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Defining the Consultative Sales Approach

What Is Consultative Selling?

Consultative selling is a sales approach where the sales dialogue is hyper-focused on the customer. This customer focus is demonstrated in the sales professional’s thinking, actions, and words.

Consultative selling in human and natural. Sellers need a process and skills to demonstrate their natural styles, not a rigid set of steps of manipulative tactics that suppress their natural styles.

The goal of executing a consultative sales dialogue is to foster openness to help the sales professional build a deep understanding of buyers’ needs so that they can offer the best solution for their unique situation.

For sales professionals, a consultative selling approach makes it possible for them to position their solutions in a more compelling and differentiated way. The outcome of consultative selling is greater satisfaction on the buyer side and a strong relationship between the buyer and seller.

Consultative selling skills can be constantly improved throughout a sales professional’s career. While some might consider a sales professional’s ability to execute a consultative sales dialogue a “soft skill,” there is actually a framework sales professionals can follow to ensure that they are effectively executing this approach.

The Consultative Selling Framework

consultative selling framework

The Consultative Selling Framework provides sellers with a consistent, repeatable process to more effectively execute their sales conversations.

The Consultative Selling Framework can be broken down into 6 steps:

1. Prepare

Effective call planning leads to more productive customer meetings, increased credibility, a shortened sales cycle, and increased sales results. Using an efficient methodology for call planning helps ensure that each customer call advances the sale.

2. Connect

The connect phase of the sales call opens the meeting, creates an impression, and sets the tone. A strong opening helps build credibility.

3. Understand

Understanding is at the heart of consultative selling. Sales professionals need to connect with customers, gain and keep their openness and willingness to engage in a dialogue, and ask a full range of questions.

4. Recommend

The way a sales professional positions a specific solution can make it easy or difficult for the customer to understand. It can also make the sales professional sound compelling or boring. To be persuasive, sales professionals need to describe capabilities and solutions using clear, concise, and compelling messaging that links value to customer needs.

5. Commit

Treating closing like a process lowers the risk of rejection and increases the likelihood of gaining commitment and winning the business.

6. Act

Flawless follow-up with the customer is one of the fastest ways sales professionals can build credibility and differentiate themselves because many sales professionals are not strong in following up. Internal reflection and action planning after the call is necessary to ensure each customer interaction is fully maximised in order to learn and plan an appropriate action to win.

Using Questions to Understand Customer Needs

One of the core tenants of consultative selling is:

To be truly consultative, a sales professional must use authentic curiosity to deeply understand customer needs.

Some examples of consultative-style questions that demonstrate genuine curiosity are:

  • What do you want to achieve?
  • What are you currently doing?
  • What’s working well?
  • To ensure that we are future-focused in our recommendations, what are your plans going forward that we should be aware of?

The answers to these questions give the salesperson insight into the true nature of the customer’s challenge. This understanding improves the sales professional’s ability to resolve objections and position relevant solutions to advance the sale.

Consultative Approach vs. Product-focused Selling

The transition from product-focused selling to need-focused selling was the direct result of market changes. Increased competition and customers’ greater access to information and sophistication shifted the focus of a sales call from the seller to the buyer. This shift occurred because modern buyers are more informed and more prepared; they face an overabundance of information and options, come to the table with increased skepticism, have to answer to an increasing number of stakeholders, are forced to navigate an environment of complexity and ambiguity, and are less loyal to their existing solutions providers.

Technology, skepticism, risk-averseness, and increasing stakeholders challenge the connection between the customer and seller. As a result, the sales cycle has elongated or, in some cases, stopped. This inertia stems from the seller’s challenge of navigating misconceptions originating from the buyer’s research. This problem is compounded by limited access to buyers amid tight schedules. Average sellers who could previously sit idly in the middle of the pack are now pushed down to the bottom, while highly skilled, agile sellers are able to stay on top.

While these factors seemingly raise the buyer to an unreachable height, sellers must remember they offer their own critical skills. Buyers still seek trust, authenticity, and clarity to help them synthesize value from their resources. Sellers can differentiate themselves by delivering on these needs.

Consultative Sales Techniques & Skills

There are five primary qualities that mark a consultative salesperson.

  • They connect and foster openness to gain information needed to be relevant
  • They use authentic curiosity to deeply understand needs
  • They develop the best solution for the customer’s unique situation
  • They communicate in a highly relevant, compelling, and differentiated way
  • They foster a positive relationship, exceptional buying experience, and trust

These qualities result in the sales professional winning more profitable business and building longer-term relationships with their customers.

In consultative selling, the sales professional learns about customer needs before talking product. Product knowledge is transformed into a tailored solution when it’s is delivered and positioned based on the customer’s needs and language.

Consultative selling requires sales professionals to focus on executing these seven primary techniques:

1.      Avoid Seller-centric Behaviours

Nearly all sales professionals believe they’re customer focused when few truly are. This statement is underscored by recent research from McKinsey that found most B2B companies averaged less than 50% on a customer-experience index rating.

Sales professionals facing the pressure of a more challenging environment may resort to seller-centric behaviors to try to strong-arm customers or gloss over core issues. But these behaviors deepen mistrust.

Sales professionals need to understand the person in the other chair. Doing so means forming an accurate diagnosis of their problem. This insight builds credibility and thereby fosters trust.

These steps are critical in earning the right to ask the incisive questions that bring about a dialogue. By getting to the core of the buyer’s challenges, sales professionals can better position solutions that deliver real value for their buyers.

2.      Shift to a Mindset of Authenticity

Sales professionals must give before they get. Establishing a shared commitment to solving buyer’s business challenges early in the process fosters openness.

This openness helps sales professionals more accurately diagnose their buyer’s business challenges, stated needs, and unknown needs. From this point, the seller can show the buyer how to effectively use the specific pieces of data necessary to reach a resolution.

3.      Lead the Conversation with a Plan

A direct approach that starts the conversation with a clear direction helps sales professionals gain an early indication of the buyer’s expectations. If the intended path is divergent from the buyer’s goals for the conversation, the sales professional can adjust accordingly.

4.      Build to Decisive Momentum

Sales professionals can guide the customer through the dialogue by eliciting feedback. This helps them get a sense of how well they understand the solutions and ideas discussed.

This periodic checking helps move the buyer to the next step; this helps build commitment incrementally throughout the buying process. This practice builds decisive momentum where alignment with the buyer makes each successive decision easier than the last.

5.      Share Insights Gained through Questioning

Asking progressively smarter questions helps the buyer connect the dots with a line that traces to the best solution.

Insightful questions get to the core issues fast and afford the sales professional the opportunity to float ideas. Inviting the buyer to think differently about solutions can be made less threatening when the concepts are presented as questions.

6.      Understand the Neuroscience behind How Buyers Buy — or Don’t

Buyers are human beings, and human beings have three fundamental needs for well-being that affect how they perceive what is happening, what they listen to, and how they ultimately make decisions.

These needs are Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. Strong questioning skills help sales professionals respect these needs by staying emotionally connected with the buyer, avoiding coming across as manipulative, and creating a safe environment to discuss challenging or sensitive issues.

7.      Work off of Facts, Not Assumptions

Anchoring is a form of cognitive bias that describes the common human tendency to rely too heavily on one piece of information. Sales professionals are especially prone to anchoring to their own assumptions rather than working diligently to seek out the facts through dialogue.

Anchors can cause sales professionals to miss or dismiss potentially valuable information that could help them move the sale forward and position a more compelling and valuable solution.

To counteract anchoring, the best sales professionals mindfully engage in active listening to “tune into” new or conflicting information, as well as pursue the customer’s thinking, rather than move away from it. They aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions because they know the facts and truth for the customer will produce the most compelling value proposition.

Benefits of Adopting a Consultative Selling Approach

The two most abused, misused, and overused words in selling are the words consultative and solution. It is interesting that these two words hold this distinction because without being consultative, the so-called solution is usually little more than a standard product pitch.

Sales professionals who genuinely embrace the practice of consultative selling experience many benefits, including:

  • Increased revenue from improving close ratios for new customers and expanding business with existing ones
  • Competitive advantage from a sales approach that is tightly aligned to market needs
  • Access to new and larger opportunities within current accounts from surfacing unrecognized needs
  • Shortened sales cycle length from driving momentum and building buyer confidence to commit

If you would like to learn more about how to help your sales team elevate their consultative selling skills, contact us, or download more information about Richardson’s Consultative Selling training programme.