The State of Sales Competence in 2019

Today’s selling professionals are becoming less and less well equipped to provide the solutions that buyers want. It isn’t because the sales professionals have fallen behind with good solutions, it’s because they haven’t kept up with the way today’s buyers want to buy.


According to the most recent employment-by-profession data from the US DOL and Career One-Stop, the sales profession employs more than 10 million salespeople, or about one out of every 15 jobs.   It is one of the largest professions there is.  And it is also a profession that has undergone – and is currently undergoing – change on an epic scale.  In mid-2017 I posted an article on how the buyer’s journey has changed and since then it has continued to change.

In the late 1990s my company developed, and has continued to refine, a best-practices model to measure the competencies associated with different sales channels: B2B, B2C, and retail.   The model has proven particularly effective in helping companies assess their current sales teams, identify areas for both individual and team-wide development, and has been predictive in assessing candidates for sales positions. 


What We’ve Been Learning

Today’s buyers are on a very different buying path than they were just six years ago.  Take a look at the article, Understanding Today’s Buyer’s Journey published less than 2 years ago.  Since then here are major changes I’ve observed using the data collected from our proprietary B2B Sales Essentials Assessment.  It uses an evolving validated model that measures what someone knows and understands about the current and emerging best practices in B2B sales. (There is a sister instrument that focuses on the B2C market).  Based on the trends analyzed across 12 different industry segments, here’s what we’re seeing:


One: Needs Assessment is Still the Greatest Need for Sales Professionals.  B2B and B2C sales professionals average just under 60% correct when answering situational questions surrounding basic needs assessment.  B2B averages just over 60% while B2C is in the min-50% range.  There are, of course, some noteworthy exceptions…the figures cited are averages. 

What they get right: Most sales professionals understand the importance of understanding a prospect’s or customer’s needs.  Most sales professionals rank needs assessment as the most important selling skill (it is, because it should be ongoing throughout the life of a customer).

What they get wrong: Sales professionals don’t ask enough needs assessment questions nor do they go deep enough to fully understand a prospects’ circumstances, motivation, priorities, and pain.  Instead, they ask a few perfunctory questions, typically not very deep, and make assumptions about what is needed.  Part of the problem is feeling under time pressure to offer a solution to a customer’s stated need. 

Sales people often stop assessing needs after a sale is made.  This means significant lost opportunities.  Many customers are purchasing other solutions the salesperson sells besides the solution they purchased.  Rather than consider a customer holistically and using the trust gained from an initial sale, some salespeople move into sales farmer mode without actively hunting all the customer’s solution needs which they can supply. 


Two: Prospecting is Still Done the Old Fashioned Way Using Brute Force Contact

The following question provides insight into why prospecting scores have fallen 8% in the last three years: Which do you think will produce the greatest sales opportunity:

1. Calling a prospect from a list and trying to interest them in having an appointment with you?

2. Causing prospects who are in the explore mode to proactively call you because you’ve positioned yourself as a credible solution provider?

The answer shows sales professional rely too much on brute force contact and too little on attracting buyers who are seeking solutions the sales professional can provide. The continuing evolution of the buyer’s journey shows decided shift to the second approach, as fewer prospects are likely to answer an unsolicited call or open an unsolicited email.

What they get right: Over the past two years the salespeople we assessed are just starting to combine brute force outbound calling and email with attracting inbound prospect traffic.  Understanding the best times of the day and week to contact prospects within an industry segment, better messaging, and improved personal communications strategies have all raised the conversion rate of contacts-to- appointments. 

Fewer sales professionals have begun using the power of tools such as buyer personas and targeted social media search to prospect, both of which provide significant results.  There is an increasing integration of sales and marketing efforts to expand online presence so buyers seeking solutions can be found.   

What they get wrong: Brute force prospecting is still the most widely practiced prospecting approach, and it is producing diminishing returns. It will continue to do so as buyers are outdistancing sellers in the way buyers find solutions.

A study in the second half of 2018 showed that more than half of buyers used social media to research solutions and solution providers.  LinkedIn is the network of choice for prospect research (52%) followed by blogs (40%). Less than a third of salespeople have complete LinkedIn profiles that are optimized to attract inbound traffic for the solutions they sell.  Even fewer salespeople link blogs to their social media presence that could position them as an expert. 


Three: Major Opportunity Areas of Post-Sale Follow-Up are Not Well Understood nor Practiced

Post-sale follow-up includes the actions taken by salespeople with prospects who purchased as well as did not purchase, and includes the strategies and techniques such as developing customer evangelists, customer onboarding, and creating referral streams.

What they get right: Sales professionals we assessed scored high in their handling of prospects who purchased.  For the most part they are proactive in their contact and are building long term relationships with the people they know in the account. They take steps to assure the customer is pleased with the salesperson’s solutions and any problems or issues are dealt with speedily.

What they get wrong: Fewer than 10% of salespeople have a process to work with the prospects who did not purchase, and sales opportunities are missed here regularly.  While salespeople understand the value of a customer referral, they often fail to ask effectively for referrals, and some go to the well too often with customers who do provide referrals.  

Since the business uptick in early 2017, employee turnover has risen considerably and has averaged about 30% annually since then. Most salespeople do not identify and build relationships with enough of the key players within their accounts.  A lack of building these relationships leave the account vulnerable to competitors and the existing provider relationships the new staff replacements bring with them.


Bottom Line

B2B, B2C, and retail sales continue to change at a rapid pace, and sales professionals who do not replace the sales habits of yesterday with the correct ones of tomorrow will find the selling profession moving quickly past them. More than ever before, sales leaders will need to assess their sales team’s competencies and adopt the technology and techniques to keep up with the way tomorrow’s buyers will buy.

I love working with people and organizations who want to improve their effectiveness! Here are several outstanding resources that can help you and your organization to go to the next level:

I work with some of the world’s top employers by helping them get the most out of their talented people. My company’s extensive leadership development course catalog provides effective skills-building for everyone in the organization, from the new / developing leader to the seasoned C-level executive. My company’s coaching programs produce significant results in compressed periods of time. I also help job seekers, higher ed, and employment services connect people to better jobs faster. My company’s acclaimed career development tools help people navigate the ever-changing landscape of conducting a successful job search. To find out more, please visit us at, email us at, or call us at 215-942-0982.


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