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The Future Of Selling — Consultative, Solutions and Customer Focused? Deja Vu All Over Again?

by David Brock on July 20th, 2009
I’m frustrated and a little impatient. As a profession, we seem to be doing the same thing over and over, making little progress. Sometimes, I feel like I’m Bill Murray waking up every morning in “Ground Hog Day.”

All sorts of sales consultants, guru’s, and other self proclaimed experts (probably including me, if I’m honest) make a lot about being consultative, solutions and customer focused, value driven and even provocative in selling. These topics have been fodder for 100’s of books, 1000’s of articles and $ billions in sales training and other services.

Virtually every self respecting sales professional talks about being solutions, consultative, customer focused, or even provocative.

Buyers are saying the same thing, they want sales people to focus on their (the buyer’s) business and problems, presenting business justified solutions.
I’m convinced — and I think the leading thinkers and practitioners in selling are also convinced that this customer and value creation focus is critical for success in sales.

So why am I frustrated? This afternoon, I blew the dust off a well worn book on my bookshelf: Consultative Selling, 4th Edition, by Mack Hanan, published in 1990. The description on the fly leaf:

“What does a customer want more than anything else? Profits. If you, as a salesperson can shoe your customers how your product or service will improve their profits….you can be sure they will keep coming back for more….”

” This new approach comes directly from market demands, ‘Customers in major markets are setting the new ground rules for selling.'”

“Would you like your customer to value you as a friend who can help make their business grow?”

That was in the 1990 edition, I’m sure similar thoughts were expressed in the original 1970 edition. Yet those are the same words we talk about, today, as the “new selling.”

My copy of Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling was published in 1987, my copy of Bosworth’s Solution Selling was published in 1995, Peter Drucker lectured on these concepts in the 1950-60’s. I could go on citing book after book.

So I’m frustrated, why can’t we make progress? For decades, we have been talking about this, but we seem to make little progress in execution. Why are our customers letting us get away with the same old thing?

When will we stop talking about solution selling, customer focused selling, and value based selling because it’s the norm of practice by sales professionals? When will we move on to talk about the next thing—what is the next thing?

I don’t have any answers and would love to get your thoughts. What’s holding us back? How do we move on and look at the next new things we should be doing as sales professionals?

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  1. Timothy permalink

    Dave — I share your frustration. But selling, like any other profession, seems to evolve in incremental improvements from life lessons learned. Would we ever say, "What's the next big thing in cost accounting?" And yet, we expect big leaps forward in the sales profession. My experience is that we still have a long way to go in getting most salespeople to consistently exhibit mastery of their craft — to truly be professionals, and proud of it. Hence, even though the "best" ways to sell has been published by experts for many years, the majority of people who claim to be salespeople don't adopt and use best practices. When will this change? When salespeople have to change, in order to survive. I'm already seeing some of this now, during this difficult economic time. But when we see more prosperous times, and the need for discipline in selling is less intense, I'll bet we see most salespeople go back to old bad habits. It's a shame, but as long as you bring in an acceptable level of numbers, you can still be a hack seller and keep your job today. I'm hopeful that the migration from an atom-centric economy to a bit-centric economy (at least in the US), and the continued disintermediation of sellers from commodity purchases (made possible by the Internet), will force the remaining people in the sales profession to develop a higher degree of competency and ability. But I suspect that will require another ten years of evolution before we see it.

  2. Dave Brock's Blog permalink

    Timothy: Thanks for the fantastic and very thoughtful comments.

    I was speaking to someone the other day about this same issue. He had an interesting comment about the inability to change:

    He reflected in the "good old days, of wild growth, we were too busy making money to change." He then went on to comment on the current economy saying, "we are too busy making money (or trying to) to change." The irony of the comment was very striking.

    I think systemic change will be a long time in coming, however, there are bright spots. I do see some organizations doing better and improving. More importantly, I see many individual professionals striving to improve.

    I really appreciate you taking the time to comment. Your points are outstanding!

  3. Wade Steverson permalink

    A good question Dave and it is refreshing that you can be honest about the fact that most methods do not seem to be working. Every good professional does the basics: know the product, how it can benefit your customer, etc., but this is a thinking man’s business and maybe just maybe we are doing the basics from what we consider them to be and not necessarily from the real interest of the one on the other side of the table.
    What is the personal value system and buying strategies of the buyer; what is the company value system? How do you tie them together? Better yet, how do you sew your value system and product into theirs? Can you raise the emotional level to the logical levels tie them together and make the close?
    Remember it’s a thinking man’s business, this business of sales.

    • Wad, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Sales is a thinking person’s profession–too few do that.

      I really like the point you raise about the personal value system of the buyer. Too often we focus just on the business elements, but we ignore the personal aspects for the buyer. Thanks for contributin. Regards, Dave

  4. Bob Ennamorato permalink

    I think the answer is in the last sentence of your post. “Sales Professionals” with the operative word being “professionals”. Many at the top of our field are being included as teams members on customers staff of trusted professionals along with their legal team, their CPA’s, their insurance providers, etc.

    Customers expect their Sales Professional team member to provide a solution when a solution is needed; to provide information, knowledge and ideas, when consulting is needed; to render assistance when assistance is needed and they no longer consider it value added, or try to label it, it is what is expected of their supplier partner.

    Things that used to be strong differentiators, things that used to provide a differential competitive advantage are now expected of a Sales Professional and are considered “openers” in developing a professional relationship. An ENR “Top 50” Construction Company Director of Procurement told me recently “the last thing in the world I need is another vendor and another salesman knocking on my door. I don’t need somebody trying to sell me what I’m already buying cheaper. I only want to deal with someone who can help me run my business better, help us be more succesful. Someone who will learn my business and can become a part of our team. Anything else is a complete waste of my time”.

    So all of the skills we all learned from those books you mentioned, are all good tools to have in our Selling Skills Tool Kit. But the “next big thing” in Sales is raising the quality, depth and intensity of our relationships with customers to the degree that they consider us a “resource” on a par with any other professional resources they utilize in their businesses.

  5. As founder of The Personal Leadership Academy, we wholeheartedly agree that the underlying success of client/supplier relations is in the ability for the salesperson to be the trusted advisor.

    This means that the ability to truly tap into more than the benefits of the product or solution is necessary whilst still important. It means to do more than find the pain that the client is going through from an operational perspective and to truly learn to communicate with that person on a personal basis ie what personal leverage does the client have to work with you.

    This may not always be relevant however the abillity to sense when it is necessary is critical. This must come down to the ability for the salesperson to be acutely aware of reading the client and adjusting their behaviour appropriately and learning to be flexible in their approach.

    It hinges on personal leadership because this determines performance which in turn determines results and this is what business relies upon. Hence, our approach to accelerated sales leadership.

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