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So Much Has Changed, So Much Is The Same

by David Brock on August 2nd, 2010

This past week, in New York, I had the pleasure of having breakfast with Mack Hanan.  Mack is the author of Consultative Selling, originally published in 1970.  Whenever I’m in New York, Mack and I get together to talk about the state of the profession.  I started my sales career in the late 70’s.  In that time, so much has changed, yet so much has stayed the same.

  • Customers were busy then–they are still very busy.  Though, in reality, I do think they are busier today than in the late 70’s.  Continued cutback’s, the “leaning” of organizations, fewer resources–in hindsight, things are much busier now.  But it sure felt busy then.
  • Customers suffered from information overload then–they suffer from information overload now.  Walking into offices in the late 70’s, one would see piles of papers, unread reports piling up, urgent items piled into in-boxes.  Today we see the same, except it’s all electronic.  Again, in hindsight, the volume of information is much higher–yet the availability of sophisticated tools is much more much higher than before.  Despite information overload, both then and now, finding quality information and insight was and is difficult.
  • We were constantly challenged by new competition.  For me, selling for IBM in the late 70’s, upstarts like Digital Equipment (RIP), Wang (RIP), Oracle, Amdahl (RIP), and others were coming up every year.  Today, the names have changed, but there is always new competition.
  • People didn’t want to see sales people then, people don’t want to see sales people now……

I could go on.  It seems the more things have changed, the more they are the same.  We have new tools–enabling us to do good and unproductive things at the speed of light.   These tools, all cynicism aside, do offer great potential in helping sales people be more productive, to engage customers in new and compelling ways.  But just as any tool, to use them effectively, we have to have mastered the fundamentals.  Without this, the tools allow us to aggravate our prospects and customers at the speed of light.

Mack and I spoke about the state of selling.  When he wrote “Consultative Selling, ” Mack argued for a change in focus—stop pitching products, stop competing on prices, start looking at what your customer needs.  Focus on understanding their business, focus on how you can help them identify new opportunities, focus on how you can help them make or save money.  At the same time, Neil Rackham, Robert Miller, Stephen Heiman, and others were talking about similar consultative, solutions, and customer focused approaches to selling.

Today, we’re still talking about the same thing–I write, hundreds of others write about being customer focused, about focusing on how our customers’ buy, looking at how we create value, looking at how we might be provocative.  We’re saying the same thing–we have 3 decades more evidence about the need to do this—and three decades more of talking about the same thing, yet making little progress in executing consultative approaches to selling.

I’ve seen some progress, many organizations are more customer focused in their sales approaches, but still too many sales people have such a long way to go.  The profession is progressing, but it seems the level of distrust and impatience our buyers have with sales people is outpacing this progress.

  • So rather than getting on my soapbox and pontificating, I’m anxious to get your views. 
  • What’s changed about selling (other than the tools), what’s stayed the same?
  • What progress has been made in being more consultative, customer and solutions focused?  Why isn’t it more pervasive?  What keeps us from moving forward?
  • What progress have we made in the last 5-10-20-30 years?  What’s the outlook for the future?
  • What will be be talking/writing about in 5 years?  Will it be more of the same or will the conversation change?

I’m really interested in your views!

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  1. David,

    Your blog entries always bring value to my day. In an age of cacophonous clutter the insights are refreshing. Although the shared memories of late 70’s sales conditions, characters and circumstance certainly resonate, we date ourselves my friend. Technology Time and Tides wait for no man I guess.

    • Dan: While I (we) may be dating ourselves, when one pulls back all the hype and clutter, have things really changed? Too often, I think we use technology as something to hide behind, it in fact distracts us from the fundamentals. I don’t believe technology has changed the fundamentals. It has enabled us to do a lot more, a lot faster, but I don’t see that it has changed the fundamentals.

      Perhaps one of the unstated reasons in writing this blog is to step back from all the Sales X.0, Customer X.0, Web X.0, etc hype and to reassess fundamentals. I continue to ask myself, why am I still writing about value propositions, focusing on what your customer’s needs and priorities are, how can we improve our customers’ businesses, and on and on and on…. Why do people respond as though it’s new and fresh? Why are 100’s of books published every year on these topics? Why do we conduct 1000’s of webinars every year promoting this approach?

      Technology, time and tides just provide more excuses or things to blame for failed performance. We still aren’t executing the fundamentals consistently on a sustained basis. Sometimes its like deja vu all over again 😉

      Dan, thanks for letting me blow off steam!

  2. David,

    You’re preaching to the choir. Essentially sales is the same as it ever was. The essential components of developing long term relationships based on the character traits, value propositions and qualities we appreciate – then aligning them with products and services which we in turn monetize is timeless. The critical elements remain constant and endure no matter what coat of paint people put on them. Thanks again. (Venting is always ok with me – It shows passion)

  3. I agree, although the players have changed the game remains the same.
    We still use the same sales process, the same rhetoric and have the same problems.

    But the opportunities have also become a lot more.
    Today you can phone and “meet” people virtually all over the world, without the economic department screaming.

    We have also learned one or two things during these years, like the new style of salesman coaching that we see more and more.
    In the “old days” we would hire a salesman give him a 2 year training program and then send them out.

    Today we hire 10 salesmen give them a 2 day training program and see how well it goes, those who do well stay (and don’t often get any new training) and those who do poorly, well they don’t stick around that long.

    The business has become tougher and easier at the same time 🙂
    All you can say is, “It has all changed but it still is the same”.


    • Dan, you make a great point. It seems the strong training and development programs of the past are no more. Your assessment is right on–unfortunately, it’s kind of sad! How will we develop the great sales people and leaders unless we invest in them?

      • Yeah, the sad fact is that we are moving from quality to quantity in a marketplace where we get more and more attacted by marketing messages.

        Really our whole focus should be on getting the best salesmen so they can cut through the noise…

  4. Hi. I am only 41. I am not certain I know what has changed as much as I know what needs to change. You cannot be customer focused and Target focused at the same time. Crazy? Maybe. I believe in goals, ie, monthy quarterly and yearly targets. I dont believe in letting those same targets get in the way of managing a sale to the CLIENTs expectations. Organizations have to shift they way the view selling from a process focus to a customer focus. Customers dont know and dont care about how you want to sell. All they care about is what they need to help them achieve their objectives. Your targets are not their concern. All the books written about customer selling, consultative selling etc etc matter little when your boss is running you over with his or her car for missing a March deadline that you make in April. So, for those that are writing these books, stop writing them to the Reps and start writing them to the VP’s that lead the Reps. Explain to them that more will be achieved if you give the Rep a fighting chance at actually BEING consultative.

    • Vincent: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Clearly, customers are changing the way they buy, to be effective, sales people need to align their sales process with their customers’ buying processes–presenting value meaningful to them and creating value in facilitating their buying process. However, this is not incompatible with being target focused. Our companies hold us accountable for meeting our goals–afterall, that’s what drives the growth of the company. Great sales people and managers are able to manage this apparent paradox

      Customers don’t care about our selling processes, nor do they care about whether we are achieving our monthly, quarterly, annual goals. They care about solving their problems. Great sales people work with customers whose problems they can solve. Great sales people manage a pipeline of these opportunities that produce the flow of business needed to achieve its own goals.

      Victor, you’ve brought up a great point. Thanks for contributing. Regards, Dave

      • Hello David. I don’t dispute that Targets are important. I also don’t dispute that a focus on consistent production is essential as it relates to the performance of a business. However, when that becomes the only focus, and managers lose site of the big picture, customer focus suffers and results, as a default, suffer as well. Expert buyers know when to buy…at the end of every quarter. They give little consideration to the relationship built by the Sales Rep with the actual Customer. That is partially the fault of how Buyers are rewarded. However, it is also the fault of the desperate desire to make a quarterly or annual number by discounting the contract. If you want a “Seat at the Table” you need to have the time to build the relationship that gets you there. If Organizations allow their Reps to put the customer first, Targets will be met.

        • Vincent, you make a great point. Too some degree, we have “trained” buyers too well. so we get into this vicious circle.

          I am seeing some thought leaders on both sides starting to change the discussion. They are focusing on deeper, richer collaboration. I think we will see some profound changes by seeing a few leaders setting the example.

          Thanks for the comments.

  5. An excellent article, very thought provoking.

    One of the big changes in recent years is in the way big companies buy. There are fewer individuals around with the financial authority to sign off a large purchase, and yet there are many more people involved in each purchasing decision. Buyers are more risk averse than ever before, and a “safety first” supplier selection strategy is pervasive.

    You mention Neil Rackham, I had the pleasure of meeting him recently. One of his messages is “the days of the salesman as talking brochure are gone”, and he suggests that today’s salesman has to add value during the sales process, rather than merely communicating it.

    My view is that many sales people lack the change management skills to act as an effective consultant to their clients in the key competency areas their company brings to the market. You can hone and perfect questioning skills, solution benefit statements and closing techniques all you like, but these won’t get you any closer to helping your client make the changes required to take on your solution. Until you’ve understood what barriers to change exist, what levers are available to you to help facilitate that change and how you’re going to help your client make that change happen, you’ll never close all the business you could.

    • Mike, fantastic comments! I’m not sure there ever was a time for sales people as “talking brochures.” It’s something Neil’s been trying to change through his whole career.

      I actually believe the most sustainable differentiation that can be created is the value the sales person creates in facilitating the customer buying process–too few recognize this and practice it. Check some of the pieces I’ve written on value propositions. You will see quite a bit more on this.

      Your comments on change management are right on target. Fundamentally, sales people are asking their customers to change. Yet none of the major sales training providers ever talk about this or incorporate it into their programs. I believe one of the biggest training needs for sales people is in facilitating and managing change!

      Thanks for the great contributions to the discussion! Regards, Dave

  6. Robert Koehler permalink


    Thank you for the provocative thoughts. Here are the changes I see from my narrow slice of the world:

    1. Less time spent by sales managers coaching in the field. Rise of the ‘sales manager as uber closer’ syndrome compared to the sales manager as coach and leader environment in which I was raised.

    2. Per previous comments, less time in and quality of new hire sales onboarding programs. In my first outside sales job I spent one week 1:1 with my sales manager at his house followed a few months later with a ten day formal sales training program in the home office. Today it’s more likely to be two days face-to-face training with a high percentage of elearning/self-service (despite the huge increase of blended learning programs, most sales people still crave face-to-face training).

    3. The same amount of ‘busyness’ but with the advent of all the technology and speed of technology more confusion of ‘busyness’ with effectiveness and I suspect less time eyeball-to-eyeball in front of customers.

    4. More sales performance/effectiveness research and more focus on sales as a science rather than just sales as an art and the mastering of relationships (whether we’re leveraging this research to make real, lasting, effective changes is the question). Related to this I see more sales account managers focused on and competent in orchestrating organizational resources since this is so critical in today’s environment.


    • Robert: Great thoughts, most mirror mine.

      1. The sales manager as super closer versus, coach. I’m not sure whether this is different–I have no data to say one way of the other. However, too often we see the “best sales person,” moved into sales management. They get no coaching or training, and their roles are poorly defined (shame on their management). Consequently, they do what they know best–become super closers. Sales managers need to know their role is to get things done through their people. i’ll stop here, it’s one of my soapboxes, but I can go forever.

      2. The onboarding is a critical issue that too few organizations pay attention to or understand the impact. A couple of years ago, we worked with a very large high technology company. They had voluntary turnover of close to 70% of sales people within the first 12 months of being hired. The expense of this (measured in 100’s of sales people a year and all the related recruiting, management time, salary, etc.expenses) was very large. But more importantly the opportunity costs (lost business) were overwhelming. Upon firther investigation, we realized it was less a hiring problem, but more the lack of a structured and disciplined on-boarding process. We helped them structure a program that reduced voluntary turnover to less than 20% in less than 12 months–it has gone even lower.

      On boarding is critical, managers need to put in place a strong programs. This is also an area where sales operations and enablement can help a lot.

      3. The “air” of busyness is relatively consistent, just the way it manifests itself has changed.

      4. Sales as a science, performance maangement research, etc. I think the volume of information is going up–probably indicating it is a more fashionable issue for consultants, guru’s, press, and pundits–and that there is interest in the “sales world.” I think the overlay of technology solutions focused on sales/marketing productivity and effectiveness further reinforces this.

      However, the issue that drove me to write this particular piece, is that when you peel all that back and look at the root issues–it goes back to many of the fundamentals introduced by Drucker, Rackham, Hanan, Miller, Heiman, and a few others. The fact that what they intriduced 40-50 years ago still stimulates so much discussion of “what we should be doing” makes one wonder what keeps us from changing and sustaining it.

      Thanks for the great discussion! It’s really a privilege to be able to engage like this. Regards, Dave

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