What's driving sales performance in 2021?

2021 sales trends and how they impact your sales process, sales technology, and salespeople.


What’s the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic? Disruption. According to November 2020 research from the Technology & Services Industry Association (TSIA), more than two-thirds of sales organizations say they don’t think sales practices will ever return to the way they were. That means 2021 will likely be a year of reckoning for many sales organizations.

In a recent webinar from TSIA, moderator John Ragsdale, TSIA’s Distinguished Vice President for Technology Research; Amy Gorman, Salesforce’s Regional Vice President for ISV Sales; and Mark Grimshaw, Korn Ferry’s Executive Director Global Consultancy, discussed the trends they’re seeing in the digital transformation of the sales industry and how they will drive sales performance in 2021.

Sales Industry Changes Wrought by 2020

Although the trend toward digital transformation had already started before last year, the pandemic accelerated the changes. Gorman explained, “Now, technology isn’t just a nice to have, it’s a must-have.” For example, Salesforce is looking at ways to help their customers embrace digital channels in an end-to-end, seamless way.

As far as buyer expectations, Gorman reflected, “2020 was a year like no other, with multiple once-in-a-generation events occurring, such as Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and the election. When there’s uncertainty, buyers tend to make decisions based on emotion.” She added, “We, as salespeople, need to build trust and work toward making them comfortable” despite the uncertainty. But research from Gartner showed that buyers are only spending about 17% of the sales cycle with sellers—and that time is split among competitors, so there’s less time than ever to develop a trust-based relationship.

That limited time with buyers means sellers also need to figure out how to make that time more productive. Gorman suggested that ways to create the same amount of productivity—or more—while working from home include leveraging the cloud, such as with their core sales tool, and using other technologies to reduce silos between sales teams. Grimshaw offered that the way that sellers can solve the quandaries raised by the pandemic is a combination of three things: process, technology, and people.

Sales Process

Grimshaw noted the importance of process, quoting W. Edwards Deming: “If you cannot describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” He added, “There’s a lot of process surrounding sales, and it matters. If you have a really good sales process, you can expect a 13.1% improvement in win rates. But only 44% of organizations say they have a really good process.”

Even though these numbers show the benefits of a sound sales methodology, and buyers have materially changed how they’re buying, there has been little change to date in most organizations’ sales processes. Grimshaw also observed that the pandemic has only widened the already existing gap between how buyers and sellers think and approach deals. For this reason, sales methodology, he said, “must become part of what you do every day; otherwise, it is just something you once learned.” Reinforcing this learning is where technology plays a critical role.

Sales Technology

Korn Ferry sales performance research shows that only a third of companies use a CRM all of the time. Of those, only a third saw a significant improvement in their productivity — but two-thirds would take a risk to change their CRM for the better. Finding that better way to change was one rationale behind Korn Ferry’s partnership with Salesforce, Grimshaw stated. Together, they have created Korn Ferry Sell, a native Salesforce app that reinforces what sellers need to do and how they might do it. This is critical, especially during the pandemic, Grimshaw said, because the number of prospects that turn into deals is below 50%—a figure that’s even lower now because of COVID-19.

The goals behind Korn Ferry Sell, Grimshaw said, are to help sellers make more informed decisions and increase the quality of deals in their pipeline. To accomplish these goals, Korn Ferry Sell is built on Miller Heiman Group’s sales methodology, including Blue Sheets, Green Sheets, and Gold Sheets. The app helps sellers be more successful in real-time, unlike virtual training courses, because it prompts sellers for the next best action to win a deal and delivers just-in-time refresher microlearning. So, for example, if the system suggests that you need a coach to increase your chances of winning a deal, but you don’t remember what a coach is, with the click of a button you will be reminded why a coach matters for your deals. Given the changes in buyer behaviors, it becomes even more important for sales organizations to have a tool that drives the right set of seller behaviors.


Our 2019 World-Class Sales Practices Study found that fewer than a third of sales organizations are confident that they have the right talent to succeed. Grimshaw reported that this number has plummeted during the pandemic. The good news, he added, was that three-fourths of organizations are investing in tools to help their salespeople improve. But just giving sellers tools isn’t enough to foster growth.

What does move the needle? Organizations experienced a double-digit increase in win rates—a gain of 13%—when they assess, enable, and coach their sellers. Assessment helps organizations understand where their gaps are, so they know how to target their sellers’ weaknesses with additional sales enablement and training and then coaching to reinforce their learning. The more guidance and help organizations give sellers during this time, the better their results will be, he concluded.

For even more insights into what we learned from 2020 and how to apply that learning in 2021, watch the webinar “Hindsight Is 20/20: A Closer Look at What’s Driving Sales Performance in 2021.”