Defining the Consultative Sales Approach: Everything You Need to Know About Consultative Selling
What Is Consultative Selling?
Consultative selling is a sales approach that prioritizes relationships and open dialogue to identify and provide solutions to a customer’s needs. It is hyper focused on the customer, rather than the product being sold. This technique helps sales professionals better understand the challenges faced by customers so they can position their solutions in a more compelling and effective way.
Consultative selling skills help sales professionals position differentiated, compelling solutions. The outcome of employing a consultative sales approach is greater satisfaction and stronger relationships between the buyer and seller.
The Consultative Selling Framework
The Consultative Selling Framework provides sellers with a consistent, repeatable process to more effectively execute their sales conversations.
The Framework can be broken down into 6 steps.
- 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.
- Connect: The connect phase of the sales call opens the meeting, creates an impression, and sets the tone. A strong opening helps build credibility.
- 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.
- 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.
- Commit: Treating closing like a process lowers the risk of rejection and increases the likelihood of gaining commitment and winning the business.
- 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 that each customer interaction is fully leveraged in order to learn and plan an appropriate action to win.
Understanding Customer Needs Using a Consultative Selling Approach
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?
Consultative Sales Skills & Techniques
In consultative selling, the sales professional learns about customer needs before talking about a product or solution. Product knowledge is transformed into a tailored solution when it is delivered and positioned based on the customer’s needs and language.
Consultative selling requires sales professionals to focus on executing 7 key behaviors.
1. Avoid Being Seller-centric
Nearly all sales professionals believe they’re customer-focused when few truly are. Sales professionals facing the pressure of a more challenging environment 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 helps the seller earn the right to ask probing questions, improves the seller's ability to effectively position solutions, and builds trust with the customer.
2. Shift to a Mindset of Authenticity
Sales professionals must give before they get. Establishing a shared commitment to solving buyers' 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 leverage 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 in which alignment with the buyer makes each successive decision easier than the last.
5. Leverage Insights 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 tough questions because they know that 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
Learn more about the benefits of adopting a consultative sales approach by downloading the white paper: Elevating Your Consultative Selling Approach to Compete Today
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.
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