The Magic – and Challenge – of Consultative Sales
There’s truth to the famous quote by author and speaker Jeffrey Gitomer, which goes, “people don't like to be sold to, but they love to buy.”
People are more than happy to purchase something as long as they believe that it will add value to their lives. What they don’t like is the feeling of being pushed or manipulated into buying.
For this reason, salespeople must tread carefully when selling solutions, services, or high-ticket times. While it’s important to position your product or solution in the best possible light, you need to do it in a way that feels authentic rather than sales-y.
This is one of the reasons why consultative selling is so effective. When implemented correctly, a consultative sales approach allows you to win clients and customers while building strong relationships with them in the process.
In this post, we’ll explore the ins and outs of consultative sales. You’ll learn what is and how to effectively use it in your business.
- Consultative sales defined
- Products and services that are a good fit for consultative selling
- Consultative sales vs other sales approaches
- The 5 principles of consultative selling
- Obstacles to consultative selling
- Consultative selling isn't about denying your sales role
Consultative sales defined
Consultative sales is a strategy that focuses on understanding a customer’s needs. With this approach, a salesperson acts as a consultant or advisor who provides value by educating the customer, then recommending solutions that fit their needs and help them achieve their desired results.
Rather than “pitching” the company’s products and services, a consultative salesperson strives to get to know a prospect, help solve their problems, and make solution recommendations that would truly be a good fit.
Products and services that are a good fit for consultative selling
Consultative selling works well for high-ticket products and services that can solve complex problems. This is because people who are buying these things typically do a lot of research and have very specific needs.
Some examples of these products and services include:
- Software with rich features (e.g., supply chain management software, ERP platforms, live chat software )
- Customizable products (e.g., bespoke workstations, special insurance plans)
- Tailored services (e.g., personal styling, financial planning for high net worth individuals)
There are also products and services that are not a good fit for consultative selling. Low-cost commodities or products that can easily be duplicated would be better off using a more transactional approach.
Consultative sales vs other sales approaches
How does consultative compare with other sales models? Here’s a quick comparison of the approach against other selling methods.
Consultative vs. transactional selling. Transactional selling is a short-term approach that’s all about winning the sale, while consultative selling is about building long-term relationships. The former is also a much better fit for selling commodities, while the latter lends itself well to complex or high-end solutions, products, and services.
Consultative vs. solution selling. While both solution selling and consultative selling approach clients by learning about their needs and recommending solutions, the former focuses on selling the solution. With this approach, what often happens is that once the salesperson knows what the prospect needs, they will pitch their product or service as a means to solve the client’s problems.
Consultative salespeople do that as well, but they take things a step further by educating customers. They provide non-salesy advice, as well as resources like thought leadership articles, guides, and case studies that are relevant to the customer’s situation. In some cases, a consultative salesperson can help their clients measure success and improve so they can get the most out of the product or service.
The 5 principles of consultative selling
For your consultative selling efforts to be successful, let the following principles guide you.
A consultant doesn’t focus on “closing” a deal, and neither should you. Like a good consultant, you should concentrate on understanding the client and building a relationship so you can figure out the best way to help them.
Accomplishing that starts with getting to know the lead. Do your research before touching base with them so you can bring up relevant talking points that’ll move the conversation forward. Analyze their business and look into their competitors to gain a better understanding of their needs.
And be sure to ask the right questions. Dig deeper by getting your prospects to describe their problems and the outcomes that they want to achieve. For example, you could ask them to recall a specific situation in which they experienced a major pain point.
This should go without saying, but it’s critical to truly listen to a client’s answers. Don’t just do it because you need to come up with a response or a comeback; strive to actively listen to a prospect with the goal to deeply understand them.
Buyers — particularly those of complex or high-ticket solutions — are incredibly perceptive and they can tell when a salesperson isn’t listening to their needs.
Research shows that 83% of sales reps believe they listen to their prospect’s needs, but only 62% of buyers agree.
Taking the above-mentioned advice will help you build rapport with your leads, so you can move the conversation forward.
Be an expert
One of the keys to consultative selling success is to get customers to see you as an authority or advisor who they can rely on to educate them.
To that end, you need to position yourself as an expert both in your product and the line of work that the prospect is in.
Let’s start with product expertise . In order to be an effective salesperson, you need to know your products inside and out. Go beyond surface-level features and benefits by discerning how your solution solves your customers’ problems. You can do this by finding real world applications of your products or services, and by looking at how your most successful customers are using them.
When it comes to industry expertise , salespeople should stay abreast of the latest updates in their clients’ market. Follow industry news, be aware of the latest trends, then figure out how they relate to your prospects.
Understanding both your product and your customers’ industry will put you in a better position to come up with solutions and make expert recommendations that will truly help the client.
Focus on providing value
Always come from a place of service. Instead of solely thinking about what you’ll get out of the client, make sure they gain something of value out of your interactions.
When it comes to consultative selling, value often comes in the form of education. If you’re able to teach something to your clients or impart knowledge and skills that they didn’t have before, they will see you as a valuable resource and they’ll ultimately want to buy from you.
Now, if you’ve taken the above advice on understanding your product and your clients’ industry, then providing value through education will be easier.
It also helps to tap into resources within your company. Do you have subject matter experts in your staff? If so, pick their brain so you can have deeper knowledge of your product and the industry as a whole. Does your marketing team have any thought leadership content and collateral that you can share with leads? Leverage these resources in your interactions with potential clients.
Play the long game
Think about the people in your life with whom you have healthy relationships. Chances are, those connections didn’t just blossom overnight. You took the time to get to know the other person and developed a relationship in the process.
The same thing can be said about consultative selling. This approach isn’t about making a quick buck. It takes time to build relationships, qualify leads, and offer tailored recommendations, so set your expectations accordingly.
It's why messaging apps like WhatsApp are such powerful channels for sales. Many products have long sales cycles. A messaging connection between a prospect and a salesperson allows the former to ask any questions as they pop up, effortlessly.
Come up with answers to the customers’ problems, not product pitches
When it’s time to talk about your offerings, position yourself as a problem-solver, not just a salesperson. Your recommendations should be geared towards how the client can solve their issues.
Instead of leading with “this is why you should use our solution,” discuss the issues or pain points that the customer is having, then make informative recommendations and suggestions on how they can address these problems. What distinguishes a consultative seller from a solution seller is that the former offers a recommendation package consisting of both product/service features and know-how.
For example, one common core reason for people being interested in a chat solution like Userlike is that they want to raise their website conversion. Besides highlighting features tailored toward conversion optimization (solution selling), a consultative salesperson has the expertise to educate the prospect on relevant matters such as shopping cart abandonment rates and use that to offer further recommendations on where and how to implement the solution.
If you did your job well — that is, if you found a prospect who’s a great fit and effectively demonstrated how your solution can solve the client’s problems, then there shouldn’t be a need for a hard “pitch”. Sealing the deal becomes a natural outcome because the value you provide is so obvious.
Sometimes, there will be gaps that your product cannot cover. Instead of conveniently ignoring these parts, the consultative seller is transparent about them. By acknowledging your shortcomings, you build trust. And if you then complement this with explaining the reason behind this gap ( the Because Justification ), you might be able to convince the customer that they actually don't need that part.
Obstacles to consultative selling
So, you’re loving the consultative selling model and want to implement it in your business. Great! But before running off to your sales team, be mindful of the following pitfalls that can curb the success of your efforts.
Misaligned sales targets. Sales targets that focus solely on short-term results and numbers like lead volume and deal size aren’t the best KPIs for consultative sales because they focus too much on the quantitative side of sales.
Consultative selling, as discussed, is all about the quality of relationships and interactions that you cultivate.
That's not to say you shouldn't use metrics like the number of deals closed, but be sure to take a long-term perspective. For shorter-term goals, consider KPIs that measure the quality of your client relationships. NPS , CSAT , and customer retention rates may be good measures to consider.
Lack of proper training. Come up with a training program dedicated to consultative selling.
Part of doing that is instilling the consultant’s mindset instead of the salesperson’s. As mentioned earlier, your team members should approach clients from a place of providing value and education, rather than pitching — so train them accordingly.
Having a variety of training materials helps. Using a combination of articles, videos, expert-led sessions, and even tactics like role-playing will help your team comprehend and apply the principles of consultative sales.
Failing to ask the right questions. Questions like “What is your budget?” or “What features are you looking for?” aren’t a good fit for a consultative sales approach, because they don’t surface the problems that the client wants to solve.
Instead, salespeople should ask open-ended and thought-provoking questions that uncover the true needs and issues of a prospect. For example:
- What’s preventing you from hitting your goals?
- Can you describe the ideal situation that you want your business to be in 1 year?
These questions prod deeper and they’re great starting points. But recognize that they’re just examples. In true consultative fashion, your questions should be completely tailored to each client.
Competing on price instead of value. Consultative selling is all about demonstrating the value that you offer. So much so that pricing becomes secondary — even afterthought.
Consultative salespeople can accomplish by building rapport , educating clients, and offering useful resources. All these things build trust and ultimately position your solution as the best choice — even if you’re not the cheapest.
Consultative selling isn't about denying your sales role
Consultative selling can seem contradictory. If it's about being authentic, about being consultative instead of sales-y, then aren't you trying to hide your true identity as a salesperson? Isn't that the opposite of authenticity?
I'm glad you asked. Consultative selling is not about denying or hiding your role as a salesperson . Your prospects know that you are representing the product, service, and/or company. They won't ever forget it, no matter how helpful you are.
In fact, consultative sales is about coming to terms with this reality. The traditional "sales-y" approach tends to include an awkward theater play in which the salesperson feigns to be interested in the customer's issues, while he's obviously just out to sell his solution.
Consultative sales is about respecting the customer's agency. The reason the customer is talking to you is because she is exploring options to solve one or more pain points. By relying on expertise – deep knowledge of the product, the industry, and the customers' issues – the salesperson makes the most of the customer's time. It offers the benefits of the BYAF sales technique ("...but you are free to choose otherwise"), without taking the form of an obvious sales technique.
Consultative sales mixes openness, expertise, and benevolence. That requires a big dose of confidence, but is a powerful cocktail for attraction.