During a study of sales organizations conducted in 1986, we constantly heard about the move to consultative selling as the next big frontier for sales professionals. It was therefore somewhat surprising to hear the same strategies expressed some 17 years later. Why has it taken so long to transition from philosophy to standard practice? Just why is consultative selling still the “next big thing”? One reason, of course, relates to the everchanging nature of sales. Consultative selling means a much higher standard than perhaps envisioned in 1986. Therefore, achieving it has become somewhat like hitting a moving target.
Another reason has to do with timing. Consultative selling takes considerable investment by the supplier. When the market was in a buying mode, as it was in the United States for much of the mid- to late-1990s, anything that lengthened a sales cycle was considered a waste of time. As a result, sales organizations shifted focus and interpersonal selling skills often atrophied in favor of product knowledge and order processing. As the situation began to change and sales cycles became more complex, consultative selling was reintroduced into the mix, at least from a training perspective. Pockets of success were achieved, usually in the areas of national and global account management. However, management reinforcement and a support infrastructure were lacking, and as a result, consultative selling never made the transition from philosophy to consistent, standard practice across sales organizations.