Seven Consultative Selling Skills to Master Blog Feature
Dan Fisher

By: Dan Fisher on March 17th, 2016

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Seven Consultative Selling Skills to Master

consultative selling

As I have mentioned in my other blog posts on the topic of consultative selling, changes in buyer behavior has created a paradigm shift in the world of sales. Simply put, the customer wishes to engage sales people much differently today than they did in the consultative sales skillspast. Today's informed buyer is highly educated and empowered.  They no longer need salespeople to educate them on their product or service, they want and expect salespeople to educate them on how to improve their business operations and run their teams, projects and departments more effectively and efficiently. This is where consultative selling comes in.

By now I'm sure you are aware of the many benefits of consultative selling including higher deal values, differentiation over the competition and improved customer loyalty. But where does one begin with developing consultative selling skills in order to adopt a consultative sales approach

To get started with consultative selling, I have laid out seven consultative selling skills to master.

Seven Consultative Selling Skills Sellers Must Master 

  1. Active Listening: I know, active listening is not a sexy skill and can even seem cliche.  But there is a reason why every single article you read regarding sales skills puts listening skills at the top. To be clear, I'm referring to the salesperson listening with their mind and body and hearing the story in it's entirety.  Salespeople won't admit this, but most of them know how to look good, like they're paying attention in a conversation even though they're thinking about several things at once. This is NOT active listening. Active listening means the salespeople is taking detailed notes and asking follow up questions for clarity.  A great way to demonstrate you're actively listening is to listen for specific words your customer says then incorporate those keywords into your response and follow up questions. This is a great way to demonstrate you are actively listening as well as build rapport with them.   
  2. Checking:   Checking is a sales (and recruiter) listening skill to ensure the parties in communication are understanding each other clearly.  After all, a conversation is a two-way flow of information sharing. You don’t want your conversations to be one-sided where you do all the talking or explaining. And you certainly don’t want it to turn into a situation where the customer feels like they’re being interrogated.  Checking is the process of the salesperson asking the customer for feedback on something they have said or something the customer has.  It is how salespeople ensure that they understand what it is the customer has said and the meaning behind it. Checking is also how salespeople confirm that the customer understands what they, the salesperson has just said or suggested. Applying the skill of checking allows salespeople to test for understanding and agreement of that understanding. Checking keeps the customer involved and engaged in the conversation and is a key skill when engaged in a consultative sales conversation.  Salespeople should practice adopting the skill of checking as it will help ensure they stay in alignment with their customers through the entire sales process.
  3. Empathy: According to Wikipedia, Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another. Having empathy means that you are able to put yourself inside the shoes of another person and see the world through their eyes.  Empathy is important not just because it shows that you understand the customer but more importantly because of the way it makes the customer feel. Salespeople who demonstrate empathy makes the customer feel understood and that is how salespeople can build trust. Being consultative means understanding and having good "bedside manner." Empathy might be the most underrated sales skill.
  4. Understanding Buyer Personas: I think it is so important that salespeople understand their buyers that I even wrote a blog, to drive consultative selling, first build buyer personas. Buyer personas reveal key insights about your ideal buyers including how they think, the challenges they face, their barriers to doing business with you, their perceived risks to working with an IT staffing firm and hiring IT consultants and so much more.  If a complete stranger comes to you crying and seeking out your help and guidance on how to improve some aspect of their life that you knowing nothing about, how can you expect to help them? You can't. Salespeople who know nothing about their buyers are no different. To engage in consultative selling sellers must understand what it is like to live a day in the life of their buyer's shoes. To do this, you need to build buyer personas. Building buyer personas is actually pretty simple. Identify your ideal customers and go interview them. That's it! Ask them questions about their job, how they're managed, how they're evaluated, what type of information and resources they're interested in to do their job more effectively.  Once you start learning about your ideal buyers and what is important to them you will know what information, research, bench marking studies and analyst reports to share with them that will be of high value and relevance.  
  5. Develop Business Acumen:  Business acumen is about understanding how all of the different teams and departments in a company rely on one another in order to produce their product or service.  Business acumen is the understanding of how these different teams and departments are interconnected and reliant on each other.  It’s about understanding the cause and effect between each.  Think of a business like an orchestra.  If the trombone player is off key even though the other 120 players are in key, the audience is going to notice.  That one trombone player makes a difference.  Same thing in football, you can have the best quarterback and the best receiver to make the catch but if the guards and tackles don’t block, the play will break down.  As in football or with an orchestra, there is a cause and effect relationship in the business world. Business acumen refers to your ability to recognize the cause and effect relationships between teams and departments within a business.  For example, what happens if an online retailer's web site goes down and consumers can't purchase products? Their IT department hears about it, but who else? The customer service team gets flooded with upset customers. Perhaps marketing gets upset because they invested in a marketing campaign to drive visitors to their web site? You get the idea.

    Developing your business acumen can easily be turned into an academic exercise if you let it.  Focus, and I mean really focus on speaking with and listening to your customers.  If for example your customer says, “we’re really struggling with customer retention.”  Ask a simple question such as “what do you think is causing the problem?” By asking this question you learn how the customer thinks but you also learn the cause of the problem and can begin to engage in more meaningful dialog and ultimately develop our business acumen.  Do this with all of your customers across all departments and you will really start to understand the realities of how a business operates.

  6. Learn to Speak, Position Yourself as a Thought Leader: Imagine for second that you blew out your ACL on a ski trip and as a result you need to have surgery. First, you need to identify a surgeon who will perform the surgery. Do you want a surgeon who does a half-dozen ACL surgeries each month in addition to them performing knee, and ankle surgeries or, do you want the surgeon who does a half-dozen ACL surgeries every day?  Most people want the specialist, and in this day and age, people expect to work with experts.  Your customers are no different. When your customers seek out a vendor to perform a service, they want to hire the authoritative expert because it gives them peace of mind. Perhaps you've heard the saying that dates back to the 1970's and 19080's, "nobody gets fired for buying IBM." The reason for this was back then, IBM and their products including their salesforce were light years ahead of everyone else. In the minds of the buyers, there was little to no risk in buying IBM because they were positioned and perceived as the authoritative expert.  The point is that salespeople who speak like an authoritative thought leader and position themselves as an expert quickly build trust with customers and give their customers peace of mind that working with them is the smartest and safest move for them.  Statements that salespeople can make to position themselves as a thought leader include "one of the trends in the industry we are seeing is...."  Or, "what we have found from our experience is..." Or, our customers are sharing with us...?  Think of speaking like and positioning yourself as an authoritative thought leader like this; the conversations you have with your prospects and customers should be so impactful and valuable that the customer would be willing to pay for the time they spend with you.   As you develop your business acumen your confidence and comfort level in making these types statement will grow.  
  7. Sales Probing Skills, Leading Dialogue with Questions: One of the key steps of the consultative selling framework is to diagnose before prescribing a solution.  The key to properly diagnosing a customer's need, goal or business challenge resides in the seller's ability to ask thought provoking sales probing questions.  Success in sales can easily be tied directly back to the frequency and quality of the probing questions being asked by the sales person.  Asking well designed, thought provoking sales questions gives the sales person another opportunity to demonstrate their expertise and optimize their credibility.  The best questions that sales people can ask are those that are thought provoking, those that really require the customer to pause and think before they can respond with an answer.  To sharpen your sales probing skills and the quality of questions you ask,  you should study your buyer personas and ensure you really understand the common challenges and concerns your customers face.  It is this understanding that will drive the context and quality of your sales probing questions. It is also important for salespeople to understand that customers are almost always operating under or within an imperfect system. For instance, most customers:
  • Are not 100% fully confident in all members of their team
  • Recognize their existing applications don’t work perfectly 100% of the time
  • Understand their customers are not 100% satisfied all of the time
  • Realize business processes are not always 100% optimized and can be improved

By properly preparing and asking thought provoking questions salespeople can challenge their customers thinking and way of doing things or their status quo which can compel them to consider new ways of doing things.  For example, most customers will not know how much money it would save them if they hired an IT consultant to fix "business problem X."  But asking them the right questions about how the failure of "business problem X" is impacting their business can get them to think and consider why change is needed. This is thought provoking.  Asking these types of questions changes the buyer experience.

What are consultative selling skills are your trying to master? What are you finding most challenging?  Please share with me in the comments section below.

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About Dan Fisher

Dan Fisher is founder and owner of Menemsha Group, a provider of sales enablement solutions dedicated to helping IT staffing firms improve win rates, shorten their sales cycle, and increase revenue per sales rep. Since launching Menemsha Group in 2008, Dan has consulted with over 200 IT staffing firms and has invested over 5000 hours coaching IT staffing sales reps. He’s authored is his own proprietary sales methodology and has previously spoken at Staffing World, TechServe Alliance and Bullhorn Live 2012. Prior to launching Menemsha Group, Dan spent 16 years in the IT industry running local, regional and national sales teams. Dan worked for Kelly Services, Oracle Corporation and Alliance Consulting. Dan currently resides in Boston, Ma.

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