When we teach people about consultative selling, adopting a consultative sales approach, what exactly do they need to do? We believe that becoming a consultative sales person requires becoming more proactive and developing a new mindset. A mindset which is different from the traditional transactional focus.
Transactional salespeople focus on the transaction, on making the sale. They focus on what they have to sell, their products and services and how these might be able to benefit the customer. The focus is on closing the deal; and therefore it tends to be short term.
Truly consultative selling requires a new mindset, a different approach, a change in the way we are seen by the customer. A consultative sales person wants to be viewed by the customer as being an expert, as someone who is focusing on them, and on their clients too i.e. the customer's customer. Consultative sales people focus not simply on winning the deal but on helping the customer to win. This requires developing a more long-term focus. Clearly the objective is to still win the business, but at the same time a consultative sales person wants their customer to win too – so more business can be developed with their customer in the future.
Developing a new mind set
This new mindset is fundamentally about being more proactive and less reactive in the sales approach. Reactive, transactional sales people respond to customer needs and react to customer demand. Proactive sales consultants look for ideas and opportunities to help the customer to win in their market.
Consultative sales people understand that customers value insight
Research conducted by Huthwaite research reinforced this point; thousands of senior executives said they would be willing to meet with a sales person who was proactive and could deliver real value and insight. These executives said they would be happy to meet with a sales person who could do the following:
1. Identify unrecognized opportunities
By this they meant they wanted ideas, proactive ideas about new opportunities, opportunities ‘that they had not recognized themselves’. In other words, the value to the senior executive wasn't from the sales person’s products or services but from their potential insight, being able to suggest and discuss new ideas and opportunities which the senior executive had not yet considered and
helping to identify a new business opportunity.
2. Find solutions to problems
Senior executives also said they would talk to sales people who could help them to find a new solution to an existing business problem, which they were struggling to resolve. They thought that the sales person might be aware of a solution from talking to other customers. Again the belief was that the sales person could bring insight from outside the company.
3. Highlight future business problems
The third area was perhaps the more challenging for sales people. Senior executives said they would meet with sales people who could highlight a future business problem which they might not have realized was coming. Again, the sales person's value is in their insight and expertise, because they are out in the market, they are aware of what’s happening; observing trends, being proactive.
The insight and value of a consultative sales person
The value a consultative sales person provides comes from their expertise and insight, not just from their products and services. It comes from their ability to identify new opportunities, to find new solutions and to identify future business problems. A consultative sales person's value is in their proactivity and in being able to articulate these to the customer - this is the approach and mindset we advocate for consultative selling.
If listening is important to developing a consultative selling style, the ability to ask good questions is just as critical. Asking the right sales questions will help to build the customer relationship and advance the sales process. This involves trying to understand what the customer is thinking so that we know how to respond to them and offer them the best solutions to address their concerns. We do this by asking them the right consultative questions to determine:
an understanding of each other
their personal perception
Whether they have a different view
What they think is the most important issue
What their underlying concerns are
The answers to these fairly simple questions helps the sales person to focus their value proposition on things that are important to the customer. The type of insightful questions that the sales person asks conveys a great deal to the customer about the value they can provide, but how?
How to ask the right sales questions
If you think about the news for example, a news reporter demonstrates their experience, their knowledge and their understanding of a situation by asking the right sort of questions to a politician. Similarly, a sales manager can show how much they know about the business by asking insightful questions of a salesperson about where they are in the sales cycle, or the buying cycle. You might have experienced this yourself, where the sales manager can convey a lot about their knowledge, not by telling you, but by asking pertinent questions - and it's the same for the customer - when they see a salesperson who asks insightful questions it shows more than anything else that they understand, and that they know what's happening.
Different types of consultative questions
These are the five consultative questioning types all of which can provide you a great deal of information:
Business value questions
In sales management circles there has been a lot of mention for a while now of concepts such as ‘value selling’ or ‘consultative selling’. People say things like “We need to position the value of our solution better” or “For this deal we need a consultative approach." Many sales people get confused by this. In workshops I keep getting questions about what consultative selling actually means, so I decided to write a few sentences to clarify the issue.
Defining what Consultative selling is NOT
It isn’t positioning yourself as a technical expert
Consultative Selling does not mean consulting the client on the technical intricacies of your solution in great painstaking detail. While this can potentially be an important step in the sales cycle, I’d call this presales consulting, or technical presales. I would generally discourage that Account Managers overly engage in this since there is a real danger that they shoot themselves in the foot. By positioning themselves as the technical expert, they run the risk of being labeled as a ‘Techy’, making it more difficult to get time in front of customer business executives who don’t care about – or might be turned off by - too much technical detail.
It isn’t about being a business consultant
On the other hand it also does NOT mean, acting as a business consultant by explaining to customer executives how they should be running their business. To start with, most sales people are not trained to do this. Secondly one needs a great deal of manufacturing experience to consult a manufacturer’s CXO on how to improve their business. Third there is the issue of credibility vs. self interest in selling and consulting respectively. So even if you did know the customer’s business well, from a management perspective, caution is in order, you risk irritating the customer and getting the: “ARE YOU TELLING ME HOW TO RUN MY BUSINESS???” response!
What consultative selling means
Now we know what is doesn’t mean, let’s define we at Integratis mean when we say ‘Consultative Selling’.
A consultative sales person:
- Actively reaches out and seeks discussions with non-technical buyers, who might be the technical buyer’s internal clients (customer’s customer).
- Reports on their findings from these non-technical discussion to the technical buyer, to enable them to serve their customers better.
- Uses consultative questioning techniques and active listening to collect the maximum amount of information, in order to come up with the best possible solution for the customer, technically and financially.
- Uses good process such as professional meeting planning to make life easier for their own team, also ensuring maximum meeting quality for the customer.
- Is aware of their specific sources of power / influence and uses these in a planned and professional way, with complete integrity.
- Moderates compromise between competing interests within the customer.
- Supports writing the business case/financial justification or writes one their-self.
- Never loses sight of the solution’s economies and profitability for the customer.
- Is capable of an intelligent discussion with the financial decision maker (FDM).
- Is capable of at least a high-level of discussion of financing options for their own solution.
- Helps the technical buyer to position and defend the economics of their solution.
- Is connected within the customer and can help technical buyers find budgets for their solution upon request.
- Doesn’t accept everything a customer says without reflection, but…
- Instead creates constructive solution-oriented discussion, again using consultative questioning techniques.
So there you have it, the consultative sales person. How many of these strategies do you currently employ? At Integratis it is our experience that engaging in any one or all of these behaviors will make your life in sales significantly easier and much more satisfying. Change is never easy, but rest assured, we meet lots of sales people and have seen incredible gains in effectiveness and success rates, once they’ve started applying some of the above concepts. They are the spirit and gist of the Integratis consultative selling program which we have rolled out to many clients on our customer references list.
How about you? Do you agree with our ‘traits of a consultative sales person’? What would you add? What works for you?
Author: Peter Schmitz
Peter Schmitz is an Integratis consultant representing Integratis in German speaking countries.
Peter is also owner/director of www.schmitzconsulting.com.
Contact Peter at: firstname.lastname@example.org
As a trusted advisor your client wants your opinion and advice. To provide honest, impartial counsel which is also well received is often difficult. Most people don’t want to be told what they are doing wrong, nor what you think they should do about it. Continuing to look at 'The Trusted Advisor' by David H Maister, Charles H Green & Robert M Galford here are some ideas about providing advice as your client's trusted advisor.
When people ask for advice they are looking for help. Try to understand the issues at stake, maybe reputations and promotion opportunities. Don't only suggest ways to improve, it implies things are being done wrong and won't be welcomed. The trick is to understand the politics of the situation, to be sensitive to individual personalities and to be tactful.
Your client wants you to remove their concerns and provide support and confidence. As their advisor, by default, the risk is that you appear arrogant, something your client will resent. Your role is to diffuse any defensiveness by showing that you are trying to help not criticize.
Create a dialogue, a conversation
To show that you sincerely what to provide helpful advice try to create a dialogue. This requires sensitivity and a careful use of words, replacing: 'You should do X' with something like: 'Let's explore the possibilities together.' When you make a suggestion, invite a contribution: ‘This is what I am thinking, what about you?’. Keep the conversation alive, replacing questions such as 'what are your problems?' with: 'What areas do you think need improvement?' Try to turn assertions into questions.
Create the right atmosphere
Think for a moment about a classroom instructor. Often they will ask the class whether they have understood, but they rarely get an honest response. This is because they have created an atmosphere where to respond is to admit weakness. To create the right atmosphere and get the desired response a better question would be: 'Have I made myself clear?' or 'Shall we stay on this point or move to the next?' This avoids individuals admitting confusion but the instructor clarifies comprehension!
For advice to be accepted, and be really effective two skills are essential:
(i) The ability to ask good questions and listen
You need a clear grasp of where your client is starting from; their view of the situation, what they believe, what they are currently doing and why. Asking the right questions and being an attentive listener will achieve this and help determine what messages the client is ready for.
(ii) The ability to develop a reasoning process
Next a step-by-step reasoning process is needed to influence understanding. This helps your solutions to now resonate but allows the client to feel they made the decision. This is Socratic reasoning and it requires patience and practice to perfect.
The client as the decision maker
Your goal is to always to help the client feel that they have made the decision for themselves. You can make them aware of all the options, explore all the pros and cons and suggest recommendations, but let the client make the final decision. When confronted with a group and several individuals’ perspectives thorough prior research is essential, together with a concise summary of what has been achieved.
There is a never a one-size fits all solution. The essence of providing advice is to design a process to fit each situation and to be flexible in your consulting style.
What have your experiences taught you and what suggestions do you have? We are always interested to learn from you.