Consultative sales often referred to as the consultative sales approach is one in which customer needs are used as the basis for the sales dialogue (also known as “Needs-Based Selling”). It is a critical skill for sellers because competing in the world of selling today means understanding the changing world of your buyers and adjusting your sales approach accordingly to drive meaningful value.
What is Consultative Sales?
With Consultative Sales, the customer’s needs come first. Needs are identified through a combination of preparation and effective probing and drilling-down into customer answers. The Consultative Selling methodology took the hard edge from product selling and replaced it with the strong but flexible edge that is custom fit to the customer’s needs. This approach focuses on using strategic questioning skills to engage in a dialogue with a client or potential client. A consultative sales process requires the salesperson to constantly request feedback and use that information to ask the right questions at the right times. This ensures both parties are communicating and understanding each-other effectively.
This approach also focuses on using strategic questioning skills to engage in a sales dialogue with a customer about their most pressing business issues. A consultative approach to sales requires the salesperson to consistency elicit feedback and use that information to ask the right questions at the right times. This ensures both parties are communicating and understanding each-other effectively.
History of Consultative Selling
When the word Consultative was applied to sales in the 1970’s, it was revolutionary. It marked a major transition from the salesperson as the purveyor of information and the customer as the recipient to a much more collaborative interaction — one in which the customer’s needs, not the product — was the focal point of the sale.
By the early 80’s, the term Consultative Selling began to be misunderstood as a long, arduous sales process that focused on needs at the expense of closing business. In actuality, the consultative approach and consultative process is more effective because needs are clear and recommendations, therefore, are more likely to be on target, thus, following the consultative sales process methodology actually accelerates the sales cycle.
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 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 to Engage the Modern Buyer
There are four primary qualities that mark a consultative salesperson:
- They ask more questions
- They provide customized vs. generic solutions
- Their calls are more interactive
- They provide insights to their prospects and customers
Consultative selling techniques are all about the dialogue between the salesperson and the customer. The word dialogue comes from the Greek and means “to learn.” In Consultative Selling and Needs-Based Selling, the salesperson 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. The ability to effectively engage in a sales dialogue is a skill developed through consistent practice.
Professionals interested in honing these consultative selling skills will also seek out feedback on their techniques from multiple sources to find areas in need of improvement, they must also be committed to thoroughly and appropriately preparing themselves for every meeting they have with a potential client.
Our Framework provides sellers with a consistent, repeatable process to more effectively execute their sales conversations. Sellers learn to use every sales skill available to open more doors, better understand client needs, more persuasively articulate value, and close more deals.
The greatest resource a seller has in winning new business is an honest dialogue. Achieving this requires sellers to focus on these seven primary techniques:
- Avoid Seller Centric Behaviors: Nearly all sellers believe they’re customer focused when, in fact, few truly are. McKinsey research found that B2B companies averaged less than 50% on a customer-experience index rating. Sellers 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. Sellers need to understand the person in the other chair. Doing so means forming an accurate diagnosis of their problem. This insight builds credibility thereby fostering 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 your buyer’s challenges, you’ll be prepared to position a solution that drives real value for them.
- Shift to a Mindset of Authenticity: Sellers must give before they get. Define your presence as one of shared commitment to solving your buyer’s business challenges. A consultative approach helps sellers accurately diagnose buyer’s business challenges, stated needs, and unknown needs. From this point the seller can show the buyer how to effectively leverage the specific pieces of data necessary to reach a resolution.
- Lead the Conversation with a Plan: Show the customer that you value their time by offering a direct approach that starts the conversation with a clear direction. This opening will also give you an early indication of the buyer’s expectations. If your intended path is divergent from their goals for the conversation you can adjust accordingly. Appeal to your buyer’s sense of practicality by focusing your solution through their lens. Some stakeholders look for technical capabilities while others need to see financial or strategic benefits. Consider all Sides.
- Build to Decisive Momentum: Guide the customer through the dialogue by eliciting feedback. Get a sense of how well they understand your solutions and ideas. This periodic checking helps move the buyer to the next step. As a seller, you aren’t simply asking for the sale once, at the end of the process. Instead, you’re asking for the buyer’s commitment incrementally throughout the journey. This practice builds decisive momentum where your alignment with the buyer makes each successive decision is easier than the last. Show the buyer your own decisiveness by coming to the conversation with a point of view.
- Leverage Insights Gained Through Questioning: Ask smarter questions. In doing so, you’ll educate the customer by helping connect the dots with a line that traces to your solution. Be prepared for buyers who are willing to answer only a few questions. Today, everybody is under pressure to do more in less time. Therefore, come ready with the best possible questions that get to the core issues fast. Questioning also affords 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.
- 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 sellers respect these needs by staying emotionally connected with the customer; avoiding coming across as manipulative; and creating a safe environment to discuss challenging or sensitive issues.
- Work off 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. Sellers are especially prone to anchoring to their own assumptions when pursuing an opportunity rather than working diligently to seek out the facts through the customer dialogue. Anchors can cause sellers 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 consultative salespeople 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.
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