Adaptive Buying and Selling Alignment


I’ve been thinking about this concept for about six months and have finally decided to document it here now, even as work in progress.

The name I’ve given my concept is Adaptive Buying and Selling Alignment. It’s a mouthful; I know. Perhaps that name won’t stick, but it’s a “working title” and I like it for now.

It’s simpler than it sounds. I think of Adaptive Buying and Selling Alignment as a string that connects related dots, which are often discussed individually, but aren’t usually strung together. It consists of:

  • The concept of a sophisticated seller identifying his prospect’s buying process (Situation Assessment) and using his or her experience and judgment (Interaction Judgment), adapting his selling efforts to it . This isn’t new by any means, but given the current buyer’s market, it’s being talked about a lot more now.
  • The power of the Five Ws and One H (Who, What, Why, When, Where and How) and Five Whys. This is a method for conducting a diagnosis and encouraging dialogue, which dates back to Roman and Greek philosophers. Even today it is a framework for teaching methods such as 4MAT and for process work, including Six Sigma.
  • My concept that exemplary sales professionals carry with them a “Batman Utility Belt” of sorts (think: Sales Utility Belt), loaded with effective mindsets, knowledge, skills, and capabilities, but also with something critical that is often overlooked — experience and judgment.

These exemplary performers possess an uncanny ability to use cues and clues to identify where they are in the buying process, diagnose the current situation (what just happened) and reach into their utility belt and pull out just what they need at that moment (their sales methodology and skills), to move the interaction forward to the next step or next stage in the buying process). Therefore, they are adaptive, and align their selling efforts to the situation. Thus the name: Adaptive Buying and Selling Alignment. 

Sales professionals, and frankly, anyone who interacts and communicates with other people (meaning, everyone), often have to respond “in the moment” using their best judgment based on experience and effective behavior patterns honed through practice. While this is primarily extemporaneous, there are ways to prepare for situations with some forethought. Here is a very basic example of how the Five Ws and One H might come into play, in assessing a current situation.


  • WHO: Who’s involved? What level in the organization are they?
  • WHAT: What are their top objectives (moving toward a goal) and challenges (solve a problem or avoid one)?
  • WHY: Why are these important to them now?
  • HOW: How are they planning to address this, or what are they considering? How will they fund it?
  • WHEN: When do they plan to take action?
  • WHERE: Where are the buyers in their process? How do you know (cues and clues)?


Based on that and the current situation (what happened last, what I anticipate might happen next, or what  just happened), what do I do next?

  • WHAT: What’s my strategy? What’s my next tactical move? What do I need that I don’t have at my disposal? How do I get it?
  • WHY: Why is that the right move? What’s my rationale?
  • WHO: Who do I do it with? (From the buyer and seller team perspective)
  • HOW: How should I do it? (Models / capabilities / to what level of mastery)
  • WHEN: What’s the best timing? (Now, later, when)
  • WHERE: Where should I do it? (Now – current location, by phone, web conference, in-person, other specific location)

Adding the Five Whys to the Five Ws and One H can certainly deepen any assessment (and any dialogue, if done well and not as an interrogation). Of course, the above is a very simplistic example and you and I could both shoot it full of holes or add to it. It’s just meant as a sample. Also, once you start asking questions, the process is not linear. Even in the over-simplified example above, you’ll noticed I asked How in the string of What questions (Seller Response section).  In actual use, this is expected and recommended… purity is best left for text books and laboratories; the real world is messy.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be further developing the concept of Adaptive Buying and Selling Alignment, how to load a Sales Utility Belt, how to capitalize on the Five Ws and One H + Five Whys, and how to develop your Situation Assessment skills and Interaction Judgment to pull out the right knowledge and skills from your utility belt, when you need it.

Walking My Talk on Sales Nuance

I’ve also decided to create several companies, both seller and buyer firms, as well as some buying/selling situations, to be able to provide better, specific examples when demonstrating concepts and recommending approaches. This will take some time, so won’t be ready for awhile, but I believe it will be worth it.

What do you think of all this – especially the Adaptive Buying and Selling Alignment concept? I’m open to your opinions and thoughts, if you care to share.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, be safe out there, and by all means, let’s continue to elevate our sales profession.


Mike Kunkle
Transforming Sales Results with Clear Insight & Focused Execution

<mike at mikekunkle dotcom>


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  1. “Therefore, they are adaptive, and align their selling efforts to the situation.”

    ‘Adaptive’ Selling, as a concept, has been around for a long time. Like all ‘adjectives’ before the word ‘Selling’, it has, and has had, many different meanings.

    We worked with it at Big IT and Big Telco, just as you are putting it as an ‘sales alignment to their buying process’. In particular, because big IT and big Telco often have to sell via Procurement ‘processes’.

    It has usually come down to ‘Adapting’ the selling process to their buying process, hence has no structure of its own! Interactive Competence is the foundations to effective ‘Adaptive’ Selling. Interactive Competence is the basis of selling itself.

    Ultimately, Selling is adaptive. It therefore has no need for the adjective.

    The Customer’s behaviour, their questions, and their requests can tell you more about their buying process, and where they are in their process, than your questions based on your own constructs.

    • Hi Brian and thanks for your thoughts! I was hoping you’d weigh in. As usual, I mostly agree with only a smidgen of disagree.

      Yes, I’m familiar with the use of adaptive selling and have searched the phrase on Google. Agreed. I didn’t see anyone owning a trademark or copyright, though, so to express what I was thinking, it seemed fair game and a good word choice.

      Makes sense about Big IT and Big Telco. As Procurement works their way into more buying activities, it seems the rest of the world is finally going to catch up. (Or much of it, anyway.)

      I agree that interactive competence or what I called situation assessment and interaction judgment is the basis of selling, done well. In that same vein, I almost agree with your comment that the “adaptive” is unnecessary. I would agree, if the general competence in what I referred to as “adaptive” were higher in the reps I’ve observed over time, but at least in my experience, it isn’t, which is my reason for exploring these concepts more closely in the first place.

      “Yes!” on your customer behavior comment (minus that unnecessary “u”)! This is, in part, what I meant by cue and clues, but I also don’t think it negates asking clarifying questions, or using the “Five Ws and One H + Five Whys” in other ways, than just determining where the customer is in their process. If my wording suggested that as a sole focus, I did a poor job in communicating my intent and will go back to check that.

  2. Mike,

    My favorite part of this article is how you help the seller evaluate the W’s and H’s for BOTH their prospective customer and themselves. I believe that if more people approached a sale this way, more would get done, and faster.

    Doing the W and H exercise would actually HELP salespeople to not get caught up in the frustration of procurement (meaning the salesperson would be less frustrated by the procurement process AND the salesperson would DO less to frustrate procurement – which is always time consuming!)

    I believe if a person is adaptive, they will always be more successful. In your article, you provide tools to help salespeople learn “what’s so NOW” as opposed to relying on past experience for direction on how to proceed..

    However, I believe salespeople can be TOO adaptive and compromise the structures that their company requires to deliver the product and service well – which compromises the satisfaction of both parties when it comes time to deliver.

    Sometimes, a seller has got to say…”This is how my company does business, here is why we do it that way, how do we bridge the gap?”

    For example, I do not walk into a bank to open an account and present them with my own Master Agreement that I use with every vendor. I sign their document and I receive their services.

    The model you set forth here seems to assume that the customer always knows what they want and has the best processes in place to get it – so the seller is always left adapting.

    Sometimes the seller does have the best product and the more efficient method to help the buyer get what they truly need. I believe it is an ebb and flow between the two.

    Great article. I really love the W’s and H’s. I will use them!

    Love ’em UP!

    The Irreverent Sales Girl

    • Hello ISG and thanks for making an appearance here again. I “love up” the critical thinking and especially enjoyed your balanced perspective.

      I agree about being TOO adaptive and it wasn’t my intent to suggest that reps forgo working their process or methodology or ignore their own company’s policies or procedures. I think that’s a great clarification though, so I appreciate you bringing it to light. “Aligning their selling efforts to the situation” doesn’t mean rolling over or always bending the the buyer’s will. In reaching into their Sales Utility Belt, I would hope a rep would find the words you used, when they were needed.

      I have to disagree that my model assumes that customer always knows what they want and has the best processes in place to get it. I probably gave you the wiggle room to assume that by not stating it explicitly, though, so that’s another good and welcome call-out. This is the topic of a future post about the differences between today and the past.

      In the past, the consultative era was born out of a need to transition reps from horrible, self-absorbed, product-pitching toward a Socratic method of understanding needs well and determining what prospects or customers wanted. This allowed reps to align their solutions (their products’ benefits) to customer’s challenges and opportunities, to motivate the buyer and close the sale. When done well, that worked wonderfully, and reps who did it best often succeed the most.

      Today, in many cases, buyers are looking for insights and value-adds beyond what they already know from their own research and the wealth of information readily available on the Internet. In addition to being understood (still important), they expect reps to bring something else to the table from their experience with other customers or the seller’s company’s research or expertise. It’s a very different world, especially in B2B complex selling. So, I don’t assume that for a minute, nor do I believe the model I’m forming advocates that. Thanks again for the awesome comments and the chance to clarify!


  3. Mike,

    There are times when I unintentionally give the impression that I am anti-metrics. I love measurement, proof that supports my methods of madness. My concern is data driven selling, sans the humanness you discuss, becoming the norm.

    My push-back comes from a fear of drowning out “[the] ability to use cues and clues to identify where they are in the buying process, diagnose the current situation (what just happened) and reach into their utility belt and pull out just what they need at that moment” with activity based on measurables and logic. Big Data is here. Only that which is quantifiable is dictating more and more of business behavior and activities.

    Mike, you are a rare blend of right and left-brain thinking. Your ability to analyze data and statistics, and your understanding of our species, throw in your sense of humor, is extraordinary and uncanny.

    Your rationale, “Adaptive Selling” is what I think about daily. Two axioms I keep on the tip of my brain; people are irrational and people are people are unpredictable. Two questions that motivate me to remain active in our profession: How do we contain a growing dependence on metrics and how do we train salespeople who do not have the tool crib and adaptive skills.

    Your reaffirming post is bookmarked as a reminder and for reference.

    • Hi Gary and thanks for your thoughtful and kind comment.

      If we’re smart about it, Big Data will give us insights and help us focus rather than drowning in a sea of information. I have no issues with any sort of technology enabling us. At the end of the day, we still sell to humans, though… or at least for now.

      People rarely act in ways that are irrational to them. And again, the sane ones rarely don’t know what they’ll do next (aka predictability). The challenge, being outside of their heads, is being able to identify and understand what’s driving their behavior choices and timing. Sometimes, we get enough of a glimpse under the covers to know or hypothesize about those things… and sometimes we don’t. That’s what makes them seem irrational and unpredictable. It’s all perspective.

      If you can build trust, you’re likely to get better intel from your 5 Ws and 1 H and 5 Whys. If you build a relationship, you’ll likely get to see into the real motivations. It’s always this blend between the techniques (knowledge) and how they’re used (the skill and human interaction). Or as a friend says, “…and then magic happens here.”

      I get equally as worried sometimes, though, about the “sales is art” perspective. Some of it… the human behaviors and emotional intelligence pieces, seem like art… and some people will be Monets and Renoirs, while others will be destined to paint by number. But you can still be great at both, and with practice, produce good work. In organizations, where we must help the mass in the middle get better results like the artists at the top, is where processes, models and methodologies can help. Your last question gnaws at me daily, and it’s to that end that I’m exploring this stuff that I am, right now.


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