When I think about the future of professional selling, which I do daily in one way or another, it is clear that sales has come a long way. Even a cursory glance over my shoulder confirms that sales, over the past 60 years, has evolved through five generations. I call these the “5 C’s of Selling.” Let’s look at these. Each was right for its time.
“Cronyism” was the first era of selling, prevalent in the industrial boom following World War II. The sales person was essentially your buddy – that is, someone whom you got to know well and liked. The sales person would drop by every so often and take your order. Times were good and there was very little differentiation of product or focus on deeper buyer needs. It was the personality of the salesperson that made the connection and synched the sale. It was the relationship.
We then moved on to “Commodity Selling.” This second era of selling took hold from the 1950’s until mid 1960’s where sales people basically sold on price. Again, there was little product differentiation, which resulted in discounting and price wars. Sales people typically disliked this approach, as there was always pressure to cut the margins to increase sales. As customers increased in sophistication and competition began to get fiercer, those customers changed. They sought knowledge and looked to salespeople to educate them. Content became the focus.
“Content Selling” – The third era of selling was the first to involve a strategic differentiation of one product from another. Starting in the 1960’s through to the mid 1970s, professional marketers, with the help of advertising agencies, were now able to create brand awareness and customer knowledge as to why one product was superior to another. The goal was to educate buyers on the “features and benefits” of a specific product, and thereby increase sales by generating excitement in purchasing the superior features and benefits.
“Content selling” enabled sales people to move away from a commodity approach, based on lowest price, to being able to charge a higher price (with greater margins) based on brand awareness, product superiority and buyer sophistication.
Although this era marked the start of a more “professional approach to selling”, it was product-centric. The features and benefits approach did not take into account the unique and differing needs of customers. Customers were becoming even more sophisticated and competition was heating up and, as result, customers demanded solutions customized to their needs. The focus of the sales moved from the product to the customer and “Consultative Selling” – or customer need based selling – was born.
Over the past 30 years, consultative selling has been very much in vogue.
In consultative selling, the initial focus is on first understanding the needs and objectives of the customer and customizing solutions to align with those needs. New models were introduced that engaged customers with questions and that guided salespeople tailoring and positioning their solutions.
Consultative Selling puts customer’s needs first, but of course sought to achieve ‘win-win’ solutions in which the needs of the customer and sales organization were met. What could be better than meeting the needs of the customer and creating solutions that win for both buyer and seller? It looked like the golden age but, as in the past, times change. The Internet dramatically changed the world of buyers and sellers. Consultative selling remained relevant as a foundation, but did not go far enough.
“Collaborative Selling.” I see this as the era of collaborative selling. Customers are advancing in the sale before they engage with salespeople. Salespeople must bring greater expertise and resources to customers to add to what they already have researched for themselves. The emphasis is alignment of the sales process with the customer’s buying cycle. Today, the goal is for salespeople and customers to advance in the buying journey together. Collaborative selling occurs not only between buyers and sellers, but also partners.
As I think about the future of selling, I see the era of collaboration continuing and extending.
In collaborative selling, both buyer and seller become customer to one another. This approach has three primary goals for both organizations:
- Minimize short-term risk
- Maximize long-term gain
- Create value by partnering with each other
The bar will continue to be raised as salespeople increase value for their customers, beyond what they can glean from the Internet and social media. Buyers and sellers will leverage the natural synergies that already exist, and jointly seek new ways of being innovative and proactive in creating mutual success.
But of course, we know that the evolution – or even revolution – that is happening in selling will not stop at the 5th era. Technology will drive the change and impact buyers and sellers in ways we can only dream about.
What we all can be sure of is that change will continue at a rapid pace. As I see it, the next era – the sixth era – is an era of Commoditization. Don’t confuse this with the second era, “Commodity Selling,” although there are some startling similarities.
There is an air of inevitability that at some point, in the not too distant future, many of the tasks now routinely handled by “salespeople” will become automated – in fact, it is already happening.
Commoditization virtually eliminates seller-buyer human interaction and, at the time of writing this, it is a B2C “phenomenon.” It is of course due largely to consumers’ new affection for online shopping via the Internet, and sales organizations desire to capitalize on the breadth of audiences they can reach, and the lower costs of sales and delivery.