This article was originally published by Forbes.
Lately it seems as if I’ve been inundated with requests for advice. Whether it be from Gen Z newcomers to the world of sales or veterans looking to hone their skills, I’ve been approached repeatedly by people who somehow think I know better.
As good as this feels, it also makes me want to reassess what I share with those seeking counsel. And it makes me especially sensitive to the advice those same people might be getting from a Google search.
It’s an introspective moment that’s taught me something as well: Too often we’re telling salespeople that they have to fit into one bucket or another, when the better solution would be training them to be chameleons.
This idea of specialization is not new. Sales strategies, like so many things, are cyclical. They’ll trend in a certain direction for years, sometimes decades, until a breakthrough study or compelling new idea gets the business world to rethink long-held practices.
I should know as well as anyone. For a long time, I was part of a large group of advocates for what at the time was the revolutionary idea of solution selling. Working to get to know and understand the needs of your customer and making a recommendation based on those needs may not seem like an about face, but compared to what was in vogue at the time – features and benefits selling – it was.
Then, about a decade ago, came a revolution in the form of a book by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, “The Challenger Sale.”
The book is routinely given to new hires in almost every type of sales role and it’s not hard to understand why. Its methodology is sound, it breaks up salespeople into five distinct personas, and it provides evidence to suggest that one – the Challenger – represents the best possible solution to achieve extraordinary results. (A Challenger is seen as being the best of all salespeople because they don’t just build relationships with customers, they challenge them.)
I’m not going to take time now to debate the book’s conclusions, or the relative merits of the Challenger sales type versus the Hard Worker, the Relationship Builder, the Lone Wolf or the Problem Solver. I’m here to tell you that not only can you be all of those things at once, you should be.
The real skill of a great salesperson isn’t that they’re a solution seller or a challenger. The real skill of a great salesperson is knowing that all roles and personas can be effective given the right circumstances. The question is when to use them.
The skill we need is the ability to figure out where the customer is in their journey. If they’re at the very beginning, insight-led sales may be a fantastic fit. If they’re further along and have already figured out their problem, just not their solution, insight won’t cut it. It may even make them frustrated. What they need most is a high-quality solution and favorable economics.
The only way to map where a customer is on their journey is to do the sorts of things that aren’t cyclical, that never go out of style: listening more than talking, beginning a relationship with questions about them rather than a rundown of your impressive resume, having the presence of mind to call an audible when an answer you’re given doesn’t fit your first impression of a customer’s wants and needs. This is not the old solution selling approach. It is a best practice before choosing how to engage.
The bad news about the advice I’m offering is that it takes more than a single book and more than a single-minded commitment to one sales persona to guarantee success. But the good news is that, for those salespeople who don’t see themselves in any one persona or feel uncomfortable trying to jam a dozen different pegs into the same-sized hole, there’s no reason to worry.
The tools necessary for a long, resilient career in sales are available to most open-minded professionals. Anyone, at least, who’s willing to listen.