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Pop quiz, hot shot: do you know the four major types of selling? Surprisingly, many people who have been selling for decades don’t know this answer. Time for a little education.

The four types of selling

Those would be:

  • Transactional selling
  • Solution selling
  • Consultative selling
  • Provocative selling

OK, that’s all well and good. What now? What do we need to know about all four? Why is that important for your business?

Transactional selling

This is the gold standard or the benchmark of how many think of sales: “Transactional selling is a common method of sales in which a sales representative seeks out prospects, develops a relationship and then tries to close a sale.”

Transactional selling works in part because it’s psychologically comforting to everyone involved. You know you need leads, you know you need to work leads, you know you need to close. This is how we’ve thought of sales forever.

The benefit in transactional is that the focus is short-term. It’s largely about the single sale and the product. Customer needs may be discussed, but that’s often lip-service.

Transactional selling works best in quarter-focused environments where the entire gospel of the org is “push the product” and/or “hit the number.” If that’s the true goal, a transactional approach — tiered with lead-gen specialists or outsourced sales packages —  makes the most sense.

Characteristics of Transactional Selling: The prospect is aware of his problem or need, he also knows the solution he wants and he is just looking for the best matching product or service. Typically low-ticket offers with short sales cycles, often done via Inside Sales over the phone or web.

Solution selling

This is the next big jump from transactional. Now, instead of focusing on the product only, you focus on the customer’s needs (the common sales buzzword here is “pain points”) and you try to work through their needs to match them with products and services.

This is largely about the value proposition, although it’s important to distinguish between solution selling and benefits selling. Some sales principals lead with the features and benefits of their product. That’s actually closer to transactional selling because of the large focus on the product. Solution selling is about selling the end state. What will the ultimate solution look like? How much better will your life, team, and productivity be when you get there?

Solution selling works in situations with slightly-longer purchase cycles, big ROI on the line, more nuanced decision-makers, or too many decision-makers (although it can backfire in that last example). If you’re within a vertical where someone wants to solve a problem and have the solution stick around on retainer for 10+ years, you need to be using this approach.

Characteristics of Solution Selling: The prospect is aware of his problem or need, but he is not quite sure about how to solve it. He is looking for a solution to his problem. Solution Selling is often performed in multi-touch face to face environment.

Consultative selling

This is similar to solution selling. The focus is on customer relationships and dialogue with the customer around needs.

This approach is a little harder to execute because it requires a very skilled salesforce. You need people that intuitively know how to open and engage throughout a customer lifecycle conversation-wise. You need good listeners and talkers, in other words.

An end goal of consultative selling is often, well, a consulting situation. Someone from your org with expertise might be part of the deal. You need to know how to weave expertise — and its inherent value in business contexts — into the discussions too. You need to know how to ask the right questions.

This can work in any long-term, ROI-laden, value-focused industry, but to make it work, you need the right salesforce, or you need to outsource to professionals within the area you’re trying to selling.

Should be noted this isn’t necessarily “relationship selling,” although sometimes the two terms are mixed. Relationship selling does not scale effectively, and is usually tied to “The co-founders of this SaaS platform each had 100 strong connections, but now all 200 are tapped out.” If you moved from relationship to consultative, you’d be able to work the referrals of those 200, then the next 200, then the next 200, all because you’d be focused on real dialogues around their needs.

Characteristics of Consultative Selling: The prospect is aware of his problem or need but doesn’t acknowledge the severity. He is not committed to change his status quo before he gets the additional insights from a consultative seller. This is high-ticket offers and high-touch, face to face environment, for sure.

Provocative selling

“Shock and awe” in some ways, or make customers aware of problems they didn’t even know existed. As HBR notes in that link right there, it works well in economic downturns — because those with check-writing ability don’t want to spend, but if you convince them that not spending is actually a major miss, they will spend. There’s a degree of “eliminate any possibility except your solution” here too.

This has become a more used approach in recent years because a lot of businesses, admittedly, do things the way they’ve always done them. (Change is hard.) If you can come in and show a decision-maker “Hey, you are leaving a ton of money on the table with your current solution,” they are generally more likely to consider switching or move down your funnel.

Here’s a trick: if you’re researching executives online and you see someone that’s switched jobs 10+ times at the VP level or higher, that means he/she is probably a “shiny object” person. Use provocative selling techniques on them. “Shiny object” people love to know where the next thing is personally or professionally. If you arrive with it first, it might be your deal.

Characteristics of Provocative Selling (aka Challenger Sale): The prospect is not aware of his problem or need. You need to create the demand and demonstrate that the status quo or his preferred way of going ahead is not a safe place anymore or not the smartest move. What you sell is the guidance of a change itself. The transformation to his desired end result. Not your product, service or solution.  

The bottom line on all four

At some level, these are all gimmick methodologies. Ultimately you need to figure out what works for your target group and your offer. That starts with:

  • Are they actively searching for solutions on the web?
  • Do you need to educate the market?
  • Are they aware of their problem and its impact?
  • Do you need to create the demand?
  • Is it a highly competitive market?
  • Where does the purchase typically happen (online, phone, face2face)?
  • How do you differentiate from alternative solutions (e.g. from your competitors)?
  • How do you articulate your value proposition?
  • What is the average deal size or ARR?
  • How can you sell profitable?

If you ask yourself some of these questions and record really honest answers to them, you’ll navigate to the model / methodology that’s best for your offer.

Ted Bauer
About the author

I help companies to market their content in the most effective way.