Adapt or Die: Why Caring About Your Customer is Not Enough for Excelling at Sales

During the many conversations I had with many sales leaders, I found out that each of them had a particular idea of what are the most important skills and competencies for a successful sales rep.

However, there is a common topic that keeps coming back:

  • “They need to understand what is the excruciating need of the customer.”
  • “What matters, in the end, is not showing that your product is the best, but that is what your customer wants.”
  • “The best salespeople understand the business landscape and are very quick in identifying potential opportunities.”
  • “If you see your customer bored, or lost in the information flow, then is probably time to change the way you are delivering your message and understanding what the customer really is about.”
  • “I hate when I see salespeople being lazy and sending me emails about a generic problem I don’t have: Pick up the phone and call me to know what I need!”

Behavioral scientists identified a construct that captures this essential skill in sales: adaptive selling.

What is adaptive selling?

The influential sales researcher Barton Weitz (Weitz, Sujan & Sujan, 1986) defined adaptive selling as: “The altering of sales behaviors during a customer interaction or across customer interactions based on perceived information about the nature of the selling situation.”

Adaptive selling, in simple terms, refers to the ability of a salesperson to adjust their approach based on the specific situation and needs of each customer. It goes beyond just having a standard sales pitch and instead focuses on actively listening, understanding, and responding to the unique circumstances and preferences of individual customers.

In practice, adaptive selling consists of three stages:

  1. Understanding what the client really needs by asking questions, observing nonverbal behavior, and applying intuition.
  2. Applying a strategy tailored to the customer.
  3. Being able o quickly change that strategy if it is no more appropriate.

Why is it so important?

There are many marketing and sales channels, from websites to social media, from packaging to TV commercials. However, none of them have the flexibility of human beings to understand the specific need of a customer and adapt to their communication style. In some ways, we could say that selling adaptively distinguishes sales reps from any other type of marketing & sales method (Spiro & Weitz, 1990). Many studies have been conducted to test the impact of adaptive selling on performance, but only one meta-analysis aggregated them all (Franke & Park, 2006). The results clearly showed that Adaptive Selling is related to self-rated performance, manager-rated performance, and objective performance. The 10% most adaptive salespeople are likely to sell 7% more on average than the 10% least adaptive salespeople. Highly adaptive salespeople also report 17% higher job satisfaction on average.

Adaptive Selling vs. Customer Orientation

The importance of Adaptive Selling also shines when compared to the somewhat more popular concept of Customer Orientation. Customer Orientation involves a customer-centric mindset and approach that prioritizes the long-term satisfaction and success of the customer, fostering trust and building relationships. Both constructs are related to the ability to empathize with the customer and understand their needs; however, Customer Orientation alone does not guarantee that the positive relation is also translated into sales results. Indeed, Customer Orientation is comparable to Adaptive Selling to predict self-rated sales performance and job satisfaction but does not predict manager-rated and objective performance measures (Franke & Park, 2006).

What does make a salesperson adaptive?

To some extent, Adaptive Selling can be learned. Indeed, Adaptive Selling is correlated to sales experience, although the correlation is relatively weak (Franke & Park, 2006).

Adaptive sales representatives tend to be:

  • Empathetic. Understanding others’ needs and amotions helps identifying the customers’ needs and metaphorically wear their shoes.
  • Openers”, meaning that they have a natural tendency to let people open up and share their thoughts and feelings.
  • Have a high self-monitoring ability. Self-monitoring is a set of skills to observe and deliberately control own behavior, including nonverbal behavior, so to convey a certain impression to others.
  • Show high interpersonal locus of control, which indicates the belief in having control over the way you interact with other people. If you believe you can change the outcome of an interaction, you are more likely to try!
  • The last and least expected predictor is intrinsic motivation. Sales reps that like their job and are passionate about selling and providing value to customers are more likely to engage in adaptive behaviors compared to those that are only looking for external rewards.

Takeaways for sales managers

In conclusion, adaptive selling is a crucial skill for sales teams to excel in today’s dynamic and ever-changing marketplace. The ability to adjust and tailor sales approaches based on the specific needs and preferences of individual customers has a significant impact on sales performance and customer satisfaction.

As sales managers, it is essential to recognize the importance of adaptive selling and its impact on overall team success. When recruiting new sales representatives, considering their potential for adaptive selling should be a key factor. Look for candidates who possess natural empathy, strong interpersonal skills, and a high level of self-monitoring ability. These characteristics indicate a greater likelihood for adaptive behaviors in sales interactions.

Additionally, investing in training and development programs that specifically focus on adaptive selling skills can greatly benefit your sales team. By providing resources and opportunities for sales reps to enhance their adaptive selling abilities, you can empower them to navigate diverse customer needs, establish stronger connections, and ultimately drive higher sales performance.

Remember, sales success goes beyond merely caring about the customer. It requires the ability to adapt and tailor sales approaches to meet their ever-evolving needs. By recruiting for adaptive selling potential and fostering the growth of this skill within your sales team, you’ll position your organization for greater success in sales and customer satisfaction.

If you need assistance or guidance in implementing adaptive selling strategies or developing training programs, don’t hesitate to reach the experts at Human Edge!


Franke, G. R., & Park, J.-E. (2006). Salesperson Adaptive Selling Behavior and Customer Orientation: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Marketing Research, 43(4), 693–702.

Spiro, R. L., & Weitz, B. A. (1990). Adaptive Selling: Conceptualization, Measurement, and Nomological Validity. Journal of Marketing Research, 27(1), 61.

Weitz, B. A., Sujan, H., & Sujan, M. (1986). Knowledge, Motivation, and Adaptive Behavior: A Framework for Improving Selling Effectiveness. Journal of Marketing, 50(4), 174–191.

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