Getting in Shape: A Treatise on Sales Methodologies and Modalities


“What Sales Methodology do you subscribe to?”

I was recently asked this question and really struggled to answer it. I think I mumbled something about being focused on the Buyer Journey, but of course that is not a formal methodology. Then I mumbled some more and then changed the subject. As my son would say... 

Major fail!

Kind of embarrassing for someone in my position.

While I have taken teams through SPIN Selling, Solution Selling, Challenger Selling, Customer-Centric Selling, Franklin Covey, Guerrilla Selling and many, many more, I can’t say that one has become “Right” in my mind, with others being “Wrong” or inferior necessarily. My teams and I have seen value in each approach and have learned new ways to think about progressing and closing deals in each methodology.

But the question got me thinking about a better answer to a very good question. What I HAVE EXPERIENCED PERSONALLY and and WHAT DID I REALLY MEAN by being focused on BUYER JOURNEYS? 

It’s clear that there has been an evolution of thought in selling methodologies though the years.

In the "Fuller Brush" days the focus was on product. Get out and show off your product, often door-to-door, and customers will buy. Call this the PRODUCT ERA of selling if you will. Then options proliferated, marketing blossomed, and that approach started to wane in effectiveness. 

A different approach was needed and we got into “consultative” and Solution Selling, where inquiry and understanding a buyer’s business needs was a pre-requisite to being able to sell them something. Call this the SOLUTION ERA. Many teams are still in this stage primarily.

But now we see something new emerging. Recently we have “insight selling" and the Challenger Sale in vogue, where delivering value to the client through deep industry knowledge, while helping them question their assumptions, brings a deeper level of engagement while really separating oneself from the many “merely curious” competitors that are out there. Call this the INSIGHT ERA if you will.

If you agree with this history lesson you are probably thinking “doesn’t this evolution of selling methodologies indicate that some are more evolved, or “superior” to others?”

Well Yes and No.

I have found that thinking about these various approaches as SELLING MODALITIES rather than SELLING METHODOLOGIES is actually a more refined approach, and can be really helpful in mapping to the stage in the BUYER JOURNEY your customer is in. By thinking in terms of modalities you can better MATCH YOUR APPROACH to your buyer's current mindset, rather than using a one-size-fits all approach. 

Let me use a personal example as a way of illustrating. I recently bought an elliptical for my home because it was time to up my game in the Battle of the Bulge! Now let me walk you through the “BUYER JOURNEY” I went through on what appears to be a rather simple purchase decision so you can see what I mean. 

When you break it down, there are actually THREE DISTINCT PHASES of decision making that I went through before buying my elliptical. And these three phases are pretty universal when it comes to making any buying decision. 

To more easily match my journey to selling modalities, and their evolution, I will work backwards…


Decision Phase 3 - PRODUCT PHASE

In this final phase in my decision process I had concluded that I wanted an elliptical. It needed to fit easily into the sitting area in our master bedroom. I wanted to spend less than $1,000 and the features I decided most important were adjustable strides (for me and my wife) and a wide variety of pre-programmed routines. At this point I simply needed to find someone selling what I wanted. A simple product sale, no more. The focus was on showing me the various models along with the pros and cons of each. Demos and product reviews please!

But this is not where I started. My whole consideration process had led me to these conclusions but it took some time to gain this clarity. My journey had evolved to this point ONLY AFTER going through the first two phases of my decision process. Which leads to…


Decision Phase 2 - SOLUTION PHASE

In this phase I didn’t know what I wanted to buy, only that I wanted to exercise more. I had concluded that exercise was the “solution” I needed most to get healthier but there were lots of options available to me. I could join a gym, run in the neighborhood, take yoga, buy an exercise bike or elliptical, or many other options too numerous to list here. 

I had a very good sense of the problem (I need more exercise to get healthier) but hadn’t really decided the best kind of solution.

As I progressed through this phase I thought a lot about what was important. I wanted exercise that would fit easily into my routine. I wanted full body exercise that was aerobic and needed to be able to exercise even on the cold and snowy days of winter. I also thought that if I could read, listen to music or watch TV while exercising, that would help keep the boredom at bay.

Now go back and re-read that last paragraph and it’s pretty easy to imagine the kind of inquiry required if you were using a SOLUTION SELLING METHODOLOGY to help me gain clarity on the kind of solution I needed. “Tell me a bit about what you’re looking for in an exercise regime, Mr. McCullough…” And if you happened to sell ellipticals you would definitely have a very good prospect on your hands. And helping me come to this conclusion would give you a huge advantage in winning the sale.

But before I got to this phase, there was one phase slightly ahead of all of this…


Decision Stage 1 - AWARENESS STAGE

As I reflect back I realize that in this phase I only had a vague sense that I ought to get healthier. I didn’t have a sense of what exactly that meant for me, or even what it might look like. I just knew that I would benefit from more energy, better stamina and better concentration. I also knew that I wanted to live longer and be able to give more of myself to my family, business and community.

I had AWARENESS of the problem/opportunity but hadn’t thought very deeply about what the SOLUTION might look like.

I started with some assumptions about diet and exercise, but they were only that - assumptions. In this phase I was ripe for someone to really challenge me to think deeply about what I was contemplating and how best to achieve it. 

If a nutritionist had approached me in this stage I might have gone in a completely different direction for what to focus on. 

The fact that I decided to focus on an exercise solution is probably more a factor of the information and individuals who came into my life at that time than a real organized thought process. This is where an INSIGHT or CHALLENGER approach can really be highly effective. It’s also where the highest margin opportunities lie for those who get in at this phase with the right approach.


And so...

There is good academic evidence that points to the idea that just about all decision making goes through this exact cycle. Sometimes it takes days or weeks, and sometimes it take years.  But it’s usually the same.

So sellers should pay very close attention to their buyers to understand where they are at in this process. If someone had shown me an elliptical in Awareness Stage I would’ve been intrigued but I couldn’t even name the problem accurately so it would have been pretty difficult to separate me from $1,000. 

On the other hand if someone had tried to challenge my assumptions when I was in the PRODUCT PHASE I’m likely to have felt they weren’t listening and didn’t understand that I had already decided on exactly what I wanted to buy.

As a seller I know I’ve been guilty of using a hammer when I needed a screwdriver. Maybe you have too. Both are valuable tools but are suited for entirely different situations. 

Selling in today’s world is much the same. It’s helps to have the tool suited for the job at hand.