Part I: What Makes Sales fundamentally Different Than Before?

Will there still be salespeople in 2030? Opinions are divided. Non-believers predict that artificially intelligent chatbots will take over the conversation with customers and drones will be delivering products ordered online to our homes, day and night.

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No one knows who will be right. What is certain, however, is that human salespeople have to develop themselves because the sales profession is evolving. The more than 50,000 sales-related books on Amazon are a case in point. Yet the profession has only made a handful of growth spurts throughout history and only recently undergone a radical shift. We have now reached a point of no return. What follows is a quick sketch of the evolution of sales, as well as an interpretation of what makes sales in 2021 fundamentally different than before.

Pitching USPs: unique selling points

Before the 1970s, sales was straightforward. Whoever exhibited his product most convincingly won the customer over. Sellers went from door to door armed with suitcases full of pots, pans, perfumes, shoes and lingerie. Even less obvious products such as telephones, coffins, Persian carpets, pool tables and swimming pools were dragged around the country in miniature.

During this period, vendors were drilled on how to energetically pitch to customers, cleverly devising storylines with the aim of convincing them of an offer they couldn’t refuse. The scripts were produced behind closed doors and were full of USPs, unique selling points, or the product’s most impressive features. The purpose of the sales pitch was to unobtrusively drive the customer into a corner that he would be unable to leave unless he continued buying. Storylines played on pain and pleasure, while a highly sophisticated carrot-and-stick strategy would cause the ‘dazed’ prospect to crack under so much sales violence. During this period, sellers were masters in overcoming objections and employed a wide range of closing techniques. The well-known expression ‘always be closing’ dates from this period.

What did the salesperson look like in the USP era? Characteristic of top sellers was an outspoken winner’s mentality. Resilience, perseverance and flexibility were indispensable qualities. In order to succeed you had to be a powerhouse that could arouse enough sympathy to get in past the front door. Moreover, the salesperson had to have a ‘thick skin’, and ‘selective hearing’ came in handy, given that the intention was to tell the rehearsed story despite the prospect’s resistance.

Nowadays this form of sales is called ‘transactional’ and it occurs sporadically in sectors where the customer and the seller only have one sales conversation. Sectors that sell by phone typically use more scripts and sales pitches, with The Wolf of Wall Street as the best-known cinematic example.

Discovering UBRs: unique buying reasons

Mack Hanan’s 1970 book Consultative Selling was to sales what Elvis was to music: a swinging alternative to the way things were done at the time. For the first time ever, the focus was not on the salesman’s product or service, but on the customer and his needs. Top salespeople acted as consultants who delved into the customer’s challenges before offering a solution.

In this period the term UBR was born, unique buying reasons. From then on, the customer’s situation was the focus, and the sales professional would search for the unique reasons the prospect should buy the product or service. UBRs consisted of two categories: problems the customer had to solve and ambitions he wanted to realize. The sales professional’s first objective was to discover the customer’s needs and desires through thoughtful questioning. The next step was a bespoke product presentation. For the first time in sales, the product was ‘king’ and the product’s specific fit ‘emperor’! Customers no longer wanted generic presentations of the product’s features; they wanted the specific benefits with regards to their needs and ambitions.

The shift from product sales to consultative sales would result in a huge about-turn in sales professionals’ skills. Perhaps the biggest change was the leap from 80% speaking to 80% listening. Consultative sales was a dialogue with the customer that sought to apply the principle ‘first seek to understand, then to be understood’. From now on, salespeople were expected to be ‘gentlemen and gentlewomen’ who gallantly put the customer first. Nevertheless, relinquishing the control that a script offered proved to be a struggle for product sellers during retraining. After all, that control had been the key to success in the previous era. Asking open-ended questions meant opening the door to unwanted answers that reduced the chance of success, a risk the hard seller was unwilling to take. From now on, the consultative seller would seek the richness of unfiltered customer information, which he then gratefully used to create a bespoke presentation. In consultative selling, testosterone gave way to listening skills, domination to dialogue. Vendors were still trained in overcoming objections, but these became less common as a result of the now highly relevant argumentation.

Consultative selling in its derivative forms (SPIN selling, solution selling, customer-centric selling, insight selling, etc.) is still the most widely used sales methodology in value-added contexts. Modern sales organizations such as Showpad further facilitate their sales team’s consultative sales process with:

  • ICPs (Ideal Customer Profiles): The profiles of ‘ideal customers’, who are targeted as prospects.
  • Persona: A detailed character description of the targeted contact person. Who is this person? What interests him? How does he make decisions?
  • Sector trends: Developments that influence companies in specific sectors and serve as a starting point for commercial discussions.
  • Use cases’: Reference projects from certain sectors in which the original need and delivered solution are described. These are used as guidelines during the sales process with similar customers.
  • Customer journeys’: Road maps detailing the process that the customer goes through with his needs and how the sales rep can respond.

The targeted use of this documentation, often brought together in a ‘sales playbook’, enables consultative salespeople to both look for pain points with their prospect and maintain control of the conversation. This advanced variant of consultative sales is known as ‘guided selling’.

Offering UDEs: unique desired experiences

And that brings us to today. How different are today’s sales and what are the gamechangers that modern sales professionals must take into account?

Read all about it in Part 2: ‘What Makes Sales Different Today Than Before? (#2 Sales Today)’

This blog post is part of chapter 1 of our book: RIO Less Contact – More Impact.

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Part I: What Makes Sales fundamentally Different Than Before?

Will there still be salespeople in 2030? Opinions are divided. Non-believers predict that artificially intelligent chatbots will take over the conversation with customers and drones will be delivering products ordered online to our homes, day and night.