The sales process —and the way people sell— is broken. That was one of the most startling and revealing comments from our discussion with sales experts on the top sales trends for 2018.

As Daniel Barnett, CEO and founder of WORKetc, put it: “Customers are just fatigued by the constant interruptions, endless contact requests, unwelcome emails, random phone calls, polite demands for fifteen minute chats and those annoying cutesy automated follow-ups.”

I receive spam (automated) sales emails and phone calls on a daily basis, and it amazes how often they can’t even get details like my name right. One of my “favorite” emails started “I love your article on X.” I replied to find out more about which of my content they were so enamored with, but I never received a response.

So there’s a problem here, but the burning questions surrounds how to fix it. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to this, which brings us nicely to the approach known as adaptive selling, where salespeople literally adapt to the needs and problem of the customer.

What is adaptive selling?

Adaptive selling is an approach that aims to provide a more consultative approach to sales in an industry and global economy rife with uncertainty, fear, complexity, and volatility.

According to Mike Kunkle, VP of Sales Transformation Services at Digital Transformation Inc., a division of Fast Lane: “Adaptive selling is a sales methodology where sellers use judgment to adjust their sales approach based on their buyers’ situation and state of mind.”

According to Kunkle, adaptive selling can help you be more buyer-centric and generate more leads, as well as being a competitive differentiator for your business.

Steve Andersen, president and founder of sales consultancy Performance Methods, says: “When we discuss this topic with clients, we tend to look at the need for adaptation as being determined primarily by three interconnected drivers:

  • “Your customer (and their adaptation and change within their markets).
  • Your colleagues (and the forces within one’s own organization that are driving change).
  • Your competitors (and what others in your market are doing to position themselves to win).”

What are the challenges adaptive selling can overcome?

As we’ve already mentioned, the sales industry —complete with its automated spam-like emails and random cold calls— is broken. But the industry has been suffering with serious challenges for a while.

These include:

  • A shift away from a linear customer journey
  • The emergence of new selling channels
  • Artificial intelligence replacing transactional sales roles
  • An uncertain and volatile global economy and world outlook.

According to Leff Bonney, Associate Professor and Director of the Carl DeSantis Center for Executive Management at Florida State University, customers have changed a lot, and the same customer might have different needs when they buy different products, meaning you have to adapt not only to the customer, but also the business needs and the product.

“Let’s take a hospital as an example,” he says. “If a customer is buying one computer for the nurses’ station, they’ll have very different needs than if they are buying equipment to run the whole hospital. Customers are frustrated at salespeople who sell the same way no matter what they are buying and what needs they have. Deals range in price and complexity, and salespeople often don’t do a good job in aligning sales strategy with buying needs.”

This is where the idea of having different sales methodologies that adapt to buying needs comes in.

“People have been chasing the wrong unicorn, thinking that there is one perfect way to sell,” Bonney says. “But having only one sales methodology is flawed; people need to change the way they sell based on the situation.”

How can a business implement adaptive selling?

Implementing adaptive selling can require a shift in mindset from the approach of finding the one way of selling that works for your business, training sales people in that approach, and sticking to it because “we’ve always done it that way.”

However, Bonney – and Florida State University – has conducted significant research into this topic, and how it affects sales performance.

“When we started researching the topic of approaches to selling back in 2011, we found that high performing sales people were more likely to use multiple methodologies, whereas salespeople with average results used one methodology,” says Bonney. “The reason they were able to do this is because they had better situational awareness. They could identify certain situations that would more accurately predict what the customer would do.”

The question, then, is how do businesses implement this approach across all salespeople?

For Bonney, this involves doing a deep analysis of your customer base and selling interactions to see if you can identify common patterns and situations.

“Once you’ve done this analysis to find the common situations, you can look at what your high-performing sales people do in these situations,” he says. “Then you can form a checklist so that all of your salespeople can identify these situations and then react in a certain way. You’d maybe have around four to five methodologies.”

Training needs

Fully implementing an adaptive selling approach also requires a change in sales training techniques: from just delivering information and training at the start of a job, to delivering more in-depth training sessions on a regular basis.

This can also mean changing up regular sales meetings and catch ups.

“Let’s take army Special Forces as an example,” says Bonney. “You don’t train them one week in how to defend a shop from pirates, and then the next week move straight onto parachuting into a jungle when they still haven’t grasped the first technique. This is the approach with adaptive selling— take each strategy and train them one by one. Sales meetings also become a discussion around situations and strategies to deal with these, instead of just focusing on wins, losses, and numbers.”

Kunkle believes you can simplify training by teaching reps an “If/Then” approach. He teaches reps how to identify customer states and matches methodologies to them, in a framework using their sales judgment, a consultative mindset, building relationships and trust, on a foundation of an outcome selling approach, focused on delivering the results your buyers need.

This training can also encourage higher morale and a lower staff turnover rate, as there is less frustration at having to sell using a technique that may not work 80 percent of the time.

For implementations, Kunkle also recommends paying attention to what happens after the training as much or more than the training itself, using a five-stage approach that guides reps from acquiring the knowledge and skills through using and mastering them on the job.

There are multiple sales enablement apps that can aid and support this process, to ensure adoption and mastery, over time.

Benefits of adaptive selling

Adaptive selling can be a key differentiator for your company when it comes to keeping customers happy and adding value as a salesperson, as customers want value beyond just the product.

“Some customers want a sales person to point out if something’s not right in their thinking or their process— they want someone to challenge them,” says Bonney. “Others want the product pitch approach, which many sales books say not to use. In this case, you have to educate your customers on why your product is better than your competitor’s. Customers value the fact that you’re willing to take different approaches.”

Using an adaptive selling approach can also better align sales with other departments, and the company as a whole.

“The focus on the customer, and finding out how they behave in situations, as well as how the company as a whole can adapt to better serve them, will benefit everyone in terms of meeting customer needs,” says Bonney.

Next steps

One of the ways that you can better identify common selling situations and create these strategies to help sales people best sell to these situations, is by recording and analyzing customer data in a CRM or sales management system.

GetApp has resources that can help you with this:

  • A sales management scorecard that guides you through the process of selecting software according to your individual needs (high- and low-priority features, price point, and supported devices)

If you’re looking for a learning management system to better train sales people, then GetApp has similar resources to help with that