"The Navigator" News Blog

The Evolution of Selling: Why?

Last time out, I covered what I saw as the “evolution of selling.”  As I see it, professional selling has moved through three significant phases in recent history:  First, there was transactional selling, where the object was to win the order.  Next, there was relationship selling, where the object was to form a bond with the customer that enabled all, or most, of the orders to simply be routine.  The next evolution – which is here now in some spots but is still ahead of the curve in many industries – is conceptual, where the customer is asked to buy into a concept of purchasing (such as fully integrated supply) where the actual transactions are managed by the vendor.

Since then, I’ve been hit with a number of messages asking me why I thought this evolution was happening, and where certain industries fell on the scale.  That’s the topic of today’s article – I’m going to answer the ‘why’ of the evolution.

The evolution from transactional sales depended on three things:  Product uniqueness, limited information, and a transactional buyer style.  All three of those things have changed or are changing.

Product uniqueness is difficult, if not impossible, to find these days – and where it exists, it seldom exists for long.  Even Viagra (to use one example) gained a competitor within a year, and now there are generics and multiple competitors.  The bottom line is that everyone has product.  Ultimately, pure product feature/benefit based transactional selling ends up being a race to the bottom, with competitors playing chicken over who will accept the lowest profit margin.

Limited information was another key element of transactional selling.  Even if the buyer knew, or was pretty sure, that a like solution to his/her problems could be found (and perhaps a price competition started), it took a lot of work in the pre-Internet days to find the competitor and get a sales presentation.  Now it’s easy.  Need a cost-per-page comparison on that new copier/printer the salesperson is showing you?  A few taps on your smartphone and you’ve got it before the salesperson can even get to the price.

Finally, Buyer styles have changed.  Buyers have less and less time to buy transactionally and review each purchase order and invoice – blanket PO’s and standing orders are the custom of the day.  That means that the salesperson whose focus is on capturing one order for one product can end up being left at the back of the line.

Relationship selling has also been affected by this.  I remember that, in the early 90s, my then father-in-law told me that the best thing I could do to advance my career and build more customer relationships was to learn to play golf.  Full disclosure:  I dislike golf.  Maybe someday I’ll take another swing at it (pun completely intended), but at the moment, I can think of 100 things I’d rather spend three hours doing than playing golf.

When I talk to golfing salespeople today, they often lament that it’s harder to get customers out of the office and on the course.  This is due to the fact that companies have done so much downsizing and right-sizing that important manager simply don’t have time to get out of the office – and when they do, the last thing they want to do is spend three hours with a salesperson.  That means that the traditional relationship-building activities (golf, lunches, dinners, football games, etc.) are going by the wayside – and not coincidentally, sales are being made more by rational business means than by buddy relationships.

This means that the environment has been perfectly prepared for conceptual selling.  Conceptual selling typically removes many of the transactional burdens from the buyer (hence freeing up a lot of time), and presents other operational advantages as well.  It also ends up being more profitable for the vendor, this getting away from the ‘game of chicken’ pricing model.

That said, it’s a fact that very few of the companies I’ve talked to either have implemented, or are implementing, a conceptual model.  We’ll discuss the objections to conceptual selling next time.