The Evolution of the Seller

Satisfying needs is good, delivering outcomes is wonderful, but the very best…SERIOUSLY SELLING SUCCESS.
Is your win rate slower and lower? Is your profitability slipping and dipping?

Like an old bull limping through the pasture, it could be that your selling approach once tried-and-true is now out of date and just tired and through.

Figure 1 shows the evolution of the seller. In some organizations, the traditional competencies of the product specialist are the appropriate sales capabilities for strong performance. But many sales forces need to move up and to the right, transitioning from the product specialist to solution consultant as complexity and sophistication increase, and then on to the success advisor as importance and perceived risk to the customer intensify.

In this article I will describe, and then compare and contrast, the key competencies required for each selling model. However, one constant holds true for any and all sellers in any and all situations–the need to provide easy, hassle-free, brilliant customer experiences.

The Product Specialist

For decades, the accepted icon of the professional seller has been the product specialist, the image most people think of when they hear the word “salesman.” (Figure 2.)

Influencing Approach: Satisfy a Need

Xerox Learning Systems, once one of the premier sales training organizations, coined the term “need satisfaction” with the introduction of their Professional Selling Skills training course decades ago. It aligned nicely with the sales guru Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling and the sales training delivered by his firm Huthwaite. The core tenets of this “find a need and fill it” approach remain a foundation of all persuasion training.

Role: Value Communicator

The effective product specialist must be able to uncover customer issues and then articulate the benefits of his product to prospects in ways they understand and find relevant to their needs. In situations where prospects have limited information about their issues and options, the product specialist helps educate and hopefully persuade prospects to favorably view his products. In addition, he must show how his product is different and better than competitors in addressing those needs.

Goal: Build Product Trust

For the product specialist, it is all about the product. Hence, he feels that if he can get the prospect to trust in his product and its ability to meet the prospect’s needs, sales will follow.

Often, the product specialist downplays the need for service–why add cost to the customer and risk losing the product sales? He touts the product using terms like “robust,” “plug-and-play,” “simple,” and “unbreakable.” However, he will actively and gladly give away services if it is helpful in getting the product deal.

Responsiveness: Reactive

In most cases, management expects the product specialist to cold call to get appointments that might lead to sales. But, in reality, most cold-calling efforts lead to 10% or less of sales volume. So, for the most part, the product specialist is reactive, like a falcon resting on a fence post waiting for a plump meadowlark to fly by as a potential lunch. He relies on someone else (e.g., the marketing or business development professionals) to provide him with warm leads. Hence, strong promotion of all kinds (advertising, conferences, meetings, webinars, etc.) is a must for the product specialist to start sales cycles and fill his pipeline of opportunity.

Presence: Professional

The product specialist strives to look, speak, and act like a professional. He is polite to everyone, dresses like his prospects, and is careful with his vocabulary so as not to offend. The product specialist is politically aware. He understands that there are always political considerations when an organization considers making a change–whether a teenager buying acne medication or a purchasing agent considering adding a new vendor.

Performance Driver: Efficiency

The high-performing product specialist thinks of his job as a numbers game–the more calls, the more appointments, the more the sales–gotta make the 30- and 90-day targets. Efficiency is his mantra, and personal time management allows him to clock more calls, and the more calls, the more sales. It is all about percentages. Along with pipelines and probabilities, the number of calls per week is an important performance indicator.

Knowledge Requirements

For the product specialist to perform his role, he needs a good understanding of his products, his company’s capabilities, his competitor’s products, his competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, and familiarity of the industry in which he competes. This list is short on items, but often long on the time it takes for mastery.

Relationship Skills

The best product specialists do the basic soft skills well. They listen intently, they probe with a plan, they present purposefully. Because most of the opportunities they encounter lead to request for proposals and competitive bake-offs, they are as prepared for dealing with resistance as a well-seasoned knight awaiting a joust. The product specialist has a tried-and-true script of responses for common concerns and knows how far he can stretch his organization’s boundaries on price reductions and acceptable giveaways.

Technical Proficiency: Strong

Combining knowledge and skills, the product specialist has strong technical proficiency. He is well armed with product features and functionality and has a strong understanding of the technology built into his products and his competitors’ products. He can handle most troubleshooting himself and not bother his internal experts.
Becoming a product specialist takes lots of training, homework, and years of experience to be successful. I admire those who have made this journey. In some industries it is still appropriate for the product specialist to act as the primary influencer. In other industries it makes sense for the product specialist to be a part of a broader selling team (such as acting as the pre-sales product expert). However, in most situations, for these individuals to survive, they must evolve into solution consultants.

Let’s now compare the product specialist to the solution consultant, as shown in Figure 3.

Solution Consultant

Influencing Approach: Deliver a Business Outcome

The solution consultant knows that meeting needs is good, but it is only the initial ante in the higher-stakes game of selling solutions. Solutions sellers focus on understanding and aligning with the customer’s desired business outcome, e.g., increasing sales, improving uptime, reducing risk, enhancing quality, lowering costs, whatever their priorities are. Mack Hanan’s Consultative Selling was long the proponent of sellers being able to deliver quantitative financial results that had business impact. Robert Miller and Stephen Heiman’s Strategic Selling laid out the foundation of strategic selling. Michael Bosworth’s Solution Selling, Keith Eades’ The New Solution Selling, and many others have contributed to addressing the challenges and intricacies of the solution selling model.

Role: Value-Adder

The solution consultant knows that savvy prospects may have as much relevant information about product choices as the supplier has. Hence, acting as a talking brochure just gets in the way. Whereas the product specialist views services as a distraction or a necessary evil, the solution consultant knows that services are central to a solution offering. Therefore, he uses his customer acumen to combine products and services into tailored solutions that cumulatively add value that goes beyond what any one product can do. He knows that the true definition of a solution is when appropriate products and services (including consulting, support, and training) are combined so that 1+1=3 or more.

Goal: Supplier Trust

Of course the solution consultant hopes to build customer trust regarding his products and services. But he also needs the prospect to trust him as a professional and have faith in his team, his company, and his partners–all the components of the solution delivery team.

Responsiveness: Proactive

Does the solution consultant appreciate leads from marketing? Sure does. But he won’t sit by and put his fate in others’ hands. When appropriate, he asks his best customers for referrals. He actively researches companies and the key people within them to target ideal prospects. He undertakes “warm” calling to greatly improve his percentage of interested prospects. He religiously studies LinkedIn to identify key players in key accounts, adding meaningful dialogue to posts.

Presence: Management

The purchase of solutions often cross multiple functions and geographies, and the investment and the perceived possible risk usually mean that many prospect managers and directors are involved. Hence, the successful solution consultant needs credibility among all these decision makers–to be seen as a peer. How he looks, how he talks, and how he walks all impact his presence and credibility.

Because there are many cooks in the customer kitchen, many recipes are present with different proposed ingredients. The politically savvy solution consultant researches and anticipates those differences and develops plans and techniques to smooth egos and build concurrence. Like the chef overseeing a high-end Sunday buffet, he dishes out the right information seasoned to the taste of his specific clientele.

Performance Driver: Effectiveness

Of course the solution consultant wants to be efficient in his use of time, but he realizes it is more important to be effective–focusing on doing the right things. He relentlessly scrutinizes multiple sources to help him first prioritizes industries, then prospective companies, and finally, key players within those companies. He separates the useful many from the vital few.

Knowledge Requirements

In addition to the requirements of the product specialist, the solution consultant can articulate the features and benefits of services, such as consulting, training, or support contracts. Depending upon his company, he can articulate the plusses and minuses of solution options, such as a traditional purchase versus pay for usage versus pay for performance. He knows the strengths and weaknesses of his company’s partners and their employees and under which situations to involve them. He understands the various technologies to be addressed in solutions and follows the principles of strategic account management to investigate, analyze, plan, and implement an appropriate course of action.

Solutions often contain many moving parts with multiple projects requiring several people to do several, varying tasks in sequence and in tandem. Like a juggler in a circus, he keeps multiple plates spinning and not crashing to the floor. Hence, it is up to the solution consultant to plan, monitor, measure, and adjust the solution projects concerning quality, time, and budget. He also has a need for speed, continually focusing on compressing the time-to-value cycle his customers demand.

Relationship Skills

In addition to the core skills outlined under the product specialist, the solution consultant must add more arrows to the relationship quiver. First, he must analyze an often-multifarious jigsaw puzzle to confirm what the core problem is to be addressed. The solution consultant needs mediation skills to manage the feeling and the focus of prospect groups, partners, and internal teams. His negotiating skills must be expanded beyond just initial price, to describing the total cost of ownership showing the return on investment and predicting the lifetime value of his solutions. Writing skills need to be honed, as more and more clear and purposeful internal and external messaging is needed to gain commitment.

Whereas the product specialist can be effective with limited support, the solution consultant can’t do it alone; he needs a team inside and often a team within the prospect to achieve mutual goals. Hence, he must assume the role of coordinator, monitoring performance and guiding actions.

Moderate Technical Proficiency

The solution consultant does not need the deep technology understanding of the product specialist, but he must be able to talk technically at a high level. Because of the sophistication and complexity of the solutions being discussed, the in-the-weeds conversations are normally best left to experts on the solution team.
When selling into complexity where sophistication is needed, strong solution consultants are required to orchestrate the persuasion parade.

Success Advisor

When results have far-reaching implications, the customer decision-making elevator opens at the top floor. Yes, managers, directors, and subject-matter experts still act as influencers, but strategic choices are made in the boardroom.
Executives don’t want to deal with salespeople, they prefer to intermingle with peers. The success advisor must exude the confidence of a McKinsey senior partner to convey viewpoints worthy of an executive’s consideration (Figure 4). He must also possess the gumption of a special forces commander willing to confront the sometimes-brilliant, occasionally arrogant, captains of industry who have strong views on many things but are not always right. The success advisor requires the attitude and capabilities described by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson’s The Challenger Sale, but also the mindset and approach of top management consultants. Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting, David Maister’s The Trusted Advisor, and Alan Weiss’ Ultimate Consultant are stellar example from which to better glean what the success advisor looks and acts like.
Moving along our evolutionary path, let’s now look at the requirements of the success advisor to meet these challenges and what makes him different.

Influencing Approach: Create Customer Success

Like the solution consultant, the success advisor vigorously pursues the delivery of outcomes, measurable returns on investment that advance the customer’s strategic initiatives. However, he takes it one step further. He understands that the key players involved in decision making, of course, want business outcomes, but they also view decision making through the lens of what’s in it for them. The success advisor must demonstrate the personal wins to executives who have widely disparate goals and agendas. Contrary to the tactical approach taken by many customer success authors, my book, Brilliant Customer Success, illuminates that Customer Success is both strategic and personal.

Role: Value Creator

Like the early digital thinkers in an analog world, the success advisor creates value by challenging, re-framing, and disrupting accepted issues, standard models, and the status quo. He is respectful, but openly assumes the role of contrarian when facing tired ideas or business-as-usual patterns of thought.

Goal: Personal Trust

The new, possibly bold ideas the success advisor describes may make the prospect wary of the big change required and the personal risk involved. To move ahead, the executive prospect must feel that the seller has his back…will take care of him personally to eliminate, or at least mitigate, risk. To do this, the success advisor puts a premium on developing personal trust.

Responsiveness: Predictive

As does the solution consultant, the success advisor is always looking for new ways to make things easier, better, faster. Like Merlin counseling King Arthur, the success advisor builds upon his deep knowledge and past experience to predict the obstacles, opportunities, and outcomes the prospect will face when considering change. The predictive competency just described helps the success advisor to help compress the prospect’s learning curve, outlining gaps, sharing probable risks, and generating new ways of thinking. The once unthinkable now becomes open to discussion.

Presence: Executive

Credentials only go so far–the success advisor must ooze integrity, and look, act, walk, and talk like someone worthy and credible in the executive suite.

The success advisor is not only politically savvy, but culturally attuned. He understands the customer’s philosophy and how that manifests itself in the customers culture. This understanding builds credibility, likeability, and tolerance to different ideas.

Performance Driver: Innovation

Dramatic change that provides the prospect the opportunity of competitive advantage goes beyond doing the tried-and-true better. Value creation relies on innovation.

Knowledge Requirements

Building upon the knowledge of the solution consultant, the success advisor adds in the capabilities of a business executive, an organization strategist, and a human performance technologist. He understands how executives analyze problems and make decisions, and understands systems thinking and its implications. Most importantly, he embraces the concept that value creation and innovation require change, and sometimes dramatic transformation, to be successful.

Relationship Skills

Adding to the lengthy list of the solution consultant, the success advisor must hone his already-fluent presentation skills to speak with impact, whether chatting with a client in an elevator headed to the lobby, or giving a keynote at an industry conference. He possesses fine-tuned facilitation skills to guide the various groups he encounters. He orchestrates his team, delegating responsibility and entrusting his people to do the right things, the right way, at the right time.

Technical Proficiency

Executives speak “business-ease,” so the success advisor needs “just enough” technical acumen to broadly link his technology to the business issues at hand. He leaves all other discussions of a technical nature to his experts.

So, what should your sellers look and act like? Do you need to lead the transformation of your sales force from product specialist to solution consultant, or from solution consultant to success advisor? What are the challenges? What are the appropriate transition practices?

Many, many situation-specific variables come into play, but at a super-basic level, here goes:

    • Things simple and stable? The product specialist is able.
    • Situation more complex? The solution consultant is best.
    • High risk and high stakes? The success advisor is what it takes.

James “Alex” Alexander has a doctorate in Human Resource Development, and after a dozen years in corporate life has spent more than two decades helping product companies build brilliant services businesses. Alex researches, publishes, advises, trains, and speaks on transforming good services organizations into high-performance services machines that create loyal customers, drive sales of services and products, and dominate the competition. He has written five research studies, four books, and over 150 articles, and has spoken, consulted, and trained in 25 countries.

James Alexander

Managing Director, Brilliant Customer Success