The 5 types of selling that define today’s sales landscape

How would you describe your sales style?

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How would you describe your sales style?

Do you lead with solutions? Offer a consultative experience? Perhaps you’re the type that likes to provoke your prospect by stirring up a little data-driven drama.

How you answer that question depends on what type of selling serves as the foundation for the strategies, methodologies, and messaging used to convince buyers to make a deal.

In this article, I’ll look at five types of selling, their defining characteristics, and explain how successful reps use them today.

What is selling?

Before we dig into the different types of selling, let’s take a step back and provide a definition for what “selling” actually means.

At its most basic level, “selling” refers to any transaction where money is exchanged for goods or services. More specifically, it describes a process of persuading a buyer to make a purchase–using a series of planned and personalized communication tactics to influence purchasing decisions.

Done right, selling helps customers determine their needs, creates a sense of desire for products/services, and solves buyers’ most pressing pain points.

In these next few sections, we’ll take a look at some of the most common types of selling today’s reps use on the job.

1. Transactional selling

Transactional selling is a simple, short-term sales strategy that focuses on making quick sales. In this type of sales model, neither the buyer nor the seller has much interest in developing a long-term relationship.

While transactional selling sometimes gets a bad rap in today’s relationship selling era, it’s still a relevant approach–when used in the right context. Examples include situations where the
buyer wants quick, self-serve options or the organization sells low-cost, generic products and turns a profit by selling large quantities as fast as possible.

Transactional sales are most common in B2C situations–think e-commerce brands or selling movie or concert tickets. However, there are certain scenarios in which it works for B2Bs–think SaaS subscriptions that cater to individuals or small teams.

While the “sales” part of transactional selling is mostly hands-off, customer-centricity is, well, central to success. In this case, sales and marketing teams can work together to create a comprehensive self-serve knowledge base, product demos, articles, guides and other content.

Customer feedback and insights surfaced from sales interactions can be used to address common questions and target key challenges. Ultimately, the goal is to give consumers everything they need to make a decision and take action, without hitting any friction points along the way.

2. Solution selling

Solution selling moves away from the transactional approach and instead, focuses on selling outcomes over products and features.

In this sales model, reps lead with a problem and use various tactics to paint a picture of how the buyer’s life will be better once they solve that problem.

Over the past few years, many experts have pointed out some of the drawbacks associated with this type of sales strategy–particularly the fact that few reps have the skills and tech stack to present out-of-the box solutions that buyers can’t find on their own.

According to a 2019 McKinsey report, the average “B2B solutions provider” doesn’t necessarily close more deals than reps who focus on products, services, or features. In fact, researchers found that solution sellers don’t fare much better than those that follow a more transactional approach.

To be effective, a solution sales strategy must:

  • Focus on building genuine connections with buyers
  • Create innovative solutions and unique value propositions
  • Paint a clear picture of the total business value of the solution–not just the product, but the service and experience, too
  • Align around the solution–not just the sales team, but the entire organization

The McKinsey report notes that cultivating individual skills, giving sellers more time to spend interacting with customers, and quantifying the impact of lifetime value holds the key to successful solutions-based selling.

3. Consultative selling

On the surface, consultative selling and solution selling appear to be the same strategy.

However, despite some similarities there’s an important distinction. Solution selling avoids talking about features and benefits, opting to focus conversations exclusively on presenting a solution to the buyer’s problem.

A 2012 Harvard Business Review article explains that solution selling was an effective strategy in the days before customers had the tools and the know-how to solve their own problems. Aka–before Google was a portal to a whole world of high-end B2B content.

Consultative selling takes it a step further and incorporates solution selling into a broader strategy that caters to buyers capable of identifying potential solutions to their problems on their own.

Here, reps apply a consultative approach to the sales process, using a combination of user data, market research, and insights from conversations with the buyer (in this case, the more connected data sources the better).

Sellers then use those insights to craft a narrative that puts the offer in context for the buyer.
This approach requires a skilled sales team that understands how to interpret data, ask questions, and unearth important insights during conversations.

Because this type of selling requires a lot of work on the part of the seller, it’s best suited for big-ticket deals, long sales cycles, and a high-touch, multi-platform buyer’s journey.

4. Provocative selling

In 2009, Geoffrey Moore published a piece in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers.”

In it, he explains that provocation is the best way for sellers to get buyers to move past a “buy nothing” mentality by helping customers see competitive challenges in a new light, bringing a sense of urgency to solving specific pains/problems.

Similar to consultative selling, provocation-based sales aims to uncover needs and pain points through market research, data analysis, and buyer interactions. Both types focus on guiding customers to the right solution, however, provocative selling adds a little antagonism into the mix.

Here, reps capture buyers’ attention by creating a sense of crisis and drive action by surfacing emerging opportunities and threats on the horizon.

In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence in provocation-based selling, with the rise of Challenger Sales. And now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, provocative selling could be an effective way to create urgency in the face of uncertainty.

This can be an effective approach but it can be hard to pull off for a couple of key reasons.
For one, it works best with top-performing sales reps with true expertise. Reps must combine their market/industry insights with facts and figures that ground their recommendations into a tangible reality.

Second, provocative selling requires some seriously advanced soft skills. Sellers must be able to “read the room,” and have a clear understanding of when provocation will drive action or simply irritate and frustrate the buyer.

5. Collaborative selling

Collaborative selling is similar to consultative selling in that the core focus is on developing relationships and understanding buyer needs, challenges, and goals–but this approach takes things to the next level and places the customer at the center of their own narrative.

Here, the buyer plays an active role in the sales process and works collaboratively with sales reps–yes, multiple reps–to identify and implement solutions that help them achieve high-level strategic objectives.

Gartner calls this process “sense-making” in a 2019 report that called attention to the need for sellers to help overwhelmed buyers navigate the buying process by reducing skepticism and helping them build confidence.

According to the report, 89% of buyers say that most of the information they encounter throughout the sales process is generally “high quality.”

Meanwhile, 44% of buyers say that they struggle with the fact that multiple suppliers provide seemingly credible, fact-based information that is often contradictory.

The goal of collaborative selling is setting the stage for lasting relationships that look more like strategic alliances than traditional one-and-done transactions.

To pull this off, all customer facing teams–sales, marketing, service, and support–must align around the same data, goals and metrics, working together to continuously create value for the consumer.

Find out how Revenue Grid uses AI to make it happen here.

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Final thoughts

Though the concept of sales dates as far back as humanity, we’re constantly evolving our approach to keep pace with the ever-changing buyer.

While there’s a clear progression from transactional to collaborative selling, the reality is, each of these sales types can be used effectively with the modern buyer–so long as the focus remains on delivering value to the consumer.

No matter which type of selling you choose, a complete toolset that covers your full sales cycle will set you on the road to repeatable revenue. Try Revenue Grid and see how it can benefit your business today.