The Evolution of Selling

Tony Hughes


Professional selling has evolved yet many operate with methodologies and practices that belong in last century. Understanding history is a way of ensuring that the mistakes of the past are not repeated.

Professional selling has existed for thousands of years and can simply be described as commercial influence. The terms 'hunter' and 'farmer' were coined by the insurance industry in the 1870s to describe 'producers' (those who wrote new business) and 'collectors' (those who collected the weekly premiums). Contrary to stereotypes in enterprise selling, the best farmers are actually hunters within existing complex accounts.

Modern corporate selling began to take shape following World War II and in the 1950s there were two forces that combined to forever change the sales industry; one was psychology and the other was process methodology. These disciplines conjoined to manifest in a five step method that worked when selling simple products or commodity services in short sales cycle environments.

The process was described by Dale Carnegie in the acronym AIDCA and, in the illustration above, shows how the seller works through the five steps to secure a buying commitment. This methodology works best in commodity, retail and direct consumer selling but fails to address complexity and strategy. Amazingly, there are still sales people today that practice this style of selling in complex corporate sales environments and they transparently adhere to the AIDCA steps:

Attention; through 'sizzle'
Interest; aroused through features and benefits
Desire; by linking the above to needs and wants
Conviction; from the seller in overcoming objections
Action; by actively and assertively closing for commitment

This was later abbreviated to AIDC with the C standing for Close. In the 1960s and 1970s psychological techniques became more sophisticated but the approach was still one of manipulating the sale and persuading the prospect. There was much emphasis on personality and charisma and the only substantive new element to be added to sales practice back then was greater analysis of the statistical aspects of success. Problems persisted however in large complex selling and in the 1970s AIDCA was usurped with a focus on Features (and Functions), Advantages and Benefits (FAB). But this new FABemphasis meant that sales people often became trapped below the level of real power due to the bottom-up approach. In this era, discipline in sales process inputs became the hallmark of effective sales management while sales people focused on conveying the message of features as benefits. Vendor 'benefits' however rarely translate to tangible business value and the sales person's audience often consisted of recommenders and influencers within corporations rather than real decision makers.

During the 1970s and 1980s, large corporations made considerable advances in how they managed the procurement process and devised buying techniques designed to foster supplier competition and thwart clever and charismatic sales people. Sales techniques that worked in the past increasingly became barriers to success, especially in more complex environments. Professional buyers became better educated and more sophisticated and did not respond favourably to clumsy or manipulative selling behaviours. Consider how today's prospective clients view outdated sales practices from last century:

• Assertive or persuasive is usually perceived as aggressive or pushy
• Persistent is often perceived as annoying and not listening
• 'Positive questions' are perceived as rhetorical and manipulative
• Positioning features and benefits equates to not understanding or being too expensive

Throughout the 1980s there was greater awareness of the fact that aggression from the sales person created defensiveness with the customer; but that trust and understanding created cooperation. It was in this context that the psychological practice of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) came to the forefront of the sales training industry. Although not invented by Anthony Robbins, he leveraged and enhanced NLP, applying the principles to the sales profession. This new trend matured in the 1990s and focused on subconsciously building trust and influence with others.

But during this period there was also serious research being done concerning successful sales behaviours measured from the perspective of professional buyers. This research was led by Neil Rackham from Huthwaite who developed SPIN Selling ©, the forerunner of today's value-based approach to professional sales. Huthwaite documented a methodology that revolutionised professional selling by focusing on problems, the implications and the specific business benefits of resolving them by implementing solutions. Neil Rackham's influence and contribution to professional selling is second to none. But even with his revolutionary approach many sales people continued to operate below the level of real power and the vast majority persisted with their feature, function, advantage, benefit (FAB) mantras. Old habits really do die hard but things were changing.

A number of sales process methodologies emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s as best practice for qualifying, managing and formulating strategy for complex sales opportunities. They remain highly relevant today and promote a top-down approach aligned to the political and economic power in a buying organization.

The most successful sales professionals see themselves as problem solvers with specific domain expertise. They value their time and the time of others, so they don't waste valuable resources or emotional energy trying to convince people to buy something not genuinely needed. This is because to do so, they would violate their personal values and professional integrity. High achievers carefully invest their time with the right people and ask the right questions. Consider the following summary of today's values-based approach which is predicated on trust, understanding and integrity expressed through:

• Genuine interest in the customer
• Thorough enquiry concerning their problems and opportunities
• Full understanding of the implications and needs
• Identifying specific benefits and priorities
• Negotiating how to proceed and implement

Values-based selling is in stark contrast to the AIDC and FAB methods from last century and this modern and ethical approach is aligned with the customer. The best professional buyers define their relationship with sales people as the process of reaching progressive agreement concerning the purchase of something they need and can afford.

In this customer-centric model, the sales person's role is to fully understand the customer's requirements and conditions for complete satisfaction. They then validate the suitability of what can be supplied to exactly meet the customer's needs.

Outdated or manipulative sales techniques should have no place in the life of today's sales professional. Values-based selling instead adopts a customer-centric approach to define and deliver genuine value based on understanding, solving problems and helping people make mutually beneficial buying decisions.

Sales 2.0 in a web 3.0 world follows but that is the subject of another post about Social Selling 3.0. You can learn more about SPIN training programs from Huthwaite at this link.


Tony Hughes is ranked as the #1 influencer on professional selling in Asia-Pacific and is a keynote speaker and best selling author. This article was originally published in LinkedIn where you can also follow Tony's award winning blog. Also visit Tony's keynote speaker website at or his sales methodology website at

Main image photo by Flickr: Penelope Else


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