What is Consultative Selling?
When it comes to selling, there are various approaches you can take, depending on your personality and background, who your prospects are and what it is you’re selling. You may be better at using one sales approach than another, but it's not a good idea to stick to just one.
Knowing which approach to take with each customer is a skill every salesperson should learn, as using the right one can lead to a more successful sales rate. So you have to be prepared to mix it up.
First, though, you might find it helpful to know what some of these different approaches are. There’s the hard sell approach, where a sales rep will be more persistent, stressing that a prospect should purchase straight away or making them feel like they can’t buy at another time. In contrast, the soft sell approach leaves the decision-making up to the prospect, as it’s about answering any questions and making recommendations, rather than pressurising them to buy. The guru approach is best for salespeople who enjoy doing research and don’t mind answering questions, as it’s the facts that convince the prospect to buy. Whereas the buddy approach suits friendly, warm salespeople who can create an emotional connection with the prospect and build a trusting relationship. Solution selling is when a salesperson identifies the problems a prospect wants to solve and allows the needs of the prospect to guide them with which products to push. Consultative selling is similar to this, but there are some other techniques involved too, which we'll go into below.
As you can see, there are many approaches you can take when it comes to selling, however in this article, we’re going to focus on the consultative sales approach.
What is consultative selling?
Like solution selling, a consultative sales approach is about investigating what a prospect’s needs are and providing them with a solution to satisfy those needs – however there’s a substantial amount of relationship-building involved too.
With consultative selling, sales reps act as trusted consultants to their customers, increasing the potential for continued sales over time.
Read on to find out about the benefits of the consultative sales process, what steps you need to take to implement this approach and the skills you'll need to succeed.
What are the benefits of taking a consultative sales approach?
With a consultative sales approach, messaging is focussed on the impact your product or service has on your customers, rather than on its features and benefits.
The customer is never treated as a number – and that’s exactly what they want. They feel valued and appreciated, and the relationship is mutually beneficial as they’re likely to give you repeat business and recommend you to others.
Another benefit of the consultative selling approach is that your sales cycles are shorter.
Five steps of the consultative selling process
You can implement a consultative approach into your sales strategy by following these five steps:
Step one: Do your research
Preparation is key to becoming a successful consultative seller.
As well as making sure you have a solid understanding of the product or service you’re selling, you should do in-depth research on your prospect to learn everything you can about their situation, their needs and what success looks like to them.
The essence of a consultative sales approach is getting inside prospects’ heads, so make sure you dig deep to find out their pain points, worries, fears and desires. Note down any questions that arise when doing your research so you can find out the answers when you speak to them.
Some of the things you’ll want to pay particular attention to are:
- The size of their company
- Who their target market is
- What their annual turnover is
- How many people they employ
- The product or service they offer
- Who their competitors are
Call planning is hugely beneficial – not only because it gives you the information you need to ask the right questions, but it shows that you value the prospect as a potential customer and that you’re taking their needs seriously.
Step two: Ask questions
Now that you know more about your potential customer’s situation, you’re in a position to make the initial call.
It goes without saying that the conversation will flow more smoothly and you’ll establish a foundation of trust if you show your prospect that you’ve researched them and that you take a genuine interest in who they are and what their needs might be.
But your research will only get you so far. For an even deeper understanding of your prospect, you need to ask them the right questions. A correctly-worded question can be very revealing indeed.
Questions are bound to arise organically while you’re on the call, but it’s essential to compile a list of things you want to ask before you speak to your prospect. Rather than referring to a generic list, you should tailor your questions to the person you’re talking to, otherwise you could waste time talking about things that are irrelevant.
If you need some inspiration, your questions could be based on some of the following:
- Their budget
- Their current suppliers
- Their awareness of your company
- The biggest challenges they’re currently facing
Step three: Listen to your prospect
It may sound obvious, but it’s important to listen carefully to what your prospect is saying and take the time to understand what's being said before responding to it.
The best sales reps practice "active listening" – which is where you register what the other person is saying, rather than thinking about what you want to say next.
Here are some tips that will help make sure you’re practicing active listening:
- Don’t ask leading questions which are designed to get the prospect to agree with you
- Probe further if you don’t understand what they’re saying
- Repeat back what they’ve said to confirm your understanding
Once you’re confident that you know everything about your client and what their needs are, you should update your sales enablement documents with everything you’ve learnt about their buyer personas.
Step four: Focus on adding value
Now that you know exactly what your prospect’s pain points are, you’ll be able to build and offer a tailored solution.
You need to be able to think outside the box to position your product or service in a way that’s personalised to your prospect’s needs and sets you apart from the competition.
Communication skills are essential for this. Show your product or service in action, using clear, concise and engaging messaging. It’s vital that you stay focussed on adding value, rather than just selling. Be explicit about how your product or service can improve your prospect's life. While you might make a sale in the first instance, consultative sales is mainly about providing value and trusting that the sale will come.
If you’re unable to offer the prospect the solution they need, be upfront about this. Remember, you should be adding value. But just because you haven’t made a sale this time, it doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. If you’re honest with the prospect, you’ll increase your credibility and earn yourself a reputation as someone who’s trustworthy. Then, if you can recommend a more suitable product or service in the future, they'll be more likely to buy from you.
Step five: Follow up
Whether you’ve made a sale or not, it’s vital that you follow up with the prospect after the call.
Many sales professionals fail to do this, so not only will you be increasing your credibility and the chance of future sales or recommendations, you’ll be setting yourself apart from the competition.
What characteristics do you need for consultative selling?
Organisation is key to consultative selling. Researching your prospect and planning what you will say before a call ensures the conversation has a clear direction, and it gives you an early indication of what the buyer’s expectations might be.
If, however, the conversation takes an unexpected turn and the prospect’s goals for the conversion aren’t what you expected, you must be able to adjust accordingly. Asking the same questions in every call isn’t consultative, it’s formulaic.
There’s rarely a one-size-fits-all solution for consultative selling, so you must be prepared to customise your product or service to suit each prospect’s specific needs.
Communication is at the heart of consultative selling, so good people skills are essential for sales teams who want to adopt this method of selling.
When talking to a prospect, you should guide the discussion by asking questions that give you an insight into what your prospects needs are. As mentioned above, you should really listen to the prospect’s answers in order to gain a deep understanding. Never assume to know the answers and remember that asking tough questions can enable you to provide more value.
Being curious about your prospect and their needs is essential for consultative selling.
Your aim should be to find out everything you can about your prospect by researching them and asking probing questions to fill any gaps in your knowledge. Only then will you be in a position to offer them the solution they require.
It also helps to have an interest in the psychology of selling. Buyers are human beings, so it’s important to connect with them on an emotional level and avoid coming across as manipulative.
Consultative selling is all about building long-lasting relationships, where sales reps really get to know their prospects. Which means you need to be patient and realise you’ve got to give before you can get.
To succeed as a consultative seller, you must present yourself as a trustworthy expert in your field.
Everything you say should be backed up with evidence – and that goes for internal meetings with your sales team, as well as calls with prospects and existing customers. If, for example, you’re talking to a prospect and you claim to have had feedback from satisfied customers, read out those testimonials during your sales pitch.
To become an expert in your field, you need to make sure you have a firm grasp of the industry you work in, as well as fully understanding the product or service you’re selling.
Whether you receive criticism from a client or a competitor, it’s important to have a thick skin and not let it faze you too much.
There could be some truth in the criticism, in which case, see it as a positive thing and use it to become a better salesperson.
If you’re dealing with negative comments from a customer, be careful not to come across as rude or defensive. Instead, try to resolve the issue and show that you appreciate all types of feedback.
There are many different approaches you can take when it comes to selling, such as the hard sell, the soft sell, the guru, the buddy, solution selling and consultative selling.
Consultative selling involves investigating what a prospect’s needs are and providing them with a solution to satisfy those needs. Communication is at the heart of consultative selling, as it’s all about building long-lasting relationships. Sales reps act as trusted consultants to their customers’ businesses, increasing the potential for continued sales over time.
Consultative selling can be implemented by following these five steps:
- Do your research
- Ask the right questions
- Listen to the answers
- Focus on adding value
- Follow up
To succeed in consultative selling, sales reps must be honest, curious, flexible and thick-skinned. Moreover, they should be well-organised, have people skills and have plenty of patience.