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The Evolution of Sales
Selling has been a part of our existence since the dawn of time.
It's easy to imagine two hunter-gatherer tribes, one with an abundance of fish and the other with an abundance of root vegetables, working out a deal with each other.
This is the essence of sales.
The ability to exchange a commodity that you have an excess of for something you desire – that’s all sales is. However, this has taken many different forms over our evolution, and the process of selling has evolved along with it.
In recent times, the sales process has been shaped by the growth of new technologies, the ever-changing consumer behaviors, and the growing need for businesses to stay competitive.
In my recent conversation with Jake Dunlap, co-founder of Skaled, we talked briefly about sales, the history of sales, where we are now in the industry, and where we’re headed.
This inspired me to do a deep dive into how the sales process has changed over time, how that can help us predict what’s coming in the future, and some overall tips and tricks to stay ahead of the curve in 2023.
This is a fascinating topic, with a lot of great insights, so let’s get right into it!
The Early Days (1950s-1990s)
Without getting too bogged down in the details, it’s important to have a quick history lesson. As Robert Kiyosaki said, “The best way to predict the future is to study the past.”
The 1950s was a blooming time economically in many parts of the world, and salesmen were doing very well.
They focused on traditional methods such as in-person meetings, door-to-door sales, and print advertising. Cold calling was a common practice, and salespeople would often have to rely on their charm and persuasion skills to close deals.
Believe it or not, during this time, many salespeople would actually carry around physical catalogs of their products and would spend much of their time meeting with potential customers face-to-face. Their process relied almost completely on their personality and being able to build rapport with their potential customers.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of television and the beginning of mass media started to change everything. This brought new opportunities for businesses to reach a larger audience.
TV and radio commercials became an important part of the sales process, and businesses began to invest a lot more into advertising and marketing efforts.
Interestingly enough, the sales process itself didn’t change all that much, and the focus stayed on in-person meetings and traditional methods.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of technology, and with it, new opportunities for businesses to streamline their sales efforts bloomed. The introduction of computers and the widespread use of the telephone changed the game forever.
The ease of getting in touch with customers and closing deals was something that had never been seen before. The use of telemarketing and direct mail also started taking over the more traditional methods.
The emergence of the Internet marked a turning point in the sales process, as businesses could now reach a global audience through online channels. However, it was still a time of phonebooks and yellow pages; the internet was just starting to be used for finding information, so online selling wasn’t blossoming yet.
Online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay had just started to peak their heads up, and businesses were beginning to quietly experiment with digital marketing techniques like email marketing and online advertising.
But still, the sales process stayed focused on more traditional methods, with salespeople staying focused on in-person meetings and cold calling. No one really understood what the internet was capable of yet, so it wasn’t a primary tool for the sales process.
The Modern Era (2000s-2019)
By the early 2000s, the potential of the Internet finally started to be understood. It had become a vital tool for businesses of all sizes.
Familiar online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay started to really grow, changing the entrepreneurial game forever. This made it possible for entrepreneurs to sell their products to a global audience without the need for a physical storefront.
The explosion of social media provided all sorts of opportunities for businesses to connect with potential customers and build relationships. Social media also introduced the importance of building a personal brand as a way to convert leads into customers.
Then suddenly, in the 2010s, a new form of sales began to take over: inbound marketing.
Inbound marketing is a strategy that focuses on attracting potential customers through valuable content, rather than interrupting them with traditional outbound marketing techniques like cold calls and advertisements.
This is where the concept of "Content is king" started to be heavily used, as it was the way to make your brand stand out in the marketplace.
Anyone who was quick enough to adopt an inbound marketing approach was immediately very successful in attracting leads and closing deals. Entrepreneurs were getting creative, they created blogs, webinars, and e-books to educate and inform potential customers. Then they used marketing automation tools to nurture leads and convert them into paying customers.
In recent years, the sales process has continued to evolve like crazy, with a growing emphasis on digital transformation.
It’s amazing to watch how businesses are leveraging technology to automate and streamline their sales efforts, and how many are turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to help them make more informed decisions.
With the emergence of virtual selling, video conferencing and digital marketing are becoming extremely important. Entrepreneurs are also using chatbots and other AI-powered tools to engage with customers in real-time and provide personalized support.
How Sales Concepts Have Changed
As you can see, the sales process has changed a ton over the years, and it no longer relies on a charming and persuasive salesman standing on your doorstep convincing you to let them in for a 5-minute demonstration. Now an entire six-figure sales funnel can be built from your couch.
We’ve seen the emergence of customer relationship management (CRM) software, social media, big data, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning (ML). All of these have changed the way businesses conduct their sales operations and engage with their customers.
The sales industry has also seen a shift in the way businesses approach their customers. Rather than simply focusing on the hard sell, companies are now focusing on other concepts that have proven to create better relationships as well as convert better.
Shift from Outbound to Inbound
In the past, the sales process was heavily focused on what we would call ‘outbound techniques’ such as cold calling, print advertising, and door-to-door sales.
But, with the rise of digital marketing, there has been a shift towards ‘inbound marketing’ techniques, which focus on attracting potential customers through valuable content, rather than interrupting them with traditional outbound marketing.
This is where you see your favorite influencers posting content every day, giving away free information, and maybe even writing blogs or e-books. All of these aim to educate and inform potential customers and help to create strong relationships with them.
Personalization and Automation
The use of marketing automation tools has increased a lot recently, further changing the sales dynamics. This growth has allowed businesses to personalize their marketing efforts and reach customers more effectively.
These tools allow businesses to segment their customer base, create targeted marketing campaigns, and track customer behavior and interactions. This has led to a greater emphasis on personalization, with businesses using data and analytics to gain insights into their customers' needs and preferences.
Virtual Selling and Remote Selling
With the recent pandemic and the need for social distancing, virtual selling has become more prevalent. Businesses are now using video conferencing, virtual tours, and digital demonstrations, to interact with customers and close deals remotely.
This has allowed companies to reach customers in all corners of the world while they save on travel costs. As a bonus, they are even able to provide a more convenient experience for their customers.
As AI technology has progressed, businesses have started to adopt AI-powered tools in their sales process. This includes chatbots, which can provide instant customer support and help qualify leads, as well as provide personalized recommendations to potential customers.
AI-powered sales forecasting has also emerged seemingly out of nowhere, which can help sales teams make much more data-informed decisions about their sales strategies.
Concepts That Are Now Obsolete
As the industry has shifted and evolved over the years, some sales concepts have just gotten left behind. They are no longer viable in today's world, and you should make sure that you are not investing too heavily into these areas anymore.
Cold calling was a common practice in the past, but it has become less effective over time. I mean, who even answers an unknown number anymore?
With the rise of digital marketing and social media, businesses are now able to reach potential customers through other channels.
Print advertising, like newspapers and magazines, has become less effective as more and more people consume news and information online.
Instead, businesses are now focusing on digital advertising channels, such as social media and online search, which can reach a larger audience at a lower cost.
Traditional Trade Shows
Trade shows were once a staple of the sales process, but they have become less relevant as businesses have shifted their focus to virtual events and digital marketing. There is no longer a need to organize and pay for a trade show location when the same type of event can be held online for free.
As technology continues to advance, it is likely that the sales process will continue to evolve, and entrepreneurs will need to stay up-to-date with the latest trends and technologies to remain competitive.
What To Look For In The Future of Sales
The future of sales is likely to be shaped by several key trends, and if you want to stay on top of your game, there are a few things I highly recommend you keep an eye on.
Data and Analytics: As the amount of data available to businesses continues to grow, the ability to analyze and make sense of that data will become increasingly important.
Entrepreneurs who can use data and analytics to gain insights into customer behavior and preferences will be better positioned to target their sales efforts and drive revenue growth.
Virtual and Augmented Reality: Virtual reality and augmented reality technology has been making big strides in recent years, and it's likely that they will continue to evolve in the coming years.
By using VR and AR, sales teams will be able to create more immersive buying experiences for customers, allowing them to visualize and interact with products in a way that was not possible before.
I predict this technology will become more accessible and will be used in a more widespread manner.
Changes in Customer Relations: As Jake mentioned in the podcast, customer relationships are changing as the sales industry evolves. Customers no longer need a charming salesman to become their friend - they need a salesman who can solve their problems.
I predict that sales processes in the future will become less about becoming ‘friends’ with your clients, and more about having a great product or service and being able to solve their problems well.
As you can see, the sales process has undergone a significant evolution since the 1950s, and it is likely to continue evolving in the future.
Entrepreneurs who can stay up-to-date with the latest techniques and methods are more likely to be successful in their sales efforts. As always, it's important to develop your long-term vision and then be willing to adapt to the changes in the market. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different strategies.
But understanding the fundamentals of sales and marketing, and having a deep understanding of your customer's pain points, are the keys to success, no matter what era.
I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the evolution of the sales process over time, and that you will take some of these insights with you while developing your sales strategies for the future.
If you enjoyed this article, I’d love to hear from you.