"The Navigator" News Blog

The Evolution of Selling

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I called “the escalation of needs,” in which I described the change I’m seeing in selling. Today’s salesperson must work at a higher level, be more savvy, and more polished than ever before. However, based on emails I’ve received about this article, I’m not sure that I made my point very clearly. Maybe “escalation of needs” is the wrong phrase.

When I started my business in 2004, I would tell people that I was a sales trainer, and they would respond by asking, “Do you do product sales or service sales?” My response was always the same – that sales in the modern era was all about service. Everyone had great products, so the sale was about wrapping a great service model around those products and showing why you were the best resource. That was one evolution of selling, but there’s been another, more significant evolution.”

The evolution in the last twenty years has been from transactional selling to relationship selling. The new evolution – or maybe it’s a revolution, and I’ll explain why in a moment – is toward conceptual selling.

Let’s use, as an example, an industry that I spent quite a bit of time in as a salesperson – bearings, power transmission, and industrial supplies (that’s all one industry handled through one distribution channel, not three separate industries).

In the mid-90s, much of the selling was still based on products. Here are the features and benefits of my product, here’s how it fits your situation, please buy it – and as you’re buying the product, you’ll buy it from us. This was reinforced by our company’s emphasis on product training (I once went to a 3-day school on ball bearings), and on the emphasis on vendor ride-alongs to sell their products. Very little time was spent on our service model, and the relationships that were built were specifically between the salesperson and particular contacts at the customer. Not surprisingly, most customers split their business between us and competitors, depending on who had the “best” products. We were selling mostly to mid-level or low-level managers like stockroom or maintenance managers.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, smart salespeople evolved to a service selling model. Salespeople (including me) approached customers saying, “Look, we have great products. I’ll be frank; so do our competitors. You should buy from me because my company has the service eithic and expertise to better take care of your needs. When you’re in doubt, we’ll pick the products ourselves, and when you know what you want, we’ll make sure you get it, on time, when you need it.” This model worked better because instead of competing for transactions, we were competing for customers. And once you won that sale, you typically got a majority (although not necessarily a full share) of your customer’s spend in your product category. Since the company’s processes and people were so integral to the sale, the key relationship was between companies. Most of the time, the contacts remained the same, although sometimes we ended up in an assistant plant manager’s office.

Also in the late 90s came a concept called “Integrated Supply.” In the integrated supply concept, a salesperson approached the corner office and said, “Let’s agree that great service and great products are expectations, not bonuses. What we bring to the table is the ability to handle the entire procurement process for everything you consume in your plant. You’ll still get the great products. You’ll still get the great service. But, you can focus on your core business because you will no longer have to make mundane buying decisions about everything from conveyor rollers to toilet paper.” The concept of integrated supply was sold to the ultimate decision maker (Plant Manager, President, CEO, etc.), and all the supplies came along with it.

In the industrial environment, integrated supply took hold in the mid-2000s, and most large accounts buy this way now. This means, of course, that salespeople who are selling product or service to those same mid-level managers as before are left on the sidelines.
The same phenomenon is happening in multiple industries. For instance, the copier and office technology industry is evolving from product (buy our copier because it’s the best) to service (managed print services where we handle everything from copiers to toner to paper and charge you per-click) to conceptual (let us install software that manages your entire document process, from creation to duplication to archiving). It’s probably happening in your industry – and if you’re not working, or getting ready to work, at a conceptual level, you’re going to get left behind.

That’s my whole point. When selling went from transactional (product) to relationship (service), some good product salespeople got left behind because they couldn’t transition. There are still a number of transactional salespeople out there (and transactional sales processes), and they are struggling. However, that transition was less difficult, because in most cases, the contact remained the same – so the major change was in approach.

Today’s evolution is tougher, because now relationship salespeople are getting left behind. They’re finding that their relationships aren’t with the right people to keep them alive in their customers. A great relationship at mid-level does no good when someone sells the concept of a different process to the mid-level person’s boss.

I’ve been saying for some time that the successful salesperson of the next 20 years will be far different from the successful salesperson of the last 20. Here’s how I see the successful salesperson of the next 20 years:

• Highly polished and professional: The successful salesperson of the future will be able to meet, and win sales, with the top officer in the company. He or she will be able to speak to the CEO as an equal, not as a supplicant. This means more than looking good in a suit.

• Great businessperson: The salesperson of the future will need more than expertise in products and services; they will need to understand how to read a P&L, how to help build and grow their customers’ businesses, and understand instinctively how to address issues like opportunity costs, hidden costs, and other high-level and big-picture issues that officers face.

• Versatile: That said, the salesperson of the future will still need to shift gears and work with the downstream implementers and influencers that will put their concepts to work. Yes, you’re going over the head of the midlevel managers when you approach the CEO – but if you do it right, they never feel like they’ve been disrespected.

• Well trained: Finally, that salesperson will need to be incredibly well trained in all three sales models – transactional, relationship, and conceptual – and know when to use each.

If that sounds like a big challenge, it is. But challenging is different than impossible. Are you up to the challenge?