In a fast-paced, aggressive sales environment, it can often feel like salesperson versus prospect. The concept of the sales rep as a predator even pervades the sales jargon. A rep who is excellent at gathering prospects is often referred to as a “hunter.” To close a deal, salespeople are advised to apply pressure to the customer in some form or another.
Consultative selling centers on an opposite theory of the relationship between sales rep and customer. Under a consultative approach to selling, the representative and prospect work together to secure a mutually beneficial outcome for both. The customer has a problem, and the salesperson has a solution. A consultative selling approach brings the two together.
Before getting too far into the details about what consultative selling is, it’s essential to understand what consultative selling isn’t. A consultative approach to sales is easiest to understand in contrast to a traditional sales approach.
Traditional Sales Approach
Under a traditional sales theory, the goal is to get the customer to buy the product or service on offer. The sales rep has a product or service to sell, and they want to sell it to the customer. This is a product-focused or even rep-focused approach. The salesperson approaches the customer, tells them about the product or service, and convinces the customer that it’s excellent and they should buy it.
A sales rep who uses a traditional approach to a sales call likely isn’t all that concerned about who their customer is. The customer could be Derek, a homemaker in Buffalo, New York, or Cheryl, a tech startup founder in Denver, Colorado. The traditional rep will likely make the same pitch to both because the salesperson’s goal is the same – to sell their product or service.
A traditional sales conversation is often brief and to the point. The salesperson contacts the customer, usually by phone or email, and introduces themselves briefly before raving about their fantastic product or service. The customer generally either buys immediately or never buys at all because they either see the need for it or don’t.
Consultative Sales Approach
A consultative approach to sales inverts the relationship between sales rep and prospect. Where the traditional sales approach is focused on selling a product, the consultative sale is focused on solving a problem. Chances are, the provider created the product or service with a problem in mind. Consultative selling begins with an understanding of that problem and how the product or service solves it.
A thorough understanding of the problem requires understanding the customer and what the issue means to them. What do they do? How does the problem affect them? What would it mean if something could solve the problem? What would be the benefit? These are all questions a consultative salesperson seeks to understand before they even begin to talk about their product or service.
In learning about the customer and their problem, the sales rep often builds a unique rapport with the process. This eliminates the representative versus customer mentality that creates distrust in the sales cycle. Both the prospect and the salesperson are working together for a common goal – to solve the prospect’s problem with the right product or service.
Ideally, no two consultative sales conversations look alike. Before even contacting the customer, the sales rep researches the customer to get a feel for their needs. When the representative does connect with the customer, the conversation is centered around the customer and their problem. Finally, the salesperson demonstrates that they understand the customer’s problem and offers a solution to the problem.
The consultative sales process understandably takes longer than the traditional product- or service-centered sales process. However, it often provides a better experience for both the customer and the sales rep and drives better outcomes for everyone involved.
Consultative Selling: An Overview
When held up side-by-side with a traditional sales approach, a consultative sale is strikingly different. Where a conventional sales pitch can often feel adversarial, a consultative sales conversation feels cooperative. With customers and reps working together to seek a common goal, the entire nature of the sales transaction shifts.
The goal of the salesperson is always going to be to make the sale, of course. But the consultative approach changes the motivation of the sales rep. Rather than convincing the customer that they need the product or service that the representative is offering, the representative takes the time to let the customer tell them what they’re looking for. Then, only when the salesperson fully understands the customer’s need, they reveal a miraculous solution, saving the day.
For a sales rep who has always approached prospects product-first, this dynamic may feel foreign or even impossible to develop. However, with a few fundamental mindset shifts and lots of practice, all reps can learn a consultative approach.
1. Understanding the Customer
A traditional approach to a sales transaction requires no understanding of the customer whatsoever. A salesperson whose pitch is focused entirely on the product or service features doesn’t care about the customer. The product does what the product does, no matter who buys it. The product-focused pitch is the same, no matter who’s listening.
A consultative approach matches the solution to the problem, and understanding the problem begins with understanding the customer. A consultative sales rep asks themself – who is the target customer for their product or service? What makes them a target customer?
If it’s something about the work they do or the industry they work in, a motivated rep should take time to understand the basics of that job or industry. A surface-level grasp of what they do and what part they play in the world helps contextualize the offering in the salesperson’s mind.
On the other hand, if the target customer is someone who lives a particular lifestyle, a sales rep wanting to make a consultative sale should research what that lifestyle is about. Understanding what makes the target customer tick will help a representative visualize how their product or service fits into the prospect’s universe.
2. Understanding the Offering
Once they understand who is expected to buy their offering, a consultative salesperson should also have a deep understanding of what their customer is expected to buy. A consultative sale requires a rep to consider the features of their offering and how those features apply to their customer’s life. A sales rep must know, at a minimum, what their product or service does. What problem was it intended to solve?
This is where the salesperson’s understanding of their customer comes into play. Does the problem affect their work, their life, or both? How much time, energy, or frustration is the problem causing them? Is the problem also costing them money? How does the problem ripple out into other areas of their life? Stepping into the target customer’s shoes helps the sales rep internalize the need for the product or service they’re offering.
With a deeper understanding of the problem, a rep can contextualize their offering in the prospect’s life. If the customer were to buy the product or service, how would it solve the problem? With the problem solved, how much extra time would they have? Would they save money?
A genuinely consultative salesperson can get very creative here. If the prospect weren’t bothered by the problem any longer, how would other areas of their life be better? Would the overall quality of their life improve, even in areas not related to your product? Would they have more time to spend doing things they enjoyed? These sorts of questions can lead a sales rep to a deeper understanding of both the prospect and the product.
3. Educating the Customer
Here’s where the consultative sales process begins to help everyone involved. With a deep understanding of both the product or service they’re offering and the customer to whom they want to offer it. Stepping out of the shoes of the customer, a salesperson must now become a consultant.
Consider the (unfortunately dark) fable about the frog in boiling water. A frog dropped into a pot of hot water will sense the danger and immediately hop out. On the other hand, a frog put in a pot of cold water that is slowly brought to a boil will die before it realizes it’s being boiled to death.
Likewise, a prospect whose problem is deeply entrenched in their life or work may not even realize there’s a problem to be solved. They may feel that the problem is just a part of life that a product or service cannot solve, or they may not know there’s a better way to avoid the problem. Either way, a consultative salesperson is in a position to help.
Rather than calling the prospect and raving about all the things a product or service does, a consultative sales rep focuses on them. Building on the research they’ve already done on the customer and the offering, the representative asks questions that build rapport and lead the prospect to the problem. Over the course of the conversation, the customer begins to see that they have a problem that something could solve.
Once the light bulb comes on, so to speak, the salesperson begins to shine the light toward the offering. This isn’t the time for selling. The sales rep isn’t pointing directly at the product or service just yet. Instead, the representative should slowly lead the customer to conclude that a product or service can solve the problem they just uncovered. From there, the customer and salesperson can talk about how their life would be better without this problem.
The idea at this point is for the customer to start selling the offering to themselves. From not even realizing there was a problem to begin with, the customer starts to sell themselves on the solution’s value. Meanwhile, the salesperson positions themself to save the day with a solution they’ve not even mentioned yet.
4. Presenting the Solution
Having educated the prospect on how things could be better, the sales rep begins to describe their offering. Ideally, through the course of the rep’s research and conversation with the customer, they’ve uncovered some key phrases to describe the customer’s needs. In explaining how the product solves the problem, the rep can use the prospect’s own language to help them see the benefits.
At this point, if everything has gone well, the customer and salesperson feel as though they are on the same side, working toward a mutually beneficial solution. The customer understands that there’s a problem to be solved and that there is value to solving it. The sales rep has taken time to understand the problem and come up with a solution. All that’s left to do is match the value of the solution to the value of solving the problem.
Benefits of a Consultative Approach
Selling a product or a service as a consultant rather than as a salesperson can significantly improve the sales process and experience for everyone involved. Most people can recall a time when they have suffered through a hard sale by a sales rep who was only interested in closing the deal. Customers do not appreciate feeling as though their salesperson only sees dollar signs.
On the other hand, when the prospect or customer feels as though they and the sales rep are on the same side, it improves trust and decreases resistance. The consultative relationship allows the representative to make higher-value sales. This improvement is a direct result of their understanding of the customer’s needs and the value of meeting them.
Along with an increase in customer satisfaction, this leads to a better long-term relationship between the customer and the service or product provider. Customers who feel understood by an empathetic sales consultant are more likely to have overall positive feelings about the product or service. In the future, when they have additional needs for something similar, they will be more likely to ask the same provider for advice.
Where Consultative Selling Can Go Wrong
A consultative approach to selling has many benefits for the customer, salesperson, and provider. However, these advantages do come with certain drawbacks. First, the consultative sales cycle is understandably longer. Where a product-focused approach requires very little preparation aside from knowing the features of the product, a needs-based process takes a lot more legwork.
The initial process of researching and qualifying prospects can take a considerable amount of time. Along the way, the list of potential customers gets dramatically shorter. This can be frustrating for salespeople who find that sales success is primarily a numbers game in their industry. Fewer people to call means fewer opportunities to follow up on, which for some sales reps means fewer deals closed.
There’s also an increased risk of lost or delayed closures over the lifecycle of the sale. In order to maintain the role of sales consultant without becoming pushy, a salesperson has to be gentle in urging the deal to close. Customers who appreciate the sales consultant’s approach can very quickly be turned off by a relatively small amount of sales pressure. This balance requires extra care for the sales rep to maintain and can hurt the sale if lost.
Should You Try Consultative Selling?
Consultative selling is not a magic bullet for every sales representative’s situation. While a consultative approach to sales can be incredibly beneficial for certain products and services, it makes less sense in other industries. Likewise, some customers are more likely to prefer a sales consultant’s demeanor, while others may be more inclined to buy from a fast-talking sales rep.
Consultative selling tends to work well in B2B (business to business) sales. The B2B relationship, by its nature, usually involves two industry professionals operating at similar levels of expertise. Customers at this level are more likely to see their sales rep as a peer who desires to help them rather than someone trying to get something from them.
A consultative approach can work well in B2C (business to consumer) transactions under the right circumstances. Many B2C deals happen quickly, without a lot of thought from the consumer. On the other hand, specialized transactions where customers are likely to research before making a decision are great for a consultative sales approach.
In general, more specialized deals and higher-value deals are better for a consultative sales approach. For more broadly applicable products and services that don’t require much research, a consultative sales process doesn’t add much value. Likewise, lower value deals may not provide enough return on investment for a consultative approach to be worthwhile.
However, in any situation where the customer or prospect has multiple options to choose from and is likely to spend a significant amount of money, a consultative approach can improve outcomes for both the sales consultant and the customer.
How To Transition To a Consultative Approach
A consultative approach to sales may feel foreign to a salesperson used to a more product-centered philosophy. However, any sales pitch can be made more consultative with a little bit of work. A consultative sales process is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Incorporating consultative elements into a more straightforward sales process can still improve the sales cycle for both the salesperson and the customer.
1. Talk Less
A product-centered salesperson often does the majority of the talking in a conversation with the customer. Whether talking about the product, its benefits or simply trying to herd the customer towards the sale, many sales reps monopolize the conversation. A sales consultant chooses their words carefully, using them in a way that encourages the customer to open up.
Rather than telling the customer all the benefits of the service they’re offering, a sales consultant asks questions about how the customer’s life could be better. Then, the consultative salesperson allows the customer to lead themselves to the service on offer.
2. Listen More
Given the opportunity, customers will give a sales consultant everything they need to know to close the deal. Many sales reps are tempted to approach a customer conversation like they’re taking an order. Offering up a menu of selections, the representative promotes a product or service the customer never asked for.
A sales consultant, on the other hand, allows the customer the opportunity to express what they need. Whether it’s a problem they’re having or something that can go more smoothly, the customer knows their own situation better than the salesperson. A sales consultant who listens carefully to what the customer says may get some helpful hints that they would have missed otherwise.
3. Ask Why
Unless the sales consultant has also worked in the same industry or lived the same experience as the customer, they may have a hard time truly understanding the customer’s needs. Whenever the salesperson is uncertain, asking the customer “why” can help build rapport. The sales rep will gain a better understanding of the customer and their needs, and the customer will feel listened to and understood. This benefits both sides of the sales relationship.
Every sale is unique, and every salesperson has to choose for themselves what sales approach works best for them. A consultative approach to sales can drive better outcomes for sales consultants and improve customer satisfaction. Whenever a customer is likely to have multiple providers to choose from, a consultative approach can be beneficial.
However, not all products and services lend themselves to the consultative sales approach. Being a sales consultant takes more time and effort, and this may not pay off for all products or services. A salesperson should carefully consider their offering and their customer to maximize their success, whatever approach they choose.