How to Move From Consultative Selling to Collaborative Selling

The 5 Cs of Selling

Business people shaking hands in warehouse
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Since the middle of the 20th century, sales approaches have evolved through five generations known as the five Cs of selling: cronyism, commodity selling, content selling, consultative selling, and collaborative selling.

A collaborative approach represents a partnership between buyer and seller that makes sense for both parties over the longer term. By partnering with a seller, buyers receive greater benefits since the business relationship is maintained and an opportunity to create value now exists. The sales industry did not develop the collaborative approach overnight, however. It evolved through all five generations gradually.

Review the history of sales, evaluate where you are, and find ways to make the business case for your customers to partner with you on a new era of selling—a collaborative one.

The First 4 Cs

Cronyism emerged in the industrial boom following World War II when the sales process was about making personal connections and home visits were common. There was little focus on product differentiation or deeper buyer needs. Commodity selling was popular in the late 1950s through 1960s and focused on price through discounts. Again, there was little product differentiation.

Content selling brought strategic differentiation to the forefront in the 1960s and was popular through the 1980s. Professional marketers and advertising agencies built brand awareness and attempted to generate excitement about the features and benefits of specific products. The goal was to sell the product by selling the features and benefits.

Consultative selling has been popular since the 1980s when it was embraced as a customer-centric response to the product-centric approach of content selling. The initial focus is on understanding the deeper needs and buying motives of customers and then ensuring products fit those needs and motives. Greater product diversity is needed to address the diverse tastes of customers.

The 5th C: Collaborative Selling

Collaborative selling emphasizes a partnership between customer and supplier. Putting all of the focus on the customer—as consultative selling does—presents economic challenges for suppliers that may not be able to fully meet customer needs, especially when the economy is poor and overall sales are down.

Rather than seeing buyers prosper at the expense of sellers, collaborative selling builds a relationship designed to help both parties minimize short-term risk, maximize long-term gain, and create value. Value is created through natural synergies that already exist while jointly seeking new ways to be innovative and proactive.

Without sacrificing quality or service, buyers can be flexible in areas such as payment terms, inventory levels, and other items that help the bottom line of the seller. This is appealing to buyers especially when they have found a supplier they know and trust.

Shifting Into Collaborative Selling Mode

Not all customers want to be partners. In fact, for many customers, consultative selling and its focus on their needs works just fine. However, when three key ingredients are present, buyers and sellers both are more likely to want to move from a consultative to a collaborative relationship:

  1. The two organizations already have a successful and trusting business relationship.
  2. Each organization needs the other organization to succeed in order for it to succeed.
  3. There is some element of risk threatening the welfare of one organization that potentially could cause harm to both.

Given the already trusting relationship, it should be relatively easy for a salesperson to articulate the needs for flexibility and joint problem solving on matters that traditionally were the sole concern of only one organization. Partnering can have reciprocal benefits to both organizations. One organization may be struggling today, while the other may be struggling tomorrow. Working in a collaborative way builds a spirit of reciprocity that can help both partners as business cycles ebb and flow.