Not surprisingly, most sellers think and believe they’re consultative in their sales approach. But are they? Think about it for a second. When a customer goes MIA and you’re awaiting candidate interview feedback, do you remain consultative? In a typical conversation with a customer or prospect, how many questions do you ask, and are your questions open-ended? When a prospect or customer replies to one of your questions, how often do you reply with a follow up question such as “why do you say that?”
Answering those questions should bring some clarity and self-awareness to just how “consultative” you truly are in your sales approach. To take it a step further, check out the six-step consultative selling framework to see which consultative sales components you’re applying and which you need to work on.
Below is the six-step consultative selling framework.
- Planning & Research
- Leading with Questions. Asking well thought-out, thought provoking questions that are properly sequenced.
- Educate Your Customer
These six steps provide the basic consultative selling framework for applying consultative selling.
Planning & Research
One goal for all salespeople and of consultative selling is for the salesperson to always be coming from a place in which they’re perceived as an authoritative thought leader and equal partner. If you attend your sales meetings with little or no preparation, then you will likely continue to ask silly questions and be perceived and treated as a transactional commodity supplier. Meeting preparation is critically important because it is what provides the context for the meeting and how you will frame the consultative sales conversation.
If you want to run your sales meetings in which you’re perceived as an authoritative thought leader and equal partner and not a trivial commodity supplier, you should plan on spending twice the amount of time on meeting preparation as you do in the meeting itself. Your preparation will have a lot to say about the overall quality of your meeting and whether the client commits to a next step.
So, how do you engage a prospect or customer in consultative conversation and create a memorable experience in which you position yourself as an authoritative leader? Some of the best resources to learn about your customer’s business are the various corporate reports that all public and many private companies produce and make available to the public. By reading key sections of these documents you can get a high-level overview of their business including their business model, strategy, goals and objectives and even some of the tactics they intend to employ to achieve those goals. The more you know about your customer’s business the more likely you will be to ask intelligent questions which will lead to productive sales conversations.
Lead the Conversation with Questions
You should always assume that when you engage a new prospect they will NOT have a predefined, budget approved job order to give you. Your job as the sales professional is to create an opportunity. To create an opportunity, you will first need to ask well prepared probing questions based on your preparation and planning to uncover and understand your prospect’s current state of their team, department and/or project and their level of satisfaction as well as their desired future state and the challenges preventing them from arriving at their desired future state. This will require you to ask open-ended probing questions that will reveal your prospects level of satisfaction regarding their team's performance, progress of their projects and goals. To be clear, I’m not talking about asking questions like "what is keeping you up at night?" or "what is your biggest pain point?" Your questions must be asked in a more tactful manner and within the flow of the conversation. You will need to wrap your expertise around your questions in order to position yourself as a thought leader and generate meaningful dialogue.
Another key component to asking probing questions is the seller’s ability to asking open-ended questions. Sounds easy enough but I’ve worked with hundreds of experienced salespeople who think they’re asking open-ended questions but are asking close-ended questions. Asking closed ended questions could be costing you tens of thousands of dollars in commissions every year. I’m not exaggerating.
Finally, do NOT answer your own questions. Be patient and allow your customers think and be thoughtful in responding to your questions.
You don't need me to remind you that you have two ears and one mouth, so be sure to use them in proportion.
Educate Your Customer
As you’re actively listening, you need to be responding with follow up clarifying questions to your customer’s responses to your original question. But you also need to be incorporating ideas, data points and insights into your discussion. Your focus should be on educating your prospect, not pitching your candidate or services. And no, I don't mean educating your prospect on your service or company. You should be educating your customer on how they can do their job more effectively and improve their operations. Selling is all about helping your prospect overcome their challenges and build a plan to reach their goals.
You’re always going to be qualifying your prospects and their associated opportunities. A qualified opportunity includes a prospect who shares with you a goal they're trying to achieve, but also openly shares with you that they are experiencing challenges (admitted pain) that they must overcome in order to achieve those goals. They might not yet have a plan for achieving those goals or they might have a half-baked plan or the wrong plan. In consultative selling, it is the job of the seller to help the customer create the right plan. This is far different from how most staffing sales professionals sell. Most wait for the customer to give them the job order and tell them what they need. I refer to this as order fulfillment. In this instance the customer comes up with their plan on their own, without input from the salesperson.
Finally, a qualified opportunity should highlight the customer’s level of commitment to resolving the challenges and arriving at their desired future state including their timeline.
For sellers who follow a consultative sales approach, closing is relatively easy. It is easy because consultative sales professionals understand that closing is not a one- time event but a natural conclusion to a series of discussions. And, because the consultative salesperson has "checked" with their customer throughout the sales process for agreement and understanding, they rarely experience surprises or objections at the end of the sales cycle.
Which of the six-step consultative selling framework are you excelling at? Which do you need to work on? How do you know if you’re a consultative sales professional and taking advantage of all of the benefits of a consultative sales approach? Let’s start a conversation in the comments section below.