The history of sales methodologies

Have you ever wondered just how many sales methodologies are out there and which ones work and which ones don’t?

Maybe you haven’t given much conscious thought to this subject, but then again maybe you have.  Either way, if you are in sales or run a sales team or business and want to be more effective and successful, it’s critical that you know what sales methodology will work best for you and your customers.

Unfortunately, the business world has been littered with more dubious sales methodologies than there are effective ones.

Our business, at Barrett, is to help our clients improve their sales operations, and so we are constantly examining the various sales methodologies on offer and in use. We need to be able to decipher what will work and what will not.

That is why for the better part of a year Dr Peter Finkelstein, Barrett’s head of sales strategy, has been researching the history of sales methodologies of the last 200 years, including the current day.

His research has culminated in our latest white paper: ‘The History of Sales Methodologies – why some work and other don’t’ (which you can access for free). It’s a fascinating read, and if nothing else, it will help you make more informed decisions about what sales methodologies work and which one is best for you and your customers.

So what did Peter find?

Well, you may have noticed that every now and then a new book on sales and selling appears which claims to contain the secret to sales success. Many of these books (and their associated sales methodologies and training programs) promote themselves as being the very latest, revolutionary approach to selling that, according to the authors, will change the organisation’s performance (and its salespeople) and miraculously improve sales, profits and success.

The research raised questions: Are these sales methods are really new? Do these sales methods really represent a revolution in selling? And do they actually work or not?

In short, whilst many different sales methodologies have been introduced in the last 40 years, most are simply repacked versions of sales methods developed decades ago. The only real revolution in sales methodology (that the research could identify) took place in 1968 when Xerox Corporation created an internal sales training program and methodology to combat still competition in the photocopying industry.

Don Hammalian led a team at Xerox Corporation that ultimately developed an entirely new approach to selling – a sales method that became known as Needs Satisfaction Selling. Prior to this milestone in the development of sales professionalism, there were many attempts at developing a sales method. Whilst some had limited success, if only for a period, most were flawed and couldn’t sustain the rapidly changing sales climate.

Needs Satisfaction Selling encouraged salespeople to interact with their prospects and customers and involved them in the sales process. Up until then salespeople were taught to tightly control the sale and direct the focus of the sales interaction – essentially viewing prospects as the target of their endeavours. Now, with the advent of Needs Satisfaction Selling, salespeople were encouraged to ask what was important to buyers and then to introduce benefits of products and services that satisfied those needs.

Today, needs satisfaction as a sales method may not seem revolutionary. But when one considers that until that period selling methods were based on the use of verbal tricks (Barrier Selling – a method of asking a series of leading questions to which the response was logically “Yes”, and then trapping the buyer into agreeing to say yes to a request for an order); the appeal to emotions (Mood Selling – amongst other tactics, the use of children to pull at the heart strings of customers as the salesman pleaded for the support from a customer in order to earn enough to feed his child); Pyramid Selling (in which customers were incentivised with discounts to demonstrate their fondness for a new gadget); Formula Selling (a canned presentation which took no notice of the customer as a person, but simply spewed out a pitch in order to catch customers unaware); and many other methods, one can see why needs satisfaction was so revolutionary.

The use of Information

Whilst, in the early days, salespeople were the primary source of information for customers, the role has changed. Today, salespeople still have a role to play regarding information, but instead of being information providers, salespeople now help their customers sift through the information overload to find what is most relevant and accurate. That means, as it was proposed in 1916, salespeople need to develop the trust of their customers and use their knowledge to help customers make the right choices.

Customers also expect salespeople to have a reason to meet (“will you help me save money or earn more?”). And most sales organisations and sales professionals have already responded to that call successfully.

Needs satisfaction selling and, then, about a decade later, Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling – with its heightened focus on involving the customer in the sales process, sharing control and asking questions – encouraged salespeople to not only invest time to understand the customers’ needs and expectations, but to also present customers with options that challenged their traditional way of thinking about problem-solving.

These developments of sales methodologies – i.e. Xerox’s needs satisfaction and Rackham’s SPIN Selling – were real revolutions. Since then, the so-called sales methods that have been introduced are merely rehashed wisdom of the past used to promote some new sales training course instead of offering real innovations in sales and selling.

Despite the range of the latest ‘new’ sales offerings, what is consistent then and now is that customers expect salespeople to come to them with new ideas and to present these with conviction, prepared to be challenged and willing to have robust discussions. All trust-based relationships involve robust, healthy, mutually respectful discussions. And that’s the point – mutual respect, not salespeople who challenge buyers because they can, but rather who interact with their customers to find the best solutions for them.

The point is simple – in the modern paradigm the role of the sales professional has changed. Now even more than when the concept was first developed in the 1970s, salespeople have to be consultative. They need to be business people who can sell, rather than salespeople who understand business. They need to have the skills to establish and fast-track trusted relationships with a range of decision-makers, in a variety of organisations where they can facilitate a fair exchange of value.

Since the 1968-1980 period, the most revolutionary process in selling and one that companies have still not managed to fully come to grips with, is Solutions Selling.

The true Solutions Sale is about the customer, now fully empowered, well informed and with ample choice, working with specific suppliers/service providers whom they can trust. It is about those sales organisations that are learning how to be sufficiently collaborative with other suppliers who can work with them, so that they – as a team – can develop a best-fit solution.

When sales professionals and, just as importantly, the organisations they work for, provide their customers with a range of meaningful benefits, including cutting down on wasted time, reduced risk and providing solutions that directly benefit the buyer, we will have successfully migrated to what solutions selling is truly all about – providing customers with a fair exchange of value that meaningfully benefits their businesses. This is the real next revolution in selling.

For the full white paper and table of the History of Sales Methodologies, please click here.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.

Sue Barrett is a sales expert, business speaker, adviser, sales facilitator and entrepreneur and founded Barrett Consulting to provide expert sales consulting, sales training, sales coaching and assessments.


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