Rethinking Commerce

The business world talks a lot about competition, and not enough about commerce.  I mean commerce in the “old” sense of the word—like a century or so “old,” when it was pretty much synonymous with business.

Commerce, the way I’m using it, is about the interaction between producers and consumers, buyers and sellers. It’s as old as bartering at the bazaar. Commerce, not competition, is what Adam Smith had in mind in his Invisible Hand metaphor.

This interaction has been coopted in recent decades by a focus on competition.  Every commercial interaction has been re-cast in terms of competition. All aspects of business—selling, recruiting, design—get discussed in terms of how they can most profitably contribute to sustainable corporate competitive advantage.

That miscasting has been particularly insidious in sales, where the “us-them” mentality has gotten enshrined.  Most of what is written about selling is aimed at getting them to buy from us, while studiously avoiding saying it’s so.  At it’s best, this approach  says the best way for us to get what we want is to help them get what they want.  True—but not a full picture.

Along comes Jeff Thull to bring us back to the future—a truly commerce-based way of viewing selling.  Jeff heads PrimeResources, and is author of three books, including Exceptional Selling.

Tom Peters says, “I am a Jeff Thull fan.”  So am I.  Briefly, here’s why.

Jeff comes off as a humble guy, but he makes a pretty bold statement: all sales approaches thus far can be lumped into two Eras:

Era 1: getting the buyer to do what we want
Era 2: finding out what the buyer wants, so we can give it to them.

Jeff includes in Era 2 pretty much all the big current programs: SPIN, consultative selling, et al. So what’s wrong with Era 2?

What’s wrong is that solutions these days are complex; so are the environments they go into. The dirty little truth is—the buyer these days honestly doesn’t know what his needs truly are.  That’s Era 3.

A doctor wouldn’t let you self-diagnose heart arrhythmias; but Era 2 selling does just that, by presuming the customer knows his own needs. He doesn’t. Not anymore. Nor does the salesperson know the customer’s environment.  Neither can succeed without the other.  Era 3 recognizes this.

This was always true—but it’s way more true now. The level of interdependency in the business world is way higher than it was just ten years ago.   That’s the new reality.

I call Thull’s approach "back to the future," because that’s what commerce used to be about—an interaction between parties who can be of use to each other.

The right approach for sales in the future is not based on getting the sale, or on achieving sustainable competitive advantage for the selling company. It’s about tearing down the boundaries between organizations, collaboratively helping each other to figure out the best thing to do for both.

It requires customer focus for the customer’s sake; collaboration; a focus on the relationship instead of the transaction; and on transparency.

Those happen to be the Four Trust Principles I talk about in my own book Trust-based Selling.  Coincidence?  Hardly;  we’re both talking about how commerce is done in a relational world.  Selling is about relationships—again.

0 replies
  1. Sudhanshu
    Sudhanshu says:

    Great Post. I have added this as the first post in this weeks’ Carnival of the Capitalists. Do come over and have a look. You might like some of the other articles too.

  2. Sales Training
    Sales Training says:

    In business-to-business sales, with multiple decision makers on the buyer’s side, you need more than pure sales skills.  You need a sales strategy—a plan that lets you progress from one step to the next.

    How can you always know what your next step should be?  Action Selling’s answer is deceptively simple: Let the buyers tell you.  Why would they do that? Because you ask them the right questions—the Best Questions.

    You don’t need all the right answers in order to create a winning sales strategy.  You need the right questions.  When you ask them, a "complex" sale gets much less complex.

    Here is a true story:

    On August 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed and fell into the Mississippi River.  When the initial shock of the tragedy wore off, the Minnesota Department of Transportation hurried to replace the bridge.  The contract to build a new one went out to bid.

    The business–$250 million worth—was won by a Colorado outfit, the only bidder that had never built a bridge in Minnesota.  Its proposal carried the highest price tag and one of the slowest delivery times.

    How did that happen?  The committee that made the decision explained that price and speed were not the only criteria it considered.  Eight other factors were on the committee’s wish list.  The competing bidders cried foul. "You never told us that!" they roared.

    "You never asked," the committee replied. "The winning bidder did."

    In other words, the outsiders clinched a huge deal for one simple reason: They asked the best questions.  The competition assumed they knew what mattered to the buyers, and pitched products accordingly.  The Colorado people assumed nothing—except that their job was to find out what mattered and why.  The insiders saw the deal as a straight bidding affair.  The outsiders recognized the situation for what it was: a complex selling environment.

    I love that story because it demonstrates what I believe is a great truth about selling.  Real professionals don’t sell with great pitches.  They sell by asking great questions.

    The more complex the sales environment—with multiple decision makers and multiple buying criteria—the more important this principle becomes.  Why?  Because great questions will always tell you what your next step should be: which decision makers you need to see, how to get to those people, what matters to them, and how to gain their commitment.

    Another way to say that: Great questions produce great sales strategies.

  3. Vikas
    Vikas says:

    Charles, I haven’t read Jeff Thull but what it seems to me is that


    Era 2 is not more of doing what the customer wants but more of helping the customer identify what he wants and then providing the same to him

    and Era 3 would rather be customers knowing what they want and providing the same to them. These days with information so easily available, customers can pin point the specifics. But then there’s the other side to it as well. All this information can also cause a lot of confusion and that would then be a scenario from Era 2

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Vikas, thanks for your comment.

    Jeff can speak for himself better than I can, but the way I read him to define those terms is that Era 1 is about product sales, Era 2 is about needs-based selling, and Era 3 is collaborative selling.

    On the face of it that may sound trivial, but I don’t think it is; the idea that Jeff highlights, to my mind, is the unspoken assumption that buyers know what they want.  That’s at the heart of Era 2.  And what he points out is new is that buyers no longer have the ability to cope with all the information out there, so they literally no longer ‘know’ what they want.  The problem is not information availability, it’s overload.  Era 3, as I read Jeff to be saying, is all about the need to collaboratively work with customers to jointly define needs going forward.  Which I resonate with very much myself.


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