There have been numerous claims that consultative selling (also referred to as relationship selling, need-based selling, and solution selling) is in fact dead. At the same time, questions have been raised about the viability of sales as a career. Will salespeople become superfluous?

Both of these pronouncements seem highly improbable to me. There has been much debate about each of these topics, and the pros and cons have been based primarily on experience and opinion. However, research by Forrester on the future role of the salesperson and the continued relevance of a consulting approach to selling has now been added to the conversation.

The future of sales was the focus of a presentation by Andy Hoar at the recent 2015 Forrester Sales Enablement Forum. The principal analyst shared some startling if not unexpected news. Forrester research shows that of the 4.5 million B2B salespeople in existence today, one million jobs will be net displaced by 2020.

To break this number down, Hoar identified four main seller archetypes (these are listed in the order of their representation in the sales population):

  • Order takers work with a non-complex buyer and non-complex product or service.
  • Navigators work with a complex buyer and non-complex product or service.
  • Explainers work with a non-complex buyer and complex product or service.
  • Consultants work with a complex buyer and complex product or service.

Hoar then explained which groups would take the biggest hit and why. Not surprisingly, he predicted that order takers will be hardest hit because their sales are migrating to the internet; however, he also forecasted that the navigators and explainers categories will also shrink. The good news was reserved for the consultants category, which he said will not only survive, but grow.

The nature of the sale will have a major impact on the fate of salespeople in each category, but so will their performance. As in any evolution, survival in sales will depend on the ability of sales leadership and salespeople to adapt.

Let’s consider what it means to be among the fittest in sales. In other words, what does it take for a salesperson to assume the role of the consultant?

My goal in introducing consultative selling was to move sales from the pitching toward the consulting end of the spectrum. This was a major departure from the product-focused selling era that preceded consultative selling. This type of selling has always had two key markers: The customer’s needs are the center of the sale, and solutions are customized to those needs as a way to form relationships of trust and expanded business.

Changes in what buyers demanded from salespeople ushered in the era of consultative selling. And now, changes in customers’ buying patterns are again demanding a recalibration of what it means to sell.

Consultant selling is still relevant, but yesterday’s consultative selling is not today’s. The conversation has changed.

So what does it mean to be a consultant salesperson today? According to Hoar, consultants are the salespeople who can explain abstract concepts, sell solutions, and build relationships. Certainly my years with the consulting firm Hay Group before I founded Richardson supports this. But there are other vital parts and key requirements.

What is it that consultants are expected to do? Clients expect them to bring depth of knowledge and experience. The old joke about consultants borrowing your watch to tell you what time it is contains a grain of truth because consultants must understand what their clients bring to the table. They glean insights from their clients’ experiences, but they also originate ideas, teach, reveal opportunities not evident before, remove obstacles, and solve problems to help customers achieve desired outcomes. They are educators and strong relationship builders who forge connections across company functions. Good consultants prove their value and readily earn a seat at the table as a part of their clients’ teams.

How does that jibe with sales? Consulting has become the role of the salesperson today. This will admittedly be a stretch for some. But salespeople have the advantage of an embedded sales drive that those drawn to consulting don’t necessarily possess in their DNA. To serve as consultants, salespeople must expand their breath of knowledge and skills, leverage team and tools, and align their sales processes to their customer’s buying journey.

Where does consultative selling (by any name) fit in?  The core tenants of consultative selling remain relevant. There is no dismantling of consultative selling, but rather an adaptation.

One of the big differences today is that customers can get almost all the information they need at a click — and they enjoy clicking. They come to the sale armed with options, preferences, and sometimes decisions. The challenge for salespeople is to have the content and skills necessary to add new relevant ideas and alternatives to that base knowledge, or to improve the solutions their customers have derived.

So how do you survive in this digital, informed customer, technology-propelled sales world? By being stronger at engaging customers from not only a content but also a context perspective. It is about what you know and how you use it. In addition to being industry, company, and stakeholder smart there are new models to be learned; for example, how to add value while at the same time probing for needs, how to position compelling solutions that energize decision makers into action, and how to negotiate with customers who demand proof, skin in the game, and discounts. It also seems to me with innovations in technology, increasingly sophisticated websites, and algorithms (all of which make customers more independent and give them more control over the sale), the most important differentiation will be the salesperson him or herself.

Salespeople who survive and succeed will not only help their customers connect the dots. They will connect with their customers, consult with them, and become a part of the customer team.