After a bit of anxiety with last month’s dip, it’s good to see sentiment rebound back to levels we saw in May/June 2021. Intriguingly, this is broadly in line with US consumer sentiment seems to have steadied after a similar August plunge. Though it’s still premature to expect that optimism has stabilized or will continue to climb, it’s good know it isn’t steadily falling.

Download the infographic with the full survey results here.  

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We still see a discrepancy between how people see their own and their organizations’ fortunes, and how their perspectives of the broader business environment. Given current labor shortages, especially around sales positions, we think that sales representatives are correct in assuming that their personal futures seem relatively stable – even if the business environment remains as changeable and uncertain as ever.

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Optimism for Q4

A full 44% of sales representatives expect their Q4 2021 to be better than originally forecast. At this point of the year, we would expect sales organizations to have a good sense of how the year will close, and so we place a lot of credence in this positive forecast.

Sales Complexity

In this survey, we wanted to get a sense of the internal complexity that sales representatives must grapple with to get things done.

In an eye-catching statistic, sales representatives report needing to engage an average of 5.1 colleagues to close deals (the median is 4). Not only do these sales reps need to engage multiple people at the customer (in 2018, we found this could be as many as 10.2 individuals) but they also need to engage people at their own companies. The game requires demonstration of a full range of capabilities building consensus to sell to consensus – no wonder sales reps everywhere report struggling to address all the different needs that different people at the customer have: “Buying panels are common, with many hurdles to overcome. Internally, there are lots and lots of checks and balances. Cumbersome, frustrating and bureaucratic on all sides.” The implication is that different individuals will need to be matched with their exact counterpart: the head of operations, for example, wants to talk to somebody about operations, while finance wants to understand bottom-line implications of the purchase.

Challenger’s experience is that sales is often a multi-legged stool: an SDR might talk to an individual contributor at the customer. That person will bring in their boss who talks to the AE. At the point, the boss will subject matter experts to talk to a sales engineer. Toward the end of the sale, it might be that somebody in procurement spends time with finance, legal, and IT.

The data shows that it is increasingly common for an individual sales representative to need additional help with “many-selling-to-many” being the most common form of customer relationship in B2B selling.

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When we look under the hood, we then find that complexity burden isn’t shared equally. Roughly 40% of reps spend their lives entirely in the many-to-many world; roughly 70% of their interactions require additional resource to coordinate with many people at the customer. For the remaining 60%, it’s more of a mixed grab: They typically juggle some one-to-one interactions, as well as more complex ones.

As one sales leader put it: “The global economic environment forced us move more quickly to diversify our client portfolio, [so] we’re seeing both. The sales environment is simpler in the industries where we’re most recognized and more complex in those where we aren’t (which is a function of us quickly aligning our value proposition and sales activities to the evolving buyers’ journey where we know our clients more and learning as we go where we know less).”

And this is likely what will happen everywhere. Individual sales representatives will be increasingly deployed where they have the greatest impact for more complex sales. On the other hand, where an offer is becoming commodified, the sale will be increasingly automated.

Summary

Overall, sentiment has rebounded from August, but we need to closely watch its direction in the months ahead. Q4 forecasts remain optimistic, even as assessments of the business environment are lower than how individuals assess their own fortunes.

We also find that the future of sales is divided. On one hand, companies will try to simplify the purchase experience for their more mature segments. Here, the goal might be for the entire sale to happen digitally as it’s a one-to-one relationship. Elsewhere, for new segments or new products, complexity will reign as a small number of sales representatives are tasked with marshalling ever larger numbers of internal and customer stakeholders to get deals done. Companies who have not developed skills in their sellers to do the latter will find it harder and harder to compete.

Spencer Wixom & Timur Hicyilmaz

Spencer is Chief Customer Officer at Challenger, and has helped transform sales and marketing teams in some of the biggest and best companies in the world.

Timur has been conducting research for most of his career. He was part of the team that researched many of the original concepts behind Challenger. Mostly focused on trying to better understand how commercial organizations succeed, Timur has spent time working on everything from trying to understand consumer attitudes toward energy consumption to identifying best practices for hospital operations leaders. His passion is for trying to identify strategies that are more likely to deliver a desired outcome than any others.