In my world of sales and sales training, I hear the term “consultative selling” thrown around quite a bit.
That term can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so I will give you my definition. First of all, being a consultative partner means two things. First, it's about establishing comfort and trust between the buyer and the seller, and second, it's about understanding your prospect’s problems at a deep level.
Consultative Selling Step 1 – Establishing Comfort and Trust
One of the most foundational consultative selling skills happens at the very beginning of an opportunity. This step is often referred to as bonding or building rapport. Many people interpret this skill as becoming friends with the prospect, but that isn’t necessary or even always appropriate. Instead, your goal is to allow the prospect to become relaxed enough to tell you what they are genuinely concerned about.
I tell a story in many of my trainings about selling to a CEO. Quite often in the middle of our conversation, she will interrupt me by closing the door to her office and saying, “Now let me tell you what’s really going on.” At that point I’m thinking, “We just took a giant step forward towards the sale.” Clearly she was comfortable enough to take me into her confidence.
If you’re in a similar situation and find that your buyer is now “spilling the beans,” your job is quite simply to listen, take notes (without losing attention), and understand what the key drivers are to determine if your solution is a fit. Buyers will base their decision on your company’s ability to solve one or more significant problems that have a financial and emotional impact on them and on their business.
Consultative Selling Step 2 – Understanding Your Prospect’s Problems
Once your prospect has revealed general concerns, use active listening to understand these impacts at a deeper level. I like to use an acronym called ICE to guide me through this conversation. It stands for Intellectual Converted to Emotional, and it involves a process of asking pointed questions so that the buyer is moving away from an intellectual-based mindset towards one that is emotional-based. This involves discussing what’s really at stake for your prospect and for other stakeholders in the company.
To get the conversation moving towards your desired outcome, when someone tells you or hints to you that they have a concern, one of the first questions to ask is, “Tell me more.” Your goal is not to problem-solve, but to understand more about the problem and let the prospect engage in a deeper discussion about the extent and severity of the problem.
Once you understand how these two parts work together and how to get them operating in a meeting or phone call, then you are well on your way to developing great consultative selling skills.
Where to Begin
So, how do you get this whole thing in motion? Back up a couple of steps by developing a “Common Problems” list.
To do this, look at what you offer to your clients and create a list of features that make up the offering. For example, a feature of our offering is the Sales PlayBook.
Next, identify a primary benefit this feature provides to a client. In this case a benefit is that the salesperson on a team can use a repeatable system for selling in their company. It involves communication, behavior, relationship-building, elements of a consultative sell, and many more specific best selling practices.
Now identify a problem that this feature solves. Continue to do this for a number of features; associating problems that each one solves. I recommend between ten and twenty, give or take. Create a list called “Common Problems Our Clients Experienced.” for all the problems that you solve. This is where Consultative Selling Skills magic occurs!
If you bring a copy of this list to a meeting and present it to a prospective client, they will perceive you as an expert. An electronic copy can be emailed in advance so they can focus on what they want to discuss with you at your meeting. (By the way, this works for the phone as well!)
It won’t take long to get right down to the point, instead of wasting precious time fishing around asking lots of questions to pinpoint points of pain. For each problem your buyer confirms they have, apply the ICE Active listening approach to discern how deep the problem is. Make a note of the responses so you can reference them later in the selling cycle.
Cost vs. Investment
By gathering several of these emotionally impactful problems, you are ready to move into the next phase of your selling conversation, which is where you discuss budget and decision-making. The most important aspect is when you introduce the topic. Talking about money too early makes the rest of the conversation practically irrelevant, because people will fixate on it; too late and you just lost all the gains you made in the conversation as this will overshadow what else you talked about. So timing is everything.
By applying this part of the discussion right after you have identified points of pain, your solution is perceived as an alleviator that will make the pain go away. If you have been effectively using your consultative selling skills, your solution will be perceived as an investment rather than a cost.
Discussing Your Solution
Once you have gathered your pain points and confirmed them, you are ready to tee-up your solution discussion.
Top-performing salespeople can take a standard presentation, which might be 10-15 slides in length, and tune it to the relevant pain points. It will sound something like, “Let’s skip over this slide, and the next, but this one, based on your concern about ‘xyz,’ that you just told me, addresses the issue. Please allow me to spend some time on this. Incidentally, at any point throughout my presentation, please stop me if something does not resonate, so I can skip over it. Conversely, let me know where you want to spend more time on something. Please guide me to where you want me to focus on what is most relevant to you.” This keeps your prospect engaged with the presentation of the solution and indicates how well you work together.
One key to developing your consultative selling skills is your ability to maintain collaboration throughout the selling cycle so the buyer is a partner in applying the solution to their problem.