Until the late 1980s, common sales practices were to push product Features-Advantages & Benefits (FAB) and then to try to manipulate a “Close” by employing clever scripts. Some of the best companies in the world (GE, Xerox, IBM, and Exxon) eventually took stock and realized that training salespeople in pitching FAB and manipulating closes, while somewhat successful at the commodity level where young salespeople started, had limited effectiveness when salespeople rose to more major and complex selling settings.
They turned to a psychologist named Neil Rackham and commissioned an extensive study with an open-ended research question: “What works in major and complex sales?” He and his team investigated roughly 35,000 sales calls.
Rackham’s team discovered that what was being taught – pitching FAB and manipulating closes – did not work. Indeed, the more closing techniques that were employed, the less successful the salesperson.
The most successful salespeople, Rackham found, were those who asked the best questions. These findings reported in 1989 revolutionized the field of selling.
Fast forward to more recent years and we have a number of provocateurs laying claim to the next revolution in selling. “Solution selling is dead” asserts one1. The jacket of Daniel Pink’s To Sell is Human2 teases the reader with “startling truths” and to offer “counterintuitive insights” on what works in selling. The third breakthrough we will consider asserts that selling mainstays like building relationships are now passé.3
To me, what we have here is a lot of heat and not much light. I think some training firms looked at the calendar and thought, “It has been around twenty-five years since the last revolutionary idea. It is about time for the next big idea on what works in sales. Why not us?”
Dismantling the Sales Machine1 (Harvard Business Review, 2013)
The authors are from CEB, or Corporate Executive Board, and contend that there is a “new world of sales” and in it businesses must abandon their “fixation on process” and embrace their breakthrough model they call “insight selling”. The straw man they set up as being obsolete is “solution selling”. According to them, “solutions” are bad but “insights” are good. If that assertion leaves you cold, save some time and skip the article.
To Sell is Human 2(Riverhead Books, 2012)
This contribution to what is new in sales is the most disappointing because the author, Daniel Pink, has written excellent books in Drive and Whole New Mind. He is a bit like Malcolm Gladwell in that he is not a scientist himself, but synthesizes scientific trends and relates them in an easy to read fashion. One of his main assertions in this book is that a lot of us “sell”. All right, if you call any act of persuasion “selling” we can accept that preachers, teachers, even parents are selling. So what?
My other peeve, is that as he reviews significant contributions to the field of selling he overlooks Neil Rackham. This would be like tracing meaningful contributors to the history of science and skipping Newton. Finally, most of his anecdotes are Business-to-Customer and not Business-to-Business. But, he writes well.
Challenger Selling 3 (Penguin, 2011)
This one has some traction. We know of some large companies that have embraced their core concept that today’s salespeople need to move beyond simply building relationships and proposing solutions. Now, they must challenge prospects and clients with unique “insights”.
Wait a minute. Does “insight” sound familiar? Well as it turns out, these are the same guys from Corporate Executive Board that are positioning Insight Selling reviewed above. Which is it?
Here is another problem I have with Challenger Selling and the research upon which it is purportedly based. They report that in their study they found five kinds of salespeople: hard workers, challengers, relationship builders, lone wolfs, and reactive problem solvers. Among the five, challengers were the most successful.
My experience in both teaching and doing sales is that good salespeople easily adapt to and employ various selling styles depending on the situation. There are times when I have challenged clients with what I considered unique insights and won. There are other times when I have challenged and lost.
At the other extreme, there have been happy occasions when a client with whom I have a good relationship has called me to schedule work. So, what style do I employ? Is it Challenger? Relationship builder? Moving from one style to another is certainly not unique to me as a salesperson.
Now, here’s an idea. Maybe I should author an article on the next breakthrough in selling and call it Eclectic Selling! Not a bad thought. I’ll begin by proclaiming that everything you thought worked – like finding solutions and building relationships – is out of date. To succeed in modern day selling you must engage us to train your salesforce in the new skills of Eclectic Selling. How about it?