Selling skills in a historical perspective
Geplaatst op 19 september 2016 door Ronald Swensson

The businesses we sell to, the problems we solve, and the solutions we offer have evolved tremendously in the past 10-15 years. The fact is that a high percentage of salespeople haven’t kept pace with this evolution. We’re working in a time I’ve come to refer to as ‘the third phase of modern selling’. Understanding the history of this evolution is an important factor to moving forward into this third phase. So let me step back with you for a moment. Several years ago, I was asked in a sales training to give a brief overview of the different selling skills used over the years. As I surveyed what literature there was on this subject, I found that sales, unlike most other functions in the modern corporation, didn’t really have much of a ‘history’. At least, almost nobody studied and wrote about selling and selling skills in the same way that they studied and wrote about Marketing or General Management. I figured that the best way to find a window on the history of modern selling skills was to look at the evolution of sales books. Feeling like an archeologist, I searched the internet and checked out all the material I could find that addressed the question, ‘How can I be more successful in sales by using the right selling skills?’. It turned out to be quite a load of stuff: training manuals, articles, recordings and lots and lots of sales books (see also our collection 100 Classic Sales Books and a historical framework I wrote for this collection). I was surprised that after some consideration, you could easily classify them into three main time frames, what I’ve come to call phase one, phase two and phase three of modern selling. `

Phase one 
The earliest material in phase one begins roughly at the beginning of the last century and continues until the mid-seventies. A reviewer today would characterize the titles of some of these sales books somewhere between naïve and hilarious: ‘The Customer Who Can’t Say No!’, ‘How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling’, ‘Open the Mind and Close the Sale’ and ‘The Sale Begins When The Customer Says No’. But the skills just under the surface were both subtle and sophisticated. This was the phase of the sales script. ‘Just tell me what to say in a sales interview and I will close the deal’. The agenda was mostly purely the seller’s agenda, and the seller’s agenda was to get the customer to do what he - and in some few cases, she - wanted the customer to do. The role of ‘the phase one salesperson’ was that of a persuader. Sales books focused almost exclusively on three areas: presenting, handling objections and of course, closing. These skills thrive nowadays in a few niches, for example outbound telemarketing, used car business and consumer electronics retail, but as an approach - and partly due to the internet - it has no future. Why? Basically, customers caught into a Win/Lose situation - ‘take it or leave it’ - and developed defense mechanisms that salespeople even today have to cope with. Phase one was replaced by an emphasis on a new set of skills, and by a new - and more sophisticated - point of view about the role of the salesperson. 

Phase two 
Phase two started in the mid-70s with Larry Wilson and his ‘Counselor Approach’ and Mack Hanan with his ‘Consultative Approach’ being two of the earliest proponents. The emphasis on presenting, closing, and handling objections characteristic of phase one is replaced in phase two with a focus on questioning, listening, trust, and building a relationship with the customer. You won’t find any reference to listening skills or building trust in any phase one material because listening or trust had absolutely no relevance to the phase one job (I might be exaggerating here a bit, but those skills had no priority). The questioning techniques of phase two were aimed at developing and understanding of the customer’s needs - defined as the difference between what the customer had and what the customer wanted - and the job of the salesperson was to understand and then close that gap with his or her product and called the ‘solution’. The phase two approach has come to be known as ‘needs-satisfaction selling’ and the role of the phase two salesperson is that of a problem solver. Because customers were brought in a Win/Win rather than a Win/Lose situation, phase two remains - even today - the basis for most sales training. But as the marketplace rapidly changed in the mid-90s - an increasing complexity of business problems and technology of solutions - customers were less and less able to accurately identify and describe their ‘pains and gains’ and salespeople were unable to counter the increasing purchasing power of large companies. So phase two selling skills needed an update. 

Phase three 
Phase three took shape more slowly than phase two did, and it represents a convergence of two main influences, both of which could be described under the general rubric of ‘business acumen’. If the role of the salesperson in phase one was that of a persuader, and in phase two of a problem solver, the emerging role of the salesperson in phase three could be described as a value creator. A value creator is challenged to think from very different and complementary perspectives, both at the same time. One point of view is that of the ‘consultant’, being a source of business advantage to the customer. When operating from this point of view, the salesperson must think like a business person and apply his or her business acumen and understanding of the customer’s business processes and priorities to creating a solution that the customer would truly value, but has never experienced and would never think to ask for. The other point of view is that of the ‘strategist’. The salesperson must think like a business person from the point of view of his or her own company. In phase one and two the salesperson was concerned only with revenue. Margins and cost of sales were somebody else’s problem. That paradigm - of cause - never did work very well. So phase three salespeople are concerned not just with revenues, but also with cost of sales: shortening the sales cycle, increasing customer loyalty, increasing deal sizes, qualifying opportunities and walking away from unprofitable business. In short, as a value creator, phase three salespeople are sources of advantage to their customers and to their own firm. It is about helping the customer go from its current state to its desired future state in a way that is both unique and valuable. When this is accomplished, the result is mutually beneficial value and a customer that considers the vendor strategic to their business.