day, I would speak to about ten people, but only two or three would actually hear me out for the full thirty-minute pitch. The other seven or eight pretty much told me to fuck off and hung up right away. Some generously spent a few additional seconds telling me what they really thought of salespeople like me. And I was one of my company’s top reps.

Two to three conversations over a twelve hour period means you are simply “smiling and dialing” for about eight or nine hours. It. Is. Not. Fun. But hey, “Getting through all the noes just means you are closer to a yes.” The data backs up the misery: “It takes an average of 18 calls to actually connect with a buyer.” So for every 100 dials, 5 lead to conversations, 95 lead nowhere.

Then I tried outside sales and made even more money. And gained even more weight. And became a shittier husband. And an even less-existent father. Sure, I was Platinum with Delta, sat first class, and stayed at fancy hotels all over the world, but I was coal with my own family, a second-rate person to be around, and many nights slept on the couch in my own home.

The death of the salesmen

Having met so many others who sell during my career, I know that I was not alone in my despair. What is really frustrating for those of us who end up being good at sales (and don’t mind putting up with the stress and the grind) is that there are so many who are not that have ruined our reputation regardless.

No one wants to speak to a salesperson. No one wants to be transferred to sales. No one wants to be ripped off by a “snake oil salesman.”

But even “snake oil” didn’t start off as a scam. In fact, according to NPR, “snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis.” Chinese railroad workers shared the oil with their American counterparts in the mid-19th century. Back then snake oil was legit snake oil, rich in the omega-3 acids.

So how did it get such a bad rap? “The origins of snake oil as a derogatory phrase trace back to the latter half of the 19th century. Often sold on the back pages of newspapers, these tonics promised to cure a wide variety of ailments including chronic pain, headaches, ‘female complaints’ and kidney trouble. In time, all of these false "cures" began to be referred to as ‘snake oil’.”

What the fuck?! Salespeople didn’t create “snake oil” - marketers did! But it doesn’t matter. Our name is ruined nonetheless. Our legacy is set. Our tombstones have been written. Salespeople are the scum of the earth and any good product should sell itself. We are forever defined as both unnecessary and unethical.

In the words of an online troll who called me out recently, “A baboon can sell an honest product or service. If you see a silver-tongued salesman, politely avoid them as they are probably trying to swindle to fill their pockets. A good sale doesn’t need a pitch. People will see it and know it’s a good buy. For those who are gullible, the salesperson’s approach was designed.”

By the way, I sell amazing software that our customers love and I am by almost anyone's definition of very successful. But it does not matter. I am still simply a snake oil salesman to the masses and there is nothing I (or you) can ever do to change that fact.

The actual death of salesmen

It isn’t just our reputation that died, though. Sales is literally killing us. The suicide rate of salespeople is higher than the rest of the workforce. Drug and alcohol abuse among salespeople is a poorly kept secret. Divorce rates amongst salespeople are way higher than other lines of work. Work/life balance often does not exist.

For inside sales reps working the long hours I used to, sitting at a desk all day is also literally killing them. In a recent study, CDC researchers sought to better understand cardiovascular disease risk by profession. Their study of over 5000 people found a higher prevalence of smoking, poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and a greater risk of heart disease in sales, office, and administrative support staff.

I won’t bore you with the details of my old eating habits, but let’s just say I should have bought stock in Monster energy drinks and Little Debbie. 

Even worse, drug and alcohol abuse by salespeople is the stuff of legend. But it’s no myth; it’s a fact. According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, over 10% of sales professionals abuse illicit drugs and nearly that many have a serious problem with alcohol. I can’t remember ever taking a drug test to get a sales job, but I do remember doing a lot of drugs while I worked in sales. I never used drugs on the clock, but many did. To be completely honest, Adderall and cocaine were almost as normal as drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes were in my profession.

The death of outside sales

When you sit in a call center cubicle hardly making any guaranteed money without any benefits, it’s easy for your boss to keep you around - even if you barely produce. Companies with large inside sales forces typically hire a ton of people, knowing that most will burn out or just not be any good at the job. But if they can find a few diamonds in the rough, the model works in the long run. The typical end result is that 20% of the reps sell 80% of the stuff. So if you hire ten people and eight of them quit, but two are rockstars, the system “works”. The problem is the eight that suck are why we got to the place we did. The 80% who sell 20% of the stuff have ruined 100% of our reputations.

But here’s the thing: in outside sales, the cost to maintain an employee is so high (more base, expense account, travel costs, better benefits) that the inside sales approach doesn’t work. You can’t spray and pray as a recruiting strategy in outside sales. You need that rep to work out. But most still don’t for all of the reasons I have outlined so far. And when outside sales isn’t working, you have to pull the plug or you’ll go way too deep into the red as a company.

Unfortunately for many “belly-to-belly” salespeople, their skills don’t translate to inside sales. Basically, face-to-face sales guys aren’t always good on the phone. This is due to how human beings communicate. Body language is 55% of how people understand one another. Take that away and it cripples most people’s ability to close over the phone. Once you are doing inside sales it all comes down to your tone over the phone, which accounts for 38% of how humans communicate. Ironically, even the perfect sales script doesn’t really move the needle. Because the words in them only account for 7% of how we understand one another.

And even if you do still find an outside sales job, too bad. Because according to a study by Dr. James Oldroyd, “even those who were hired as outside reps conduct 40 percent of their selling over the phone.”

So outside sales is clearly dying fast. But inside sales is right behind it. Because all salespeople are going away. And so is their CRM...

The death of the closer

The digital revolution, led by the internet and social media, has created unprecedented opportunities around the globe. But be careful what you wish for: consumers are now insanely empowered and knowledgeable, meaning that salespeople, due to information being less of a commodity, often simply have to avoid messing up a sale that marketing has already made. This truly consultative and hand-holding approach doesn’t always mesh well with the “fastball” salespeople of the past who would beat you up to get you to buy rather than go deep on whether or not you should.

Now imagine if the public knew before they called how bad your sales reps actually were. Imagine if they knew that they were (almost) all brand new and “faking it until they made it”. What if after every call, your reps were rated 1-5 stars? What if before every call, someone could choose the experience level of their representative? Would anyone every request a two-star rep with two weeks’ experience? Doubtful.

This is already happening thanks to companies like Yelp in the food industry and Zillow in the real estate space. Anyone who uses those services before purchasing avoids anything less than three stars like the plague. When I’m on the road, I won’t eat at a place unless it has four-stars or more. Sorry, not sorry. And good luck hiring someone who hasn’t already checked out Glassdoor before applying for or accepting a job.

Consumers have changed. Forrester researcher Andy Hoar’s study shows that 68% of B2B consumers prefer to do their research online, while 60% outright say they prefer not to speak to a salesperson during the process - that’s huge! I’ve said “never cold call again” but before long it won’t even be possible. Now our reps must be experts, not salespeople. When someone is close to buying the first time you speak to them, it changes everything about the interaction. They ask more advanced questions and get super turned off by “qualifying” questions - they’ve already qualified themselves by becoming a lead in the first place. Sales reps are still starting their scripts on their own one yard line when the customer is already halfway down the field.

That is exactly why 61% of sales reps actually find it harder to sell now than they did 5 years ago. I guess all that coaching and those CRM plug-ins and shiny new mobile apps and “social selling” tools and that access to big data didn’t help as much as Silicon Valley led us to believe it would. Just look at the disconnect between what buyers want to talk about on the first call and what sales reps do. The customer wants to talk about pricing and how the product works. But the reps still want to talk about “needs” and “goals” and “timelines” for purchasing. Wake up! Read this again please: The customer wants to talk about pricing and how the product works. Isn’t this mecca? Doesn’t that mean marketing finally did their freaking jobs and the leads want to start with buying questions around price and how what you sell works. Maybe the leads don’t suck...maybe we do.

When a species doesn’t adapt and change fast enough, it becomes extinct. According to Andy Hoar, out of 4.5 million B2B sales professionals today, one million jobs will be displaced by 2020. It’s the beginning of the end - an end we brought upon ourselves thanks to arrogance, greed, and the unwillingness to free ourselves from old-school coaching and methodologies.

Alec Baldwin’s performance in Glengarry Glen Ross is arguably the most famous sales-centric scene ever filmed. It sums up perfectly the sleaze that is sales with dialogue like, “Only one thing counts in this life: get them to sign on the line which is dotted.” If you know the rest of the monologue, you know it only gets worse. While it may be entertaining to watch him perform, it’s certainly uncomfortable in 2018. But watching him give a very problematic R-rated tongue-lashing to three grizzled sales veterans, you can’t help but feel sorry for them. Bunch of losers -- lifelong losers, at that.

No wonder Willy Loman killed himself.

No wonder Willy Loman killed himself. It feels like half of a salesperson’s job is to apologize for other salespeople.

All of this is why the death of the sales force is going to happen. At scale. Soon. Because there is a tech geek out there who felt burned by a fast-talking salesperson and is going to make it their life's mission to eliminate the need for salespeople. And there are millions of former sales reps who so badly want (and deserve) a better reputation and life for themselves.

Venture capitalists are going to help them take us down.

Consumers are going to get behind them ending our existence. 

And technology (including artificial intelligence) is going to make all of this a reality sooner than later.

Don’t believe me? Watch Google’s Assistant make a phone call. Per Google, “The Google Duplex system is capable of carrying out sophisticated conversations and it completes the majority of its tasks fully autonomously, without human involvement. The system has a self-monitoring capability, which allows it to recognize the tasks it cannot complete autonomously (e.g., scheduling an unusually complex appointment). In these cases, it signals to a human operator, who can complete the task.” This is how it starts…

Don’t believe a change this massive can happen overnight? 

How many emails do you send your co-workers since Slack came out? 

How many times have you used Internet Explorer since Google Chrome came out? 

How many Blackberrys have you owned since the iPhone came out? 

How many times have you been to Blockbuster since Netflix came out? 

Should I keep going?

We live in an era filled with disruption. As famed venture capitalist Marc Andreessen so famously said, “software is eating the world”.

Do you really think that transportation (Uber), tourism (Airbnb) and finance (Bitcoin) were all susceptible to massive disruption but the Lacrosse bros who call leads over at Hubspot aren’t? 

The only reason salespeople still exist is because consumers do not have another choice. They will, though. And the bottom 80% of the industry will swiftly be eliminated. Leaving only the best of the best to work “hand in hand” with AI and technology that’s capable of doing better work for more people than the old model ever could. While this change will be scary for most organizations, it will also be therapeutic -- no one in their right mind really likes the current churn-and-burn model anyways.

The concern over AI in the workplace is usually over technology overtaking humans. But that's missing the point: the real battle is for quality control and consistency. The enemy is mediocrity and old tactics. Those who make the cut will win big, but they will also need a new job title, new training, and new tools.

Earlier I mentioned that no one wants to speak to a salesperson. No one wants to be “transferred to sales.” This is why language truly matters and we need an industry-wide verbiage change. No one wants to speak to a Salesperson, but everyone wants to speak to an Expert -- especially an enthusiastic expert on the product, customer, company, and industry.

The death of Salesforce

In 1986, ACT! released the world’s first CRM (customer relationship manager). It was your database, digitized. Before people used technology to manage their contacts, they used some pretty old school methods like shoe boxes filled with scribbled-on index cards, “little black books” and rolodexes that sat on your desk, ready to flip through when you need someone’s information. 

The purpose of CRM was simple back then: to help someone manage multiple relationships at the same time by building a reservoir of information about each of them. Between 1986 and 1999, when Salesforce launched and eventually became the “kleenex” of CRMs, most of the major players in Silicon Valley got involved in the space. 

The digital revolution, combined with tons of venture capital, quickly enabled useful innovations to our CRMs like adding notes, tags, tasks, lists, calendar syncing, connecting online lead sources, lead routing, lead scoring, action plans, drip email campaigns, SMS messages, user tracking, accountability dashboards, profile enrichment, advanced analytics, limitless integrations and automation galore. There are CRMs focused on the enterprise that are web-based and operate in the cloud with industry-centric features and social media add-ons. Some even offer amazing mobile applications.

So how did all of that innovation translate into more business? It didn’t. In fact, for most, the average lead conversion rates in B2B and B2C are still below 1%. Just like direct mail. Just like door knocking. Just like spraying and praying… In other words, our CRMs became towers of babel. Topheavy games of Jenga blended with the neverending feeling of Tetris. You can’t win. You can’t finish. They did not move the needle.  

No wonder the most effective tool a rep has, as reported by actual sales reps, is their phone. Not their CRM. 

In fact, converting leads is so hard that my in-depth book about the topic, The Conversion Code, was an instant bestseller and has already been translated all over the globe. I get emails from salespeople every single week thanking me for helping them increase their conversion rates and their income. But here’s the sad reality about my book: even though it’s the best way ever taught to do it, that way that is 100% going away.

Tactics like, “Call every lead in less than 5 minutes, call every lead at least six times, if someone does not answer call again right away (double dial), use a script, gain control over the caller using pattern interrupt, pitch them using Feature/Benefit/Tie-Down and then Acknowledge, Respond, and Close around their objections” when explained to anyone but a salesperson feels insanely SLIMY. But it “works”. And again, there was not a better way in the 1980s when many of these techniques were developed and perfected. By people like my old boss Lou Pearlman and “The Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort…

Calling leads and getting them to actually hear you out is so hard that a whole new job title has been widely adopted (ironically, the method was pioneered by a guy while working at Salesforce). SDRs (sales development reps) now wade through the piles of garbage in our CRMs and the new leads coming in to find the needles in the haystack so that the “real” salespeople can maintain a positive mindset and laser focus on pitching and closing pre-qualified prospects. SDRs (sometimes also referred to as ISAs or inside sales assistants) should not exist. If CRMs had gotten it right, companies who actually have great products and are great at marketing would have NEVER needed this role. It is one of those jobs that will soon go away because it should have never even existed in the first place.

Not only do people hire ISAs to work for them in-house, they even hire ISA companies who completely manage this laborious task for them because it is so hard to find, train, and maintain quality people who make such low wages for difficult, neverending tasks. Companies are even willing to outsource their “sales force” to the Philippines or India where the reps don’t even speak English as their first language. But hey, it sure beats YOU getting hung up on or being told to “fuck off” all day. We keep these roles in the dark because we are too embarrassed to admit they exist in the light. This is an unsustainable approach that hurts the people who actually wanted to buy. Think about it: we have literally constructed our systems, processes, and people we hire KNOWING they will fail 99% of the time.

Think about it: we have literally constructed our systems and processes KNOWING they will fail 99% of the time.

In fact, Zillow now contacts all of the leads themselves before even passing them along to the local agent who paid for that lead! Why? Because they know that even if they do call or text the lead and use a proven script, most of them won’t convert. Without a real estate license, the reps from Zillow are not even allowed to talk about local real estate, which is the only reason the lead actually filled out the form. Instead they get a phone call from an ISA, whose only goal is to set an appointment for the agent so that they can provide the actual answers to their questions at that time. 

This lead handoff technique also creates what is known as a “demand waterfall”. With each added pass of the baton (from marketing to the ISA to the sales rep to the contract sent to the contract signed), the likelihood of someone dropping it increases.

So why, with all of the innovation around CRM, is the conversion rate still so low?

1. Dunbar’s Number

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, discovered that the size of a primate’s brain directly correlates to their capacity to maintain a social circle. Basically: the larger our brains, the more people we can remember or have a meaningful relationship with. His research determined that for humans, our magic number is 150. Log into your CRM and look at how many leads are assigned to each sales rep. Often the number can be in the thousands or even tens of thousands, plus there are new leads coming in every single day. This creates anxiety, this creates doubt, this creates paralysis. You also have to factor in that salespeople, contrary to popular belief, are actually people. They have friends, family members, significant others, and colleagues at work that they give attention to (at least they did before they got into sales). When you subtract those everyday human relationships from Dunbar’s 150, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for a “pipeline”. By drowning our sales reps in lists and leads, we have created an environment where they cannot genuinely care about, build a relationship with, or deeply focus on any of them.

2. 90% or more of your existing CRM will not buy anything from you this year. 

Because we have been taught to always grow our databases and to always be generating leads for our business, the “rollover” leads each year have risen to an all-time high. This makes it incredibly difficult to focus on the legitimate buyers. As a byproduct, reps have become conditioned to prioritize new leads over old ones. Meanwhile, all of my research shows me that the best leads are seasoned and have been engaged for some time BEFORE they buy. So why do reps focus so much more on new leads than leads that are older? Because a new lead brings with it a four letter word: HOPE. I hope this lead is good. I hope they answer. I hope they don’t hang up on me. I hope they qualify. I hope they buy. When a lead is older, it has already inevitably ignored many of your follow-up attempts, thus crushing your hope. Also, most “lead alerts” that come from CRMs are focused on a new lead that came in, incentivizing this desperate behavior to a point of no return.

3. 97% of the people who use your website are voyeurs, not shoppers.

Take Zillow for example: they love to brag about their 188 million unique visitors each month, but only 5 million homes are sold each year. Meaning, 183 million of their visitors are casually browsing at best. This same logic likely applies to your website. You might do a great job building up your traffic and brand name like Zillow has, but it doesn’t always mean that you will capture more qualified leads.

4. CRM is slow, ugly, text-based, and complicated in a world where people are used to fast, beautiful, visual, and simple.

And even though there are countless CRM options, they all do the exact same thing. They also all require complex set up, endless and ongoing training, and online wikis or helpdesks that are often overwhelming. We currently live in a world where 2 billion people wake up and use social media every day without any help or training. On the exact same planet, millions of salespeople wake up and hate using their CRM so much that they would rather grab a pen and paper or use a whiteboard to track their leads and sales.

5. Most CRM features were built for managers and marketers, not for the sales guy who just wants to convert more leads. 

CRM has become way too focused on maintenance and not nearly focused enough on making contact. Much of the functionality inside today’s CRMs actually enable inaction. It’s all reporting and analytics. They’ve shoved a ton of extra features in that aren’t for the salesperson. And the influx of focus on marketing tools has impacted CRMs like Salesforce in a big way, negatively. It’s no wonder Infusionsoft is often affectionately referred to as Confusionsoft. 

Sadly, most of the features CRMs have are necessary. Necessary evils, but neccessary nonetheless. I’m not anti-CRM, but I am pro-killing the excessive weight of CRM. And I do not think that is possible in the way CRMs are currently constructed.

The only way to save the CRM is to connect something better to it and leave all the excess under the hood where it belongs...

I think the only way to save the CRM is to connect something better to it and leave all the excess under the hood where it belongs and pull from it only the info we need, about the people we want, in the moment it matters. Nothing more, nothing less.

The disconnect between the managers and developers who request and build new features in CRMs and the salespeople who actually have to use them is a huge problem. It was the case when I worked at Top Producer. Their Vancouver-based software engineers had no idea what the actual day-to-day of a real estate agent looked like. It’s an issue I fight to avoid now at my own company. We have developers who have never sold anything day-to-day. It’s important Sorry Dharmesh, you can’t just put a teddy bear at the conference table and call it a customer in the room. When you are a billionaire for more than a decade, it’s impossible not to lose touch with people in cubicles dialing for dollars. You might wind up with the tallest tower in San Francisco (which Salesforce did indeed recently build), but all those floors between the boardroom and the boiler room add up.

The death of the feud between marketing and sales

Marketing and sales often hate each other as much as consumers hate both of them. Sales says the leads suck, Alec Baldwin says you suck, blah blah blah. It is a tale as old as time. Ultimately, it’s a battle over credit. So who should get credit when a sale is made? BOTH.

The fastest way to go from content to conversions is not a CRM, though. Too bloated. The normal coaching in marketing is that once you publish you have to distribute your content. Which is true! But why? Because you should be able to publish and then get paid.

Creating great content, running great ads, and sending great emails can have a huge ROI. But like most, I want to KNOW that my marketing works and exactly who it is working on. So why not have your sales team start their day on your website and choose a recent blog post or your beautiful sales page or your compelling testimonials page that marketing created and start by following up with just their leads that visited those? It would be pretty hard for a salesperson to doubt that your marketing works if the way they find the leads they close is through the marketing funnel itself.

With all of the technological advancements made in marketing, it should be crystal clear that it is working (or not) at all times. You should never guess about that again. If you are, you are doing it wrong and you are behind the curve. Why shouldn’t that influence your sales strategy? You should never cold call again. You should never bother someone who isn't interested again.

Basically, stop chasing ambulances and start being the doctor.

What now?

Here is my challenge to everyone reading this:

Why not build a system catered to the 1% of people who will buy rather than forever invent better ways to annoy the 99% who aren’t?

Why not empower the top 20% of your sales reps with all the leads and lay the bottom 80% off? 

Why not rename salespeople “Experts”?

Why not stop using Customer Relationship Managers and start using Conversion Managers? 

Why not stop selling snake oil?

Why not burn the ship?

Why not bury the past and smile at its funeral? 

I’ll be in the front row and will happily deliver the eulogy.

I believe there's a better way to sell.

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