Consultative selling is a philosophy rooted in building a relationship between you and your prospects, by asking questions, listening to their needs and personalizing your product or service to them. A salesperson who practices consultative selling develops a holistic and nuanced understanding of the buyer’s needs, and then they try to fulfill those needs with a customized solution.
Why should you practice consultative selling instead of product-based selling? Because good sales is all about relationships. Building lasting, meaningful relationships with your customers is the best way for your company to survive in the competitive sales industry.
This in-depth guide to mastering consultative selling digs deep into the following:
Table of Contents
Read on for a clear, concise consultative selling definition, some consultative selling examples and how you can use it to drive more sales.
What is consultative selling?
Consultative selling is defined as putting your relationship with your customer first, worrying about selling them your product afterward.
At its core, consultative selling means focusing on your customer, their needs and their biggest pain points before you even think about offering up a product or service as a solution. This builds a trusting customer relationship that helps you close deals and win repeat customers, even if it might take a little longer than getting right to the point.
But how long has the consultative selling approach to sales been around? Longer than you might think. It was first floated as a sales technique during the 1970s in Mack Hanan’s book “Consultative Selling: The Hanan Formula for High-Margin Sales at High Levels” and slowly gained traction in the sales industry.
However, consultative selling was considered to be a long, drawn-out process, rather than a way to build strategic relationships.
Reps struggled to see the value of putting in the effort to build meaningful relationships with customers. So, the approach was lost in a sea of pushy sales tactics.
If you take a step back, though, consultative selling makes sense. It helps reps qualify prospects faster while tailoring a product solution to match their specific needs. Not to mention reducing customer churn in the long run.
Why consultative selling works
It can’t be expressed enough: sales is about building relationships. Therefore, using a sales process that values a trustworthy relationship with your clients above making quick sales makes logical sense.
The alarming reality is, B2B customers are becoming disengaged with their companies. A study by Gartner found customers are increasingly becoming skeptical of the information reps give them. This lack of trust leads to low buying confidence. To combat that, sales reps need to enhance how they are perceived by their customers, which boils down to: “Do they believe I’m trying to sell them something that will actually fix their problems?”
Another positive aspect of consultative selling is that it lends itself to “value-added selling.” A sales rep that approaches prospects with a consultative selling mindset will naturally know more about what the customer is looking for than a rep who uses the traditional sales method, which is going straight for a hard sell.
In short, the time you and your sales team put into consultative selling will pay off in the long-run because this sales methodology values customer relationships. While using customer relationship management software (CRM) automates some of that work, you still need to build the concept of quality relationships into your sales strategy and sales training yourself.
Consultative selling vs. product-based selling
Despite the benefits of being able to tailor solutions to prospects, consultative sales is a very different beast to product-based selling. Here are a few product-based selling and consultative selling examples:
When purchasing a product, buyers now look for a level of trust in the salesperson before they are willing to spend any money. The more you earn that trust, the more likely you’ll land the sale.
Buyers are swamped with options and information when it comes to products and services, and trust in brands is low. Only 58% of consumers trust businesses, according to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer.
Sales reps should put their customers first and products second if they want to reap the rewards.
So, how can a sales professional start using a consultative sales approach? Here’s our four-step guide to the consultative sales process.
You don’t have to create content to gain the trust of your customers; curating content can help you become more influential as well.
Don’t shy away from sharing stories and information that will help your target audience overcome relevant challenges, as it will show your target audience that you know what you’re talking about, encouraging them to enter your sales funnel and become qualified leads.
Giving away free, high-value content is one of the best ways to gain traction amongst those who otherwise wouldn’t have thought to pay for your products or services. And even if they’re still not willing to pay for your services, they may recommend you to people who are.
Step two: How to conduct in-depth prospect research
The next step to refining a successful consultative selling technique is conducting in-depth prospect research. The goal here is to uncover as much information about the target account and prospect as possible, and have that information ready in your sales dashboard.
Researching prospects before contacting them can be the difference in landing a new client and never having your phone calls returned. Without any research on your part your prospect will feel you don’t understand their needs at all.
To avoid this, uncover key information about your prospect. This information includes:
- The size of the prospect’s company
- Number of employees
- Their average sale size or annual turnover
- Their typical product or service offering
- Their target market
Go into “detective mode.” Look for in-depth information that will shed light on the problems your prospect’s face in their role and organization. Search for news or current event publications that mention their company and use this to form a comprehensive understanding of your client’s current state.
Who are their competitors? What content are they publishing, and have they established themselves as an authority? Are they utilizing their social media channels?
The majority of salespeople won’t make this amount of effort. By spending an extra 10-30 minutes researching your prospect, you’ve already given yourself the upper hand.
Figuring out how to frame prospect conversations takes more than just knowing the simple stuff, like the size of their company, you need to dig deeper and find out what makes them tick.
The best way to do this is to utilize prospecting sales tools that are built to maximize efficiency and boost lead generation. The right prospecting tool can take you so much further than your prospect’s LinkedIn profile.
Conducting in-depth research goes beyond your prospect’s mindset. You need to know how they’re interacting with your product, and if they are the key decision maker.
Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the best tools for prospect research that you can integrate with your CRM and other sales tools:
For better cold calling: CallRoot
With CallRoot, you can work out which campaign (online/offline) or keyword is generating the most sales calls. You can also track & record incoming phone calls, dynamically insert tracking phone numbers and find the source of every incoming phone call. The tool is one that can boost all your cold calling efforts, not just when using a consultative selling approach.
For building meaningful relationships: Triggerbee
Track visitors to your website in real-time, see where they came from and accrue data to find out if they could potentially become a lead with Triggerbee.
Triggerbee combines three great features for prospectors:
- Website analytics so you can capture the behavior and interest of prospects
- Forms, or widgets, that collect visitor data and display relevant offers and content to specific prospects
- Integrations with other tools like Pipedrive and Mailchimp
For reaching key stakeholders: Sellscope
Lead databases go out of date very quickly, so to get high-quality data you often need to do a lot of research yourself, which is time-consuming. Find tools that help you automate wherever you can.
Instead, identify key decision makers with Sellscope, a company that provides you with a team of specialized researchers who build, define and segment lead databases.
As well as enriching the data of the leads in your list, Sellscope can also identify other companies that could fit the bill.
For more great prospecting tools, read our article on the best lead generation apps that will integrate with your CMS.
Connect with prospects through social selling
Social selling is quickly becoming the go-to method for connecting with prospects. In fact, salespeople that leverage social selling create 45% more opportunities than their team members.
That means if you’re ignoring social media, there’s a chance you’re missing out on a big chunk of potential customers too.
Social selling involves creating content for a defined target market and then building relationships from inside a social platform. Building a relationship through social selling has a lot of moving parts; a company needs to be constantly listening for mentions on social platforms and interacting with customers to be successful.
Contacting customers who have already interacted with your content helps you begin the sales process with companies or web visitors who are interested in your product or service.
You should use LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and even Instagram to engage with prospects. These are some of the most powerful social platforms where you can share relevant content, engage prospects, build rapport and encourage them to begin their customer journey with your sales pipeline.
Social selling works because it focuses on building relationships first and selling later; social platforms give reps a platform to have conversations with prospects while promoting their own content at the same time.
Step three: Leading the conversation
No two interactions with a prospect are the same. To be successful in consultative sales, you need to find the sweet spot between leading a conversation while drawing out key information from your prospect.
That’s why, when talking to a prospect, it’s important to ask the right questions at the right time (while coming up with a solution that fits). Before even bringing up pricing or too many details about your product, remember to focus on solutions to their problems first and foremost.
During these conversations, prospects need to be heard. Being pushy in a conversation or not offering help to a prospect when you initially approach them can quickly kill your chances of closing a deal.
Always lead a conversation with a prospect by asking questions, lots of them. Understanding a customer’s needs is crucial in a consultative selling approach, and asking the right questions is the only way to get a glimpse of how to solve their problems.
Before you make that call or meet with a prospect, formulate a list of generic questions you can use to start the conversation and, if necessary, fall back on. At the same time, you must be ready to think on your feet and ask questions tailored to the prospects’ response.
Start with the simple stuff:
- Is your prospect happy with their current vendor?
- What is the biggest challenge in their business right now?
- Have they shown interest in learning more about your product?
- Is there a genuine need for your product?
- Is your product within their price range?
Think up a list of your own investigative questions that, when answered, could lead to another line of conversation.
For example, if you ask your prospect what their biggest challenge as a business is, and they answer with something that can’t be fixed by your product, that’s fine. Use it as a way to find out more about their company and make the most out of the opportunity to connect with your prospect by lending them a listening ear. If your product does offer a solution, use this as a chance to subtly highlight that.
In fact, top performers are asking their prospects questions more often than others when it comes to figuring out if their product is a good fit for their problems.
Make sure you ask questions that show you have a genuine interest in their business, and a desire to understand their problems.
Eventually, you’ll be able to question your prospect on what they want to achieve with your product. You can then turn the conversation around into building them a tailored solution.
Step four: Building a tailored solution
The last step to honing your consultative selling technique is giving your prospect a tailored solution to their problem. A solution that’s built just for them.
Let’s be real: the biggest challenge reps face is (usually) closing more deals. But remember, your prospect doesn’t care about your problems, they’ve got their own to take care of. Make sure you focus on their problems rather than your own.
Building a tailored solution for your prospect is a three-part process:
1. Fully understand your prospect’s needs
All your prospect wants is to be understood, they don’t care about your sales objectives
Let’s say you’re trying to close a marketing deal with a prospective client. If a prospect has repeatedly said their Head of Marketing is keen to increase conversions on their website, it should become your focus.
In your pitch, focus on how you can help your prospect lift conversion rates, and measure them successfully so they can show the rest of their team. This will help them to see their problem will be solved with a tailored solution.
2. Immerse yourself in their pain points
Prospects rarely make buying decisions based on facts. They’re much more likely to buy a product based on emotion, especially when it comes to closing B2B deals.
Here are a few sales stats from our 2021 Sales Stats Report that bring this home:
Only 23% of buyers agree that sellers “always” put their needs first (source: The LinkedIn State of Sales Report 2021)
51% of companies think that sales reps need to improve their ability to identify behavior from a buyer that indicates they want to make a purchase (source: Sales Performance Optimization Study, CSO Insights)
If you can position your product to give them personal value and tap into the emotions behind their buying decisions, it will be worth double the value to the prospect.
Aim to connect with your prospect about how they feel in their role, and weave your product into the conversation. The overall goal in doing this is to show them that you can help them shine in front of their colleagues (and their boss).
Let’s take the prospect with the marketing deal. He wants to increase sales conversions, but he also wants his Head of Marketing to get off his back. Talk to him about how your solution to his problem will not only solve his conversion problems, but how it’ll make him look like a hero in front of his boss, too. You’ve created a win-win situation.
3. Show your product in action
This part of the plan is about putting the buying decision purely in your prospect’s hands.
Closing a pitch shouldn’t be a case of rattling off a list of product or service features and crossing your fingers that your prospect will come on board. You need to give your prospects the chance to experience your solution themselves and then make a decision in their own time.
For example, to win over the prospect who wants to look good in front of their Head of Marketing, show them some relevant results instead of just listing your product features.
Use a relevant case study that solved similar pain points, such as creating increased conversions and more website traffic. Present your evidence through screenshots or analytics charts to demonstrate you can solve the prospect’s pain point.
By doing your homework in the lead up to closing a deal, you’re more likely to hit a home run.
The five principles of consultative selling: A real-world example
Let’s start off with a real-world sales tale.
A few years ago, Lou Diamond, president and CEO of the salesperson development firm FOBIA, was conducting a workshop for some Merrill Lynch financial advisors.
The workshop’s objective was to help the advisors develop an effective consultative selling approach. During the role-playing part of the workshop (a strategy you can use to great effect in your own sales meetings), one of the advisors made a significant breakthrough.
This particular advisor was struggling to win the business of an elderly woman, whose husband recently died.
Although she was quite wealthy, she had never taken any steps to manage her finances. The advisor had met with the woman numerous times. He tried, again and again, to make her understand that if she did not take action soon, her children would be left with a huge financial burden.
So Diamond asked the advisor to pretend one of his colleagues was the elderly woman and demo a conversation. The two went back and forth, and after failing to reason with his colleague, the advisor finally reached a boiling point, got to his feet, and said: “Don’t you see? I care more about your money than you do!”
“The whole room went, ‘Wow,’” Diamond said. “It was so powerful. He not only said it, he believed it.”
Developing an effective consultative selling approach relies on certain sales skills, techniques and best practices. But one defining characteristic of a good consultative seller is authenticity, a fact which Diamond reaffirmed that day at Merrill Lynch.
“To be a good consultative seller,” Diamond said, “you need to be coming from who you are first, then making it all about them.”
Whether we’re sifting through ancient documents, scanning Yelp reviews or reading a potential customer’s LinkedIn profile, research helps us shift the chances of success in our favor.
Before initiating contact with potential customers, it’s wise to devote ample time to researching them and their business.
Part of that research is lead qualification. Is this person interested in my product? Do they have the authority and the budget to make a purchasing decision?
Another part is competitive research. Which products other than yours might the buyer be considering? What do those products have that yours doesn’t? What does yours have that theirs doesn’t?
Proper research means becoming an expert in the buyer’s business. It means anticipating any and all questions the buyer may ask. It means entering the conversation with every conceivable answer at the ready.
Think of your product or service as puzzle pieces. Every piece is accounted for and if put together correctly, they will form a complete image.
There’s just one problem: You don’t have the box with the image on it.
But the buyer does, and for you to understand how all the pieces fit together, the buyer needs to show it to you. And they will, bit by bit, if you ask the right questions.
Asking may sound simple, but the simplest things are often the hardest to get right. This is because the first instinct of many salespeople is to come charging out of the gate with a sheetload of talking points.
To build a real relationship, one that will eventually reveal the image on the puzzle box, restrain that instinct. Instead, let the client do the talking by asking them questions.
Ariana Amplo, co-founder of the investment consultant platform InHub, suggests you start the conversation by “asking basic and general questions, allowing whoever you’re asking to say what comes to mind first, rather than asking leading questions from the beginning. Then start asking specific questions.”
Let’s say you’re selling data backup and recovery software. Begin the conversation with a basic question, such as:
Can you walk me through your backup process? Then use their answer to drill into more detail. Do you backup daily? How much time do you spend on daily backups? What happens next? Are your backups completing properly? Have you ever lost any data? Did you lose business?
By starting with the basics and drilling into specifics, you can begin to frame your questions around what your solution does differently.
3. Listen (actively)
The better you are at asking questions, the less you’ll need to say, and the more listening you’ll need to do.
But truly understanding requires active listening, which helps you absorb what’s being said, and what’s not being said. An active listener can read the subtext of the conversation. They can pick up verbal and nonverbal cues to flesh out their understanding.
Furthermore, demonstrating to the buyer that you’re actively listening goes a long way in building trust. To borrow a phrase from Dale Carnegie, you should become “genuinely interested in whomever you’re speaking with.”
A large component of active listening is knowing when not to talk. Sure, you found the buyer, you researched them until the lights went out and the cleaning crew arrived, and you initiated a conversation, so you might feel you’ve earned the right to talk the buyer’s head off.
But the majority of that conversation should be spent actively listening, not talking. Leave the talking to the buyer. To graduate from traditional listening consider these active listening tips and techniques:
- Remove distractions (background noise, email checking, eating)
- Take notes
- Don’t simply wait to talk
- Never interrupt
- Act like the buyer is the only person in the world
- Show the buyer you’re listening by offering the occasional word of acknowledgment (“OK” … “Right” ... “Uh-huh”)
- Ask clarifying questions (sparingly), such as “Can you expand on this?” and “What do you mean by that?”
- Periodically paraphrase what the buyer said. For example: “If I’m understanding correctly, you’re saying …” and “What I’m hearing is that …”
- When a buyer stops talking, pause for a few seconds before responding
- Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”
- If the client is having trouble explaining something, give them time to figure it out rather than cutting them off with your own suggestion
Also, listen out for the buyer’s values. Do they put particular importance on their team’s welfare, or are they more concerned about themselves? Do they value low cost over high quality, or vice versa?
If you practice active listening, you will have learned much, but said little.
How to Use Consultative Selling to Close
So you’ve done your research, you’ve built a relationship, you’ve listened. Now, how do you close? Let’s look at the two final steps in the consultative selling process that drive the sale home:
1. Communicate Your “Reason Why”
In a moment of frustration, the Merrill Lynch salesman from Diamond’s workshop made a breakthrough by saying, “I care more about your money than you do!”
This outburst was his “reason why.” The financial security of this woman and her family mattered to him. He wanted to help them, in earnest, and grew impatient when she didn’t seem to grasp his intentions.
Communicating your “reason why” requires a soft touch. Rather than stating your reasoning outright, let it color the conversation; be enthusiastic and empathetic; don’t be afraid to challenge the buyer over something you truly believe in; be authentic.
No one wants to do business with a two-dimensional “salesbot.” They want to do business with a real person.
2. Follow up
Closing a deal doesn’t usually happen all at once. The buyer may need to bring your solution to his or her team for input. They may need to have a conversation with their CEO to determine if your solution is in line with their business strategy.
This can take time, so part of following up involves helping the buyer work out the finer points. Patience is the key.
Rushing a buyer can quickly end your relationship. However, it’s imperative that you stay top-of-mind.
“It’s not only doing calls well, it’s the follow-up,” Amplo says. “It’s taking what was said in the initial conversation and using your consultative selling skills until they close.”
If you asked good questions, actively listened and took comprehensive notes during the initial conversation, following up will be a matter of translating the information gathered into top-of-mind opportunities.
For example, if a week goes by with no word from the buyer, consider sending them an article that ties in with something they said when you last spoke. If another week goes by, send them something else.
Always be thinking about how to build on the initial contact. What will interest them? What will entertain them? What will help them? And, perhaps most importantly, what is relevant to them?
If a few weeks go by and still no word, Amplo suggests emailing the buyer with a question, such as:
- “What is your timeline?”
- “Do you need anything else?”
- “Are other decision makers involved?”
- “Can you jump on a 10-minute call?”
Go forth and consult
With the principles of consultative selling fresh on the brain, it’s time to hit the phones and focus on forming a bond rather than pitching.
Consultative selling summed up
To nail consultative selling, you need to work hard to understand the buyer’s unique needs and objectives. This is done through in-depth research, listening without hard-selling and building an authentic, personalized relationship.
Using tools to conduct prospect research and using automation where you can will be extremely helpful in consultative selling, but your biggest challenge will be keeping the seller-buyer relationship to be authentic. Constantly remind yourself that the pitch is about making your prospect happy, and not about adding a sale to your bottom line.
Offer your lead a tailored solution and help them envisage themselves as being a hero in their office. By flipping the focus onto your prospect’s emotions and pain points, their decision to invest in your company will be a no-brainer.