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More than half the sales managers I talk with include “consultative selling” on their short list of behavioral changes they’d like to institute with their sales teams. They believe (and I agree with them!) that this approach to selling can provide the critical differentiator they need to outrun their competitor in that race with the bear.   (Caution - see the discussion below about the possibility that consultative selling really isn't the best approach for you.)

How do you define consultative selling?   I think what makes this definition elusive is that the differences between product selling and a consultative sales process are sometimes very subtle and have a lot to do with the relationship side of the expertise – relationship continuum.

A short definition of a consultative sales person

A consultative salesperson is one who can resist the temptation to “pitch” their product or solution until they have laid a solid foundation for their further selling:

·         They’ve built a high trust and high credibility relationship with the prospect.

·         They’ve had sufficient dialogue with the prospect to understand their business environment, critical business drivers, and existing high priority business initiatives.

·         They’ve thoroughly validated that their value proposition holds water in the prospect’s specific business environment.

·         They’ve discovered that a compelling business case can be built for their solution. 

That’s a lot of work and waiting before the “pitch”.  Unfortunately, many salespeople don’t have the patience to tough it out.  So they pitch ....

It’s the relationship, stupid. 

With apologies to James Carville and the ’92 Clinton-Gore campaign, I think that what distinguishes a consultative sales process from a traditional presentation of features, advantages and benefits is the relationship that is established between the prospect and the salesperson in the very earliest stages of the sales cycle. 

Traditional product salespeople rely primarily on their product and service expertise and may not pay enough attention to the relationship side of the equation.  For an effective consultative sales conversation to evolve, a prospect must believe that the consultant has useful and credible expertise and that the consultant is someone that the client wants to work with.  The salesperson’s approach to asking questions and uncovering information will speak volumes to the client about the depth of their knowledge and their interest (or lack of it) in really helping the client solve their business problems.

What’s different for the client? 

A consultative relationship with a salesperson can yield the following benefits to a client beyond the straightforward features, advantages and benefits of the offered solution:

·        Education and access to deep subject matter expertise that doesn’t exist within the client’s organization.

·         Access to an independent outside perspective and the chance to look at a business problem in a different way.

·        Illumination of tough issues or business realities that would be difficult or dangerous for the prospect to surface on their own. 

But I really am selling a product….. 

Can you really sell a packaged product or service as a consultative sale?  Most salespeople selling a well defined product such as a computer system or an off the shelf software package find themselves in the dilemma that they really ARE selling a product.  How do they reconcile that fact with a desire to sell consultatively? 

The simplest answer may be that a consultative approach is not the most effective approach for you.  It is critical to understand your value proposition and the way your target market is buying.   If your product has already become mainstream and your target customers are buying it as a commodity, a sales approach that is more focused on what Geoffrey Moore calls "offer advantage" may be the better approach. (See Moore's Living on the Fault Line)  We can help you think through that question.

Most effective consultants have narrowed their practice to a finite list of business problems where they have meaningful expertise.  So the trick is to have a conversation with the customer that starts out broadly enough to get general information about the client’s business and to allow you to convey your sincere interest in helping them improve their results.  The skilled consultant then begins to narrow the discussion down to address the areas that are relevant to their value proposition and where they can really help.  Probing around the questions above lets the consultative sales person qualify the opportunity while still providing consulting value, regardless of the outcome of the discussion.

I think it helps to assume at the outset that the sales person will NOT be prescribing a solution on the first sales call.  They will invest the entire first call building the relationship, understanding the prospect’s business, presenting their and their company’s qualifications, and earning the right to have further discussions.  That’s actually a lot to accomplish in one meeting, and it gives the salesperson a credible reason for the second meeting - to dig in on the details of the business need, and earn the right to present a solution proposal.

Living to fight another day…. 

Let’s assume for a moment that the discussion does not indicate that the salesperson’s offering will be valuable for the prospect.  It’s now the moment of truth for the aspiring consultant.  It is here that they will either cement their consulting status or yield it to become a “peddler” again.  Can the would-be consultant hold off the temptation to “pitch” if there’s no evidence that the solution will really help the client?  

There's no shame in respectfully walking away.  If the consultant has managed the discussion in a way that helps the client explore viewpoints and approaches that may not have occurred to them, they have given that prospect real consulting value.    I have observed many times in my own career that prospects love the salesperson or consultant that has the patience, wisdom and honesty to acknowledge that they don’t have what the client needs, but still help the client define it and find it.  Maybe today there’s no opportunity.  The prospect will look for others to bring to that salesperson because they valued the interaction and they want to work with them again.




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