How many salespeople will be left by 2020?

Tony Hughes


Pundits and analysts have predicted the demise of all sellers by 2020. With 18MM sellers this is a bit of a Nostradamus hubris causing some serious cognitive dissonance. One CEO actually declared he'd never hire a salesperson again but then a second glance revealed almost comically that all his customer service reps are actually already doing some pseudo transactional selling. It's been posited that 30% of field selling will be going away very soon.

Would you agree? Is Sales as we know it going away to be replaced by AI or is it just morphing into something that is going to look a great deal more like a combination of sales and marketing?

Phil Fernandez, the founder of Marketo, talks about the rise of the Director of Demand Generation in his prescient book "Revenue Disruption." These futuristic specialists take a bold, data-driven approach to driving leads into the business. Perhaps the new roles that emerge toward 2020 will be something more towards this side of the spectrum and top of the funnel.

I unleashed a furious debate on this topic in the Strategic Selling Group so I wanted to bubble it up to the LinkedIn Publishing Gods. There are two camps that seem to be emerging on this topic:

Camp ONE: Let's just automate the blazes out of everything and run it all through a big dashboard! Spreadsheet jockeys rejoice in exaltation!Camp TWO: Complexity and commoditization may actually render the field seller even more relevant than ever before. After all, who's going to navigate the prospect through the morass of data and confusing solution sets?

There's an executive management viewpoint of lowering cost of sales but we don't want to rob Peter to pay Paul here. It's critical that core high-touch functions within enterprise customer accounts not be eroded by short term gain.

I would posit a Camp THREE: The sales people of the future that win must be ninjas with Social Selling, analytics, consultative methods meet insight selling and have tremendous amounts of EQ meets business acumen.

Simon Gibbard describes the sales leader of the future as follows: "You get marketing. Marketing is the new sales, and you've got your arms around it. You write copy. You get SEO, paid and earned media. You know how to promote a post on Facebook and LinkedIn. You've got a Slideshare account and you use Buffer. Google alerts flag up opportunities to have new conversations. You speak the language of marketing and it makes you a better salesperson. The us and them days are over."

Do you agree that Marketing is the new Sales? Or, as Peter Strohkorb has coined in his stirring manifesto, the age of "SMARKETING!" has arrived.

One thing is for certain, it's a battle royale to stay relevant: relevant to your own CEO with SVP of Sales attrition at an all-time high.

Air Ross declared in his latest e-newsletter: "Studies have said the average B2B sales team loses 27% of its members per year - whether they quit or are fired. That is INSANE!"

So even before the Singularity emerges knocking us all out, we're already seeing enterprises hemorrhaging talent. Some of this could be chalked up to poor management and stratospheric targets coupled with an insidious lack of specialization, to be sure. It seems to be pre-quake jitters.

The modern sales practitioner must not risk becoming too specialized. Futurist Jacob Morgan extolls the learning worker over the knowledge worker as the knowledge worker gets paid for what he knows but the learning worker? She has the agility to adapt and constantly learn how to learn. That's what's so sensational about Jill Konrath's clairvoyant book Agile Selling, it truly allows a holistic approach to life-long learning and up-skilling in organizations.

Ability to learn is the meta-skillset of the perma-employed, ever-adapting sales lion of 2050. I have no doubt!

I've pulled some quotes from this debate for your reading pleasure. Please join the rousing global chorus in the comments below.

Michael Bonner sounds off: "Here's the problem. It turns out that the world does not actually get simpler over time. Marketing has no way to automatically assist someone with a complex decision. Even if they can come up with docs for every possible objection, the majority of people don't want to have to do all the study. How would they ever know when they knew enough. Complex decisions need discussion with experts. Review the studies that show that the quality of the selling experience was a major factor in many B2B and big-ticket sales. That probably won't change by 2020. Computers are a lot of things. Many of them wonderful. They are also cold, heartless, achingly stupid and insensitive (Okay, so it can replace some salespeople)."

John Smibert's contribution: "The sales profession won't die (although many sales roles may). It will change and adapt as the world, and buyers in particular, change and adapt. The profession will find new (or modified) ways to create value for the buyer - to enable a fair exchange of value in ways that cannot be done without human interaction. I believe the sales profession has an exciting and changing future. I predict there will be wonderful new opportunities for salespeople in 2020. As always, those who change and adapt will survive and grow - and those that don't won't."

Shelly Revivo believes: "Nonsense. Automation will innovate but the human element will always be critical. Automation simply helps with profitability and loss elimination of the 80/20 rule."

Adam Thorp explains: "The cost of sales is very very high. So what do you do - you automate. You automate to give sellers more time to sell and you automate to reduce the reliance on a large sales team. Using the 80/20 rule, in theory you can retain those top 20% or performers, still retain 80% of your revenue and see a significant increase in profitability due to the reduction in head count and cost of sale. Change in inevitable. You only have to look at the major players in sales performance management (ie CallidusCloud), sales enablement (ie SAVO), and sales automation ( to see where the market is going. I remember less than 3 or 4 years ago people saying marketing automation was a just a fad and couldn't be effective - just look at that space now.

Tracey Preston Cook's mind blowing contribution: "65% of all new careers that will be in existence 10 years from now, have not even been fully identified and many are not currently understood. Most are based on technology either emerging now, or disruptive technologies that are yet to be developed. The question we are asking about sales is one that taps into the fear of our selling futures (I've felt it too - it's normal to fear). It's why we pay attention to predictive statements...positive or negative. What you are selling will change many many many times...that's why you should learn everything you can about sales. Read everything not nailed down. Watch everything not obscured. Listen and observe the best. Learn. Learn. Then learn some more."

Ivonne Teoh reads the tea leaves: "With longer lifespans of 140+ (ask your insurance agent), I wonder what the governments have in mind with new advances of technology and AI for the population. Less people working (displaced by robots), how to support that lifestyle. Gschwandtner may be wrong about the exact year, but it is still on the cards? I don't like telemarketers! They ring at the wrong time, some even selling funeral insurance! Being forced to make a decision where I'm not given enough time to check the info, is a big turn off."

Now it's your turn: Is it just a little history repeating or will sales fall away? Do you believe field sales is toast to be replaced by holo-conferencing? Is the field of sales stronger than ever? What's your message to the CEO of tomorrow as she's looking to make the call on hiring sales leaders? What mix of live salespeople and sales automation is ideal?


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at


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