Professor Derek A. Newton of the Darden School at the University of Virginia is credited with suggesting that there are four ages of selling. The ages start with music man and move through animated catalogue, magic formula and finally problem-solver.
The music man (or woman) was most successful before the first world war but you will still bump into them from time to time. For them it’s all about personality and charm. Like them and you will like the product or service they are selling. Whatever it is, it will cure what ails ‘ya without knowing the first thing about ‘ya or your ailment.
As industrialisation made complex products available and affordable to the masses the music was drowned out by the monotone of the animated catalogue. There was nothing this walking brochure didn’t know about the features and functions of their vacuum cleaner and why it was better than the competitors. Knowing so much about their product left little room for understanding their buyers. After all, everyone needs one right? and there’s has more functions and features than anyone else’s.
Times though kept changing for the our sellers. Families changed as did business buyers. Consumer buying decisions no longer fell exclusively to Dad and the corporation was growing in complexity too. Sellers reacted with process, a magic formula. A seller need only walk all the people involved in the purchasing decision into a funnel and then through a series of steps before they would inevitably drop out the other end with their wallet open.
The dominant form of selling today, at least where there is any complexity requires Problem solvers. These are more like consultants delivering value well beyond their predecessors. This is epitomised in selling approaches like SPIN, a research based selling approach from Huthwaite.
What is surprising about this evolution is how long it took to focus on the buyer, the customer. It was all about seller for the music man, all about the product from the walking catalogue and all about the process for the magic formula. In fact it wasn’t really until we saw the rise of problem solvers that we even noticed the buyer. We finally noticed that there was a customer in the room at all. Even then it was, on occasions, a narrow focus. It was about their relationship with the seller or a limited set of needs based entirely on the sellers products and services.
The Fifth Age: Social Selling
Today, buyers are better informed than they have ever been before. According to Forrester buyers will consume three pieces of content that they found themselves for each piece they get from a vendor. They are better connected too. Social tools connect them with those that have similar problems and with those that have already tried to successfully or unsuccessfully solve them. And they trust each other more than than they trust sellers. In fact research from the Corporate Executive Board in partnership with Google suggests that buyers are nearly two thirds of the way through their buying process before they even contact a seller.
The final age of selling is upon us and it has put the buyer in the drivers seat. The buyer has wrested back control of their decisions. Social Selling is really Social Buying.