The Evolution of Sales: How the Landscape Has Changed

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Depending on whom you are selling to, and how, the nature of the sales process has changed since the birth and incredible growth of the Internet. However, with all of the changes in how we communicate with digital connectivity, some things have not changed much at all. Sales are still sales. It is the targeting of sales that has changed more than anything else.

A century’s worth of knowledge about how to go about selling something has not been made obsolete, but it has experienced some competition. The old guard, presenting the “correct” path for sales taught new recruits the art of manipulation. Jeffrey Gitomer, Zig Zigler, Brian Tracy, Tom Hopkins, and many other authors on the subject have outlined a strategy for increasing sales on the basis of this manipulation. They have shown us a successful, proven model for sales. So, what has changed?

Old School

The mantra for the old school approach was to establish and maintain a sort of control over potential customers by answering questions with questions. Establish some common ground and build a rapport. Spend all the time you can, build value, and only then reveal the price. Once a value has been established, even a higher price will seem more acceptable. It must be said that this approach has achieved much success. And, in fact, there remains a place for it, depending on the medium used for conversation.

What the Internet and digital communication have done, however, is to change the speed of interactions to the point that available time has collapsed. These days, spending a lot of time has become counter-productive if the medium is the Internet, for example. Studies show that most web surfers, even when looking for a specific product, will spend very little time searching before making a decision, one way or the other.

This makes building value more difficult, and when transactions occur online, there is no face-to-face interaction and no rapport building. Digital customers have very little time for elaborate presentations building product value. Typically, they already have a price in mind and are most interested in your price for the sake of comparison.

New School

Today, sales are being made with a rapidity that has never before been matched. For that to occur, some of the old ways have been relegated to other media, as the Internet has expanded to take over some of their space. Online sales are continuing to explode exponentially, so it is quite clear that new approaches are being validated.

To a certain extent, a person’s approach is tailored to his or her personality. Some people are built for face-to-face interaction. Some can do without it. All sales become a contract and there is a personal comfort zone that must be attained even in the quickest of transactions. Serious shoppers who demand a greater depth of information do exist on the Internet, but the Internet can easily adapt for these shoppers by offering the information to those who demand it, while streamlining the sales process for those who do not.

There is really nothing inherently wrong with the old school approach to sales. There will always be a time and place for it in certain contexts. What the Internet has introduced to the process is flexibility. While there is no flesh-and-blood person speaking to the buyer, there is a wealth of information available if the buyer really desires it. As a result, website building has become something of an art form, so the needs of customers can be addressed as those needs emerge rather than in a pre-determined sales presentation.

It seems old school and new school can live together, after all.

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Adaptation: The Happy Accident

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One of the strange paradoxes of scientific discovery is that no matter how plodding and careful science is about most developments, some of the most astounding discoveries have occurred purely by accident. The most famous of these was the discovery of penicillin.

This discovery only occurred because biologist Alexander Fleming took a vacation. Returning to find that his staph bacteria petri dishes were contaminated with an invasive fungus, he observed that the fungus had repelled and killed the bacteria. The age of antibiotics was born.

Dozens more examples demonstrate that the happy accident is one of the most valuable resources in human development. One of the earliest known examples occurred when, for better or worse, some Chinese experimenters looking for the elixir of eternal life accidentally discovered gun powder, instead.

In 1938, a du Pont chemist discovered that his experimental gas had escaped its container and that a strange slippery substance was left behind. Teflon was born. Much earlier, an English pharmacist withdrew a stirring rod from his chemicals only to notice a dried clump of hard material stuck to the end of it. In trying to scrape it off, it ignited and burst into flame. The strikable match was the result. Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer intrigued by how burrs stuck to his dog’s coat. The implantable heart pacemaker was stumbled upon when an assistant professor accidentally grabbed the wrong size resistor from a box.

These examples are only a few of the many wonderful discoveries that have graced the world by a scientific accident. Their value is immense, and the world has grown richer by their discovery only through the adaptability of those who discovered them. In many cases, something else was the target goal at the time. Their discovery was an unanticipated byproduct born of the flexibility of the discoverer.

In business, it pays hefty dividends to be flexible enough to adapt to new developments and to make use of unexpected benefits. As the maker of a fairly unsuccessful wallpaper cleaner, Kutol Products was near bankruptcy when children began using the product to form Christmas tree ornaments in arts and crafts projects. The entrepreneurs were clever enough to see this unexpected use as a gift, and the company was saved by the new marketing of the modified product as Play-Doh.

A similar story is told of the development of another novelty toy, Silly Putty. In 1943, a World War II rubber shortage prompted the government to commission research from General Electric chemists for the creation of an alternative. The resulting elastic compound was ineffective at replacing rubber, but it was intriguing nevertheless. Samples were circulated, but until an enterprising toy store entrepreneur named Ruth Fallgatter saw the stuff in 1949, no one had any use for it. Fallgatter saw some potential and hired copywriter Peter Hodgson to include the item in her seasonal catalogue. While it outsold everything else in the catalogue, for some reason she lost interest and abandoned the substance.

Hodgson, however, had a clearer vision of its potential and picked up the entrepreneurial torch, renaming the product Silly Putty. It took some time, but his ability to adapt paid off. A New York Times columnist mentioned it in a very positive light, after which sales topped $750,000 in the next three days.

Speaking of gummy substances, we have alluded to the 29-year-old William Wrigley who decided to offer free baking powder as an incentive to market his scouring soap. The idea was so good that the powder became more popular than the soap. So, he offered free chewing gum to market the powder, and the gum became more popular still. Thus was born the Wrigley chewing gum empire, from humble beginnings in soap and baking powder.

Like William Wrigley, Peter Hodgson, and the brighter minds at Play-Doh’s Kutol Products, always remain alert to the potential for happy accidents and adapting to situations and possibilities.