Sales Skills

by Jeremy Cassell and Tom Bird

What is selling?

Selling is simple – it can be defined as


The exchange of goods or services for something else of value (usually an agreed sum of money).

From a management perspective, sales is sometimes thought of as a part of marketing, although the skills associated with each discipline are quite different. Buying and selling are two sides of the same ‘coin’ or transaction. Both seller and buyer engage in a process of negotiation that may or may not end in consummation – the exchange. In business, selling happens face to face, on the telephone or on-line. For the purposes of this topic, we will be focusing on selling face to face and on the telephone.

How do you and your organisation sell? What sort of approach do you employ? There are essentially two models of selling, and you and your business are likely to adopt the one that best fits your market. Below is a brief overview of the approaches.

Transactional selling

In transactional selling, the focus is on finding prospects with a requirement, to develop relationships, focus on features and benefits and to take orders for the desired products or services at an acceptable price to all parties. The customers are likely to have a clear need for a ‘standard’ product or service and will be interested in sources that can provide it at the right time and at an acceptable price.

Consultative (or solution/relationship) selling

In consultative, solution or relationship selling (all synonyms), the salesperson develops a greater understanding of the challenges faced by the customer and there is likely to be a tailored solution. Questioning and listening become more important than communicating features and positioning statements.

Too many salespeople are ‘talking brochures’, trying to show customers how their products or services are better than competitors’. Salespeople must become value creators.

Neil Rackham, author of SPIN selling

The actual purchasing decision is often managed through a proposal, contract negotiation and solution delivery. The consultative selling approach is much more common nowadays and is most appropriate for businesses that offer a transformational product or service, such as consulting or specialised, rarely-purchased items. Suppliers of transformational products or services find consultative selling necessary, due to the customers’ lack of understanding of the possibilities.

Many organisations across the world have trained their sales teams to become business partners and adopt consultative selling strategies. If organisations implement the ‘salesman as business partner’ model successfully, there can be huge upsides. The benefits are that

  • It is more difficult for the competition to win business
  • It is possible to access decision makers higher up the food chain
  • Accounts can become more profitable in the long term
  • There is a higher degree of job satisfaction from salespeople and this increases retention
  • It is easier to develop longer-term selling relationships.
  Transactional Consultative
Type of sale Standard/commodity Strategic, often transformational
Current status Less common because of e-commerce and procurement sophistication More common because of increasing complexity of businesses and globalisation
Salesperson Telesales
Order takers, sometimes face to face
Face to face
Subject matter expert
Problem solver
Sales cycle Can be quick Likely to take quite some time (often several meetings)
Knowledge Customer probably knows what he wants Customer open to education; probably does not know solution or even that there is a problem
Focus Features and benefits Matching needs with bespoke solutions
Sale Small and many Large and few
Price Critical and central to buying decision Collaborative and based around trading concessions
Prospecting Critical and short term Important and slow burn
Procurement department Sometimes involved Often involved
Relationship with buyer Often short term and transactional in nature Likely to be long term and collaborative