From Selling to business development

From Selling to business development: an empirical research on the evolution of sales

Frank Rouault, DBA.
Hady Khalaf, DBA.


Selling is evolving continuously as work configurations change and new issues emerge constantly. Marshall, Moncrief, Rudd, Lee (2012) state that sales is going through a revolution due to the impact of social media and related technology. This paper is an attempt to propose an empirical observation of the dominant stages of the selling experience. It is grounded in close to 40 years of sales experience and sales training on all continents in B2B and B2C contexts. Wotruba (1991) was already talking about sales evolution and discussing the stages of provider, persuader, prospector, problem solver, procreator. 

5 stages from selling to business development 

Stage 1 – Enlight me with your wisdom

Until the 70’s early 80’s, most of the selling relied mostly upon “order taking”. The focus was on giving a strong and argumented pitch to obtain the order. It was a pretty directive process where the sales person was the client “educator” on products and services. We could summarize this stage as the “enlight me with your wisdom”. It was the emergence of sales behavior and Xerox Learning Systems was a strong precursor of this emerging industry. Asynchronous distance methodologies like self-study kits started to emerge to support class learning. Order provider, persuaders and prospectors were the dominant profiles where they would take orders, convince customers to buy the offering and find new customers.

Stage 2 – What is important for you?

The 80’s and early 90’s saw the emergence of “need satisfaction selling and adaptative selling”. At this stage, intense competition forced a sales shift form “how to give a strong argument” to “there is nothing like a need to sell so focus on the needs and meet the needs”. We could summarize this stage as the “what is important for you?” question. Strong programs like SPIN, PSS, Blue Sheet emerged with their coaching associated methodologies for sales managers. Technology beyond audio and video took various forms including interactive video discs for example. The dominant profile was “problem solver” who matched available offerings to match client problems.

Stage 3 – One stop shopping

The 90’s brought additional complexity and the context was the emergence of a more sophisticated selling approach where sales people had to understand the business issues of their customers and propose solutions or bundles and mixes of products and services to uniquely meet their clients needs and focus not only on providing solutions but building a lasting relationships. The conversation was focused on Consultative selling and the strong sales programs evolved towards serving this new context. We could summarize this stage as the “one stop shopping” approach and technology was capitalizing on CD’s and early web applications. The dominant profile was procreator who created a unique offering.

Stage 4 – I did not think about it and this is a great idea!

The beginning of the XXI century saw the emergence of a posture beyond meeting the needs and issues of clients which focused on expanding the client’s thinking and acting as a business person who happened to be an expert in a specific domain. This was highly developed by the Corporate Executive Board and their focus on the challenger sale where the issue was to challenge the client’s thinking and take control of the conversation. We could summarize this phase as the “I did not think about it and this is a great idea!”. Technology grew into a multiplicity of LHM (Learning Human Machines) devices and tools.

Stage 5 – Help client make a good enlighted choice for him

As we are entering in the 2020’s, we observe that a strong shift is emerging from promoting offers in the most collaborative and challenging way to helping the client engage with you through valuing all the things a client does for you. Our world has become so sophisticated that clients do not need sales people to inform them on products and services as their smartphone can do this for them very clearly and very rapidly. Today, we need to speak to our clients’ intelligence and heart at the same time. When we stop and reflect upon all the things a client does for a supplier, we see the emergence of a model where it is key to cater and value the gifts the clients continuously bring to suppliers.

The first two things a client does for a supplier is to give him time and attention. How do you value this?

Then, the client shares information and demonstrate interest. Here again, what do you do to make this a unique moment for him?

Then the client brings you reactions and emotions where one of the most positive emotion you could observe is enthusiasm in its many forms of expressions. What do you do to value the clients reactions and the expression of his emotion ?

Then the client gives you money and trust. What do you do to earn this and make this last?

Of course, the interaction pattern is Invite- Understand- Answer- Engage and this is nothing new but the focus is not the pattern but how to value what the client does for you. There will always be some resistance and challenging client postures and emotions expressed but here again, these are signs to value and manage with empathy as they demonstrate a client intent. Here again, technology will accelerate the acquisition to time, distance, peer learning and content management and experience. We could summarize this stage as “help client make a good enlighted choice for him”. 

The current evolution of sales in both B2C and B2B contexts

What does the effective sales person have to do in B2C

In B2C, this focus on the mind and heart is grounded in the customer experience on/off line where the issue is to bring surprise, joy and desire for more.

We sense that the effective sales person will help her client:

  • Make the best of all the information and choices she has
  • Reduce uncertainty to optimize choices and achieve value
  • Expand her wisdom and knowledge
  • Find a smart valuable “space” of contact to interact
  • Feel genuinely valued and pampered by a trusted advisor
  • Come up with good ideas for her.

What does the B2B sales department have to do in B2B

In B2B, we’re seeing the emergence of more specific issues. Moncreif (2017) comments that “sales strategies will not simply need to evolve but may have to become truly transformative”.

We foresee issues that deserve to be visited or revisited like: 

  • Enhancing prospection and client relationship through information technology, social networks and various stakeholders with focus targeted approaches
  • Business and opportunity co-developments and eco-system innovations serving customer & vendor strategies
  • Relationship protocols before a business signature to build shared commitments
  • Business acumen proficiency and price value business conversations for sales people
  • The evolving role of the “purchaser” and how technology affects the relationship
  • Global Engagements and demands tracking to prepare negotiations
  • Solid grounded sales forecasts as a strategic tool to manage the activity where the sales person is the business owner of his territory
  • Knowledge curation, storytelling and digital presence to foster the ongoing client conversation
  • Team strategic selling in client relationships stages…

From Selling to business development : the study's objective and workflow

This sales evolution abstract illustrates some of the empirical observations we make in the evolution of selling in B2C and B2B. This forms an early point of view that needs to be explored to confront it to validity and reliability. We intent to engage into a qualitative study surveying a small group of sales leaders and providers on various continents to gather practitioners’ insights and spot possible opportunities for furthering the exploration on the evolution of selling.

Our workflow to conduct the research relies upon the following steps:

  • Consult academic publications on the evolution of selling
  • Formulate our best thinking on “what we know” at this stage
  • Develop an interview guide
  • Survey a sample group of sales leaders with a successful sales record in B2B and B2C : seek to consult 5-9 leaders in B2B and 5 to 9 leaders in B2C
  • Rely upon convenience sampling based on our respective networks of sales leaders
  • Code our findings
  • Discuss validity, reliability and limitations
  • Share our key insights
  • Discuss academic and practitioners’ implications


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  • Dixon, M. Adamson, B. (2011) The challenger sale Taking control of the customer conversation Portfolio Penguin, London
  • Hanan, M. Cribbin, J. Donis, J. (1978) Systems selling strategies Amacom, NY
  • Marone, M. Lunsford, S. (2005) Strategies that win sales  Derborne Trade Publishing, Chicago
  • Marshall, G. Moncrief, W.C. Rudd, J.M. Lee, N.J. (2012) Revolution in sales: the impact of social media and related technology on the selling environment Journal of Personnal Selling and Sales Management 32(3) 349-363
  • Miller, R.B. Heiman, S.E. (1995-1998) The New Strategic selling The Grand Central Publishing edition NY
  • Moncrief, W.C. (2017) Are sales as we know it dying…or merely transforming?  Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 37(4). 271-279
  • Rackham, N. (1988) SPIN Selling Mc Graw-Hill, NY.
  • Rouault, F. Grand-Clément, R. Ramis, M. (2017) La vente B2B Afnor Editions, Pairs
  • Siegfried, A. (2010) The Sales training Basics ASTD Press
  • Wotruba, T.R. (1991) The evolution of personal Selling  Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management 11(3) 1-12

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