I have been rubbing the crystal ball and I see a very different future for pipeline creation in B2B sales. My perspective is that it will take us full circle to when I was getting started – A world of no Linkedin, no public contact databases, with the only proven way into a company via introductions.
The past predicts our future – A 40yo+ who has intentionally built a targeted network is more valuable for who they know than any sales skill they may have.
The ‘Rolodex’ is back in style
The Rolodex card holder was what I started my career with. Mine looked like the image here:
It was rather anemic in terms of business card volume and unimpressive in terms of the titles of people represented within.
In a digitally disconnected world, unseen real-world networks were the obvious path to success. In fact they were the only path.
Here is a contrast for you in terms then and now:
Business at the speed of network
In the 90’s the difference between a good salesperson/dealmaker and a GREAT one was the network. I believe this will be true again sooner rather than later. I can offer a recent example:
In 2022 I was on a plane from Zurich to New York and the guy sitting next to me turned out to be a European entrepreneur who was at a special dinner where he shared an idea for driving tourist $$ in destinations like France (Imagine the crypto version of ‘Disney Dollars’ but for Paris). He happened to be sitting with a bunch of European aristocrats; billionaires amongst them. After chewing the idea over for a few hours they settled on the idea that Paris would be perfect, and so one of the billionaires said, “Let’s ring Emmanuel – I am sure he will love it!”.
My new friend exclaimed “Macron!? But it is 2am in Paris.“
She replied, “But of course! He loves me – I will call.”
The story goes that Macron answered and said he would be happy to help and that in the morning he would have one of his people be in touch to connect the dots …. I actually believe the story, having learned more about this entrepreneur and owing to the pictures he shared of the people that attended the dinner.
Imagine the bureaucracy and hoops you would need to get through in order to be put in touch with the right Parisian city leaders – All fixed with a single call. This is the power of the network.
The best accelerant for your career/succes is the right network hub
In tech, people often say, “When offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask which seat.” Part of the reason for this is the proximity to brilliance. One of the best things you can do for your career is to build relationships with powerful network hubs – This is one example of the unseen power pillars that people don’t think about. If you are born into a community that isn’t connected to these hubs, then the reality is you need to find a sponsor who will get you in. For me, it was the CEO at a company called, ‘Wang’ back in 1996. He was a member of an exclusive club for rich old people (Happily they were surprisingly gender and ethnicity balanced – Average age was 62) and as a result of my securing him as a mentor, he sponsored me into the club. It was at lunches in the club that I saw the power of ‘business at network speed’. ‘Table 8’ was where city officials and business power brokers would sit every Friday for lunch – One day I was invited to sit at this table and got a window into how it all worked. I realized at the tender age of 23 that the world was neither fair, nor equitable, and as a result I would have to learn how to attach to the right networks.
The career entrant is a researcher/apprentice
At that time my role was essentially to be a research assistant to a senior sales professional – I did whatever he needed doing in terms of account/industry/people research, and of course photocopying and printing docs/making coffee. My title was, ‘Account Executive’, but really it should have been, ‘Sales apprentice’. During those years I would ride-along to all the sales meetings and lunches with my ‘senior’, collecting insights and most importantly, relationships along the way.
At that time there was no shortcut to success, you had to know the right people to get the big deals done. The job of a career entrant was to ride the coattails of a senior person so that you could both learn the craft and build a network of your own. Career death was to connect to a selfish or incompetent ‘senior’ who wasn’t able to trade their know-how/network for your research and support.
In terms of deal-making and enterprise sales I believe we are coming full-circle. No amount of generative AI personalization will get you outsize success as a complex sale/deal maker in the years ahead – We will be immune to it. Having the modern (virtual) version of the Rolodex will be the currency everyone wants, and this is developed by building long-term, trusted relationships, which requires a domain/vertical focus to get true depth.
The future for career entrants & outbound
Here is my prediction – Timeframe uncertain:
- Outbound for velocity sales will be the domain of digital marketers who will use the magic of intent tools combined with marketing automation magic that will feel more like B2C than B2B
- Outbound for complex B2B will be dominated by people with strong, LIVING networks (They will skew older). There will be two key supporting technologies:
- Networking mapping like www.ctd.ai
- Network management (An automated tool to ensure you keep critical relationships alive (Especially for globally mobile people).
- Sales career entrants will become apprentices again in the enterprise sales world. They should build their network with as much urgency as they build their sales/business acumen.
If I am right, then there is a significant penalty for big career pivots where you leave your network behind.
This has always been true (with a slight detour)
If you agree with my core premise relating to the network, then you may agree that this has ALWAYS been true, but some people have been able to leverage technology to get around it in the short-term. The birth of marketing automation / email sequencing circa 2006 was the start of a long period that took us off our natural axis. The brilliance of this technology was adopted by the sales community in a way that really bastardized the craft and masked the fact that we had lost our way.
I believe that the business ‘immune system’ is now rejecting this ‘mass-personalization’ virus and we are going to return to health. The question is who will put in the intentional work needed to find a place in the new (old) world.