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Selling in Tough Times - Moving Beyond Consultative Selling

Part 1: The 5 C's of Selling

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In late February, I had the pleasure of delivering a seminar for a national sales conference in conjunction with a colleague who specializes in sales, marketing and business development.

We were co-presenting to an organization that was requiring its sales force to take a new approach to its selling efforts. Today's economic climate has presented this organization with some tough business challenges that require its sales representatives to think and act differently to increase sales.

I specialize in change leadership and how to influence others; my colleague specializes in professional sales skills, so we titled our presentation: "How to Overcome Resistance and Move into a Collaborative Selling Mode." Our presentation was very well received. Here is a synopsis of some the content.

5 Generations of Selling

The reality is... sales has come a long way. If you look at the selling process over the past 60 years, it has really evolved through five generations. We call these the "5 C's of Selling".

1. Cronyism. The first era of selling, prevalent in the industrial boom following World War II, was what we call cronyism. In this approach, 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.

2. Commodity Selling. The 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 dislike this approach as there is always pressure to cut the margins to increase sales.

3. Content Selling. This era of selling was the first to involve a strategic differentiation of one product from another. Starting in the 1960's through to the 1980's, 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 these 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) due to brand awareness and buyer sophistication.

Although this era marks the start of "professional selling", the flaw with a features and benefits approach is that it did not take into account the unique and differing needs of customers. In effect, this approach was product-centric versus customer-centric. Although content selling raised the likelihood of increased sales with some customers, it did not maximize success with all customers. Hence the evolution to the fourth era of selling...

4. Consultative Selling. Over the past 20 years, consultative selling has been very much in vogue. By the 1980's, organizations realized the problem with content selling ("features and benefits") was that you may be providing a benefit that the customer doesn't value, and missing a benefit that the customer does want.

In consultative selling, the initial focus is on first understanding the deeper needs and buying motives of the customer and then ensuring your product fits with these needs and motives. Given that customers value different things, this approach requires some product diversity but also presents greater upside on the sales front.

However, even consultative selling has a drawback, which is particularly apparent in these tough economic times. That is, when the entire focus is on meeting the needs of the customer, that negates the very real needs of the supplying organization, especially when the business climate is hurting. In other words, notwithstanding the critical importance of the customer, if those needs are the only ones that matter, then some excellent selling organizations may be pushed out of business - and that indirectly hurts the customer that has benefited from this solid customer-supplier relationship.

This brings us to what we see as the dawn of a fifth era in selling - Collaborative Selling. Click to continue reading.

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