If there ever was a soft side to selling, it’s consultative selling. And salespeople need to have it in their repertoire.
And now, salespeople will want to do more than understand customers’ challenges and needs and offer personalized solutions.
Consultative selling today is about getting prospects to see their needs in a different light, showing them new ideas and driving change that improves their work and/or lives.
The best consultative sellers are less salespeople, more allies in realization and improvement.
“Consulting with a prospect and developing a client-focused solution requires more than asking questions to discover the prospect’s goal or challenge,” says Lorraine Ferguson, author of The Unapologetic Saleswoman, sales trainer, coach and associate with Sandler Training. “The consultative approach to selling is about asking questions as a means of sharing and exploring information. It goes beyond questioning to gather information.”
Benefits of consultative selling
Because consultative selling is so focused on needs:
- Salespeople close a higher percentage of deals by better qualifying leads to find buyers who truly need their solution, and
- Buyers don’t waste time listening to sales pitches for solutions that aren’t good fits – and end up more satisfied with decisions to buy.
Keep in mind, sales professionals don’t need to completely change their consultative selling approach. It’s more a matter of evolving from a traditional consultative approach to a more radical one.
|CONSULTATIVE SELLING||NEW CONSULTATIVE|
|Knowledge||Experts in one area||Generalists with broad |
|Needs||Defined by buyer||Redefined by seller|
|Challenges||Constrained by |
|Unleashed by realization |
of different needs
|Differentiation||Capabilities compared||Distinct, personalized|
|Value-driver||From the solution||From the salesperson|
|Collaboration||Limited and directed||Full-on and shared|
Bottom line: The best consultative sellers guide prospects to new ideas and perspectives, collaborate extensively and help prospects see how and when they will achieve results, the RAIN Group researchers found.
6 steps to consultative selling
Researchers, gurus and academics have come up with dozens of consultative selling definitions – and scores of guides to do it. But these six steps are the most widely-agreed-upon and used by salespeople who win more deals with consultative selling.
Most salespeople load up with viable leads through their skilled sales development colleagues. The most basic qualifying might be done, but the rubber meets the road in the research part of consultative selling.
Whether the lead came through lead generation efforts or a procured, qualified list of prospects, salespeople want to prepare and research thoroughly before making a contact.
Some vitals: recent company news, social media profiles and activity, personal blogs, company size, plus their activity with you including pages visited on your site, email preferences, and social media behaviors.
In consultative selling, the first contact is more important then ever. Salespeople create the impression, set the tone and immediately start to build credibility as an ally, not a salesperson.
Salespeople want to use open-ended questions to maintain the focus on prospects, their unique challenges and goals. It’s not a time to talk about solutions because the issues are just emerging and salespeople can help prospects redefine them.
Ask questions that start with What … Who … When … Where … Why … and How … and avoid questions that start with Is … Do … Are … and Can ….
Ask questions until you uncover and connect on these points. The prospects’:
- timeline, and
- budget and authority.
Understanding is the core of consultative selling, and it only happens when salespeople listen to gain insight rather than to respond or pitch.
In consultative selling, salespeople want to maintain an openness and willingness to shift their perspective and challenges on solutions as much as they hope customers will shift their perspectives.
That happens through active listening. Salespeople want to make sure both sides understand what’s being said and felt. What to do: Document prospects’ words, plus their tone, level of enthusiasm, reactions and reference to positive and negative emotions.
Respond using their words. Clarify that you have it right, and ask them to confirm they understand you.
When the time comes in consultative selling to learn less and teach more, salespeople want to focus on giving prospects new perspectives on their challenges – quite often a different view than they originally had – and ways to overcome those.
Salespeople want to build a plan to overcome challenges and reach goals already identified. That may not actually involve your solutions … yet. The idea is to help prospects move closer to achieving their goals, and that may be through more information or other avenues for now.
One caveat: Don’t give away the farm – too much information, direction or product. Remain professional, clear and concise on the value you offer as an ally. Meanwhile, avoid being elusive, coy or mysterious with your information.
Consultative selling often involves as many abandoned opportunities as pursued opportunities. Salespeople want to regularly review what’s been discussed, uncovered and shared to qualify – or disqualify – prospects throughout the process.
If prospects’ goals, challenges, timeline, budget and authority line up with the reality you’ve demonstrated (new or not), move forward. But if they don’t line up, chalk it up as a goodwill effort that may turn into something down the road.
The key to consultative selling is recognizing and walking away from unqualified leads – no matter how good the deal looks. It won’t likely happen and you’re better to spend more time with quality leads.
Salespeople want to end every step in the consultative selling process by reflecting on what happened and planning what will happen next. That way, every interaction with prospects is immediately leveraged to move to the next one until it’s time to close the deal.
The best thing about closing in consultative selling: It should feel natural and come easily. Salespeople don’t make a call to action without being sure they, prospects and the deal are a perfect fit.
Best practices for consultative selling
Process is good. Best practices are even better.
Here are five best practices for consultative selling from experts, practitioners and researchers.
1. Be a consultant
Yes, you’re a salesperson. But – and this shouldn’t be too surprising – in consultative selling, you want to act more like a consultant.
Once you understand customers, goals and challenges, you’re in the position to offer valuable advice – not a sales pitch. Two ways, according to The RAIN Group:
- share insight on where the industry is headed or how technology will likely impact prospects. Then give ideas on how to get ahead of that or how buyers can take advantage of the opportunities.
- Study and interact with customers, digging deep into their circumstances, needs, goals and challenges. Collaborate on some faction and give advice that can drive them to greater things.
2. Raise a red flag
Great consultative sellers aren’t afraid to question their prospects’ perspective. They compliment buyers on what’s going well, and critique current thinking and practices that are outdated or ripe for improvements.
Of course, this can’t be done with a simple background check and cursory search of operations. Salespeople need to do a rigorous analysis of the organization, its performance and outcomes. Then they can introduce a critical analysis.
3. Build toward decision
Consultative selling is like building brick-by-brick. Ask questions to create rapport, then step back to get feedback. Go on with questions to understand goals, then step back to get feedback on what you think you know before laying the next brick. After that, ask more questions to understand challenges in reaching the goal, then step back …
The key is to ask smarter questions – those that make prospects think differently about their situation and become increasingly open to new perspectives. With questions, you can float – rather than flat-out introduce – new ideas.
For instance, instead of saying, “I have a solution I think you will like,” salespeople will find prospects are more open to ideas unveiled in questions likes these:
- “What do you think about …?”
- “Have you ever considered …?”
- “How do you feel about …?”
When salespeople ask questions, get feedback and clarify – rather than plow ahead with a pitch – they align thinking. They build decisive momentum. With agreeable momentum, prospects can make decisions easier.
4. Think like a physician
Questions are the lifeblood of consultative selling. They keep the heart of the sale pumping, vital, alive. Generic questions won’t due, though. Salespeople need to rely on their experience and constant learning.
“Similar to a doctor-patient relationship, it requires the experience and expertise to analyze the situation and identify the real issues and what is contributing to the prospect’s challenges and goals,” Ferguson suggests. “The sales person must utilize their wealth of product knowledge to formulate and ask questions which will bring the prospects attention to those important issues. And, they must relate their questions to the essential aspects of their product or service that would provide a satisfactory and mutually beneficial outcome.”
5. Take buyers to the ‘aha’ zone
In consultative selling, salespeople need to move buyers into the special “aha” zone – where they see things in a new light, question what they’ve always thought and become open to different ideas. However, it’s a small zone, and buyers can quickly move beyond it into the paralysis zone. That’s where they’re overwhelmed with new information and shut down to different perspectives.
To reach the “aha” zone, The RAIN Group researchers suggest cognitive reframing. Three keys:
- When buyers show interest in your expertise, show scenarios that challenge the status quo, introduce new ideas or advocate for alternatives to slightly disrupt current perspective.
- Reframe the discussion around the new ideas, giving them a new lens on how they see their issues.
- Direct buyers to a better solutions and possibilities.