A consultative sales approach is key to running a well-oiled sales team. To me, the difference between consultative selling and traditional sales is a bit like the difference between a therapist and a doctor.
What Is Consultative Selling?
Consultative selling is an investigative approach to sales. Rather than telling prospects what they need, you ask prospects thought-provoking questions that help them identify their own pain points.
Ultimately, with a consultative sales approach, prospects will steer themselves into making their best decision.
Your role, as sales rep, is to be empathetic and helpful, providing prospects the information they need to make an educated buying decision.
Consultative selling stands in stark contrast to transactional selling. Transactional selling is focused solely on hitting revenue targets. Consultative selling, while also interested in hitting revenue targets, aims to do that by helping customers succeed. And that makes all the difference.
When you have a consultative sales approach, you measure success by the impact you have on customers, the outcomes they’re achieving, and their success. You focus your messaging around this data, rather than your features and benefits. You never treat the customer as a number. Instead, you view yourself as a trusted advisor.
Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what buyers want, especially when purchasing expensive, complex solutions.
The #1 Trait of Effective Consultative Selling
Curiosity is at the heart of a consultative sales process, and I think the new generation of salespeople has forgotten the art of asking questions that dig up quality responses.
In a time when selfies, likes, and online follower counts take precedence over human connection, sales leadership needs to reinforce the importance of thoughtful questions and how they can open up the sales process.
Consultative selling techniques are rooted in the selflessness of the salesperson. It’s not about proving that your product or service is the best, it’s about finding the solution that’s right for the customer.
This isn’t always the easiest path for sales leaders and their teams, but the results can be remarkable. If your sales team wants to be more consultative, these are a few best practices you can start working on today.
1. Practice Asking Questions
If this first takeaway sounds too simple to be true, that’s because it is. The simple act of asking better questions undoubtedly leads to a better bottom line.
The moment this hit home for me was when Lessonly interviewed a prospective employee named Katie for a sales position. In her presentation to our team, she challenged us to a simple game called “The Question Game.”
It may sound familiar to anyone who enjoys improv comedy. We had to see how long we could go back and forth with another person by only asking questions.
This opened our eyes. You can pull a ton of information out of a person with the correctly worded question. I think the winner of Katie’s game asked nearly 15 questions in a row. Needless to say, the game had an impact on our team, and Katie is now Lessonly’s Director of Enterprise Sales.
Soon after we hired Katie, our sales leaders sat down to create sales enablement lessons within Lessonly on asking better questions. We now assign that training to every account executive. Taking this often-overlooked skill and turning it into a training focus has done wonders for our sales team.
4 Types of Consultative Selling Questions:
- Situation questions
- Problem questions
- Implication questions
- Need-Payoff questions
You may recognize this as SPIN Selling, an approach promoted by Neil Rackham. The reason it works is that it keeps you customer-focused.
Across the board, the best sales calls start with you learning everything you can about the buyer’s situation, what they consider their deepest need, what success looks like to them. That lays a strong foundation of trust and credibility — which is very likely to end in a closed-won deal.
2. Practice Active Listening
This is harder than you might think. All too often, we ask the appropriate “next question,” but instead of listening to the answer, we prepare for the next thing we want to say. We don’t actually register what the prospect is saying.
I recently experienced this first-hand — from the buyer’s seat.
The salesperson was clearly trying to use a consultative approach. This first call was even called a coaching call. But the selling questions he asked at the beginning of the call were more about qualifying me than trying to understand my situation.
Then, in his efforts to display his coaching skills, he “diagnosed” problems that didn’t exist. He hadn’t taken the time to dig into the things I said. He made assumptions (rude ones at that) and tried to make me believe I needed their product to overcome these issues.
Active listening is about more than waiting your turn to speak. It’s about making sure you understand what the other person is actually saying before responding to it.
To ensure you hear the prospect and understand their situation, follow these steps:
- Ask true consultative selling questions, not leading questions that are designed to make the prospect agree with you.
- Listen to the words they’re saying. Slow down and listen.
- Make sure you understand their meaning. Probe further if you aren’t sure.
- Validate and clarify. Repeat back a summary of what the prospect said, so they can confirm or correct your understanding.
- Then, and only then, decide on your response or your next question.
3. Do Your Research
There’s more to understanding the prospect than just asking questions. In consultative sales, you need to gather copious information about your buyer before a conversation in order to understand what they need and why they’re talking to you.
I have always been struck by Hubspot’s now-legendary sales training program. The two things they promise is that you’ll learn to prioritize the right buyers and understand your prospects’ real challenges.
As part of their training, they ask new reps to create a website and try to drive inbound traffic to it. This requires reps to get into the world of the customer.
That’s the essence of a consultative sales approach. It’s about getting inside the head of the prospect: their pains, their worries, their fears, and their desires.
How do you do this? You ask.
You don’t know where the prospect is in their buyer journey if you don’t ask. Be aware, though, your questions must be personalized to the person you’re talking to. If you ask the same questions on every call, you’ll miss the target — what resonates with small businesses most definitely won’t catch the attention of an enterprise-sized account.
Sales enablement folks, you should constantly update your reps’ sales enablement documents as they learn more about their buyer personas. Create battlecards and other resources that can serve as consultative sales training templates, and let your reps fill them out with their first-hand accounts and information.
4. Add Variety To Your Consultative Sales Process
A key to consultative selling is providing unique solutions that are customized (even if slightly) to each customer’s needs.
In the early days of Lessonly, we sold plenty of small deals because our product had promise but was still young. In my experience since then, those deals with lower ACV tended to be simple and easy to sell with a formulaic mentality.
We could crank out low ACV and simple deal cycles like we were on a conveyor belt, but that’s not a healthy way to grow a company.
Training sales reps to add variety into their sales process is a great way to help them be more consultative in selling.
Here at Lessonly, we often issue a “word of the week” to keep our sales team on their toes.
In these challenges, our sales leadership team gets together and picks a random word that our AEs and SDRs should try to use in every one of their prospect interactions.
Then at the end of the week, we go back through emails, calls, and other touchpoints to see how the team did.
We don’t pick winners and losers during this challenge, but we often pull everyone together to highlight a few of the best interactions involving that word and review what made it great.
The point of this tactic is to add variety back into your sales process. If you don’t know where to start, it might be time for a sales process audit.
If you’ve ever heard something to the effect of, “I know I’m on a good sales call if I say these two things a lot…,” that rep is probably not asking enough of the right questions.
Asking the same two questions in every single call is formulaic, not consultative. Your sales team can’t be consultative sales therapists if they’re giving every single person the exact same prescription.
The only thing that applies to every one of your customers is that they have a problem. How you go about solving that problem will almost always be different.
5. Consultative Sales Training: Zero in on the Qualifiers
The Lessonly sales leadership team and I were recently listening to recorded sales calls, and we realized that most of our customer interactions that ended in closed deals had a larger number of qualifiers sprinkled throughout the conversation. This includes little phrases like:
- So you mentioned…
- I’m curious why….
- The reason I’m asking this next question is…
When looking to build a consultative selling process into your sales cycle, these qualifiers are subtle, yet invaluable to the overall conversation. They prove that you’re really listening and engaging with the prospect, and provide clarity that allows a question to have maximum impact.
The best way to actively change this is to listen to your team’s sales calls with an ear for consultative qualifiers.
- How are your reps asking for context?
- Are they listening more than telling?
- What exact words are they using?
- Keep in mind, a consultative sales model shouldn’t sound like an interrogation.
Reps should be weaving in questions and context throughout their sales pitch.
These are the points that you should train your team on. It’s how you create a culture of consultative selling.
6. Add Value First
It’s easy to slip back into transactional selling — even when you’re committed to consultative selling. When revenue numbers are down, a transactional approach to sales may look like the right choice. When that happens, remember, buyers are looking for salespeople they can trust.
That’s why it’s so important to stay focused on adding value. If you focus on selling first, you might hit your numbers this quarter. But what about the future? Consultative sales is about providing value first, trusting that the sale will follow.
How do you do that? Here’s how Anthony Iannariono describes it:
Sales organizations with complex, greater value-creating solutions are focused on solving their clients’ most strategic challenges, spending time consulting with their dream clients, and differentiating their value propositions….. They are increasingly hiring more — and paying more for — people who can develop relationships. This creates a higher level of value and differentiates these companies and their offerings.
People skills are key. You need to be able to identify the people within the target organization who will be most impacted by your solution, then talk to them and advocate for them with the bean counters and decision makers.
You also need to be good at out-of-the-box thinking. There’s rarely a one-size-fits-all solution, and your ability to listen to the prospect’s needs and come up with a personalized solution can easily set you apart from the competition.
Most of all, if your solution isn’t the right fit, you need to be willing to recommend something else — knowing that you may be the best fit at another time. Because, ultimately, if you aren’t adding real tangible value, you’re selling yourself and the prospect short.
Long-term success in sales depends on building trust and credibility. By offering value in advance (even if it means losing the sale), you earn a reputation as someone who treats people right. In the long run, that will earn you more business and give you far more success.
The Consultative Sales Approach: How to Get Started
As a salesperson, it can be tough to ask consultative selling questions in every interaction, particularly when you’re fairly sure your product solves the prospect’s pain point.
But, adding these best practices to your sales process will ensure the healthy growth of your team, and company, by making sure you are solving the right problem for the right people.
Here are 6 steps for implementing a consultative sales process:
- Start asking better questions.
- Practice active listening.
- Do the work to understand your buyer and their needs.
- Add variety into the sales process.
- Train your team on conversation qualifiers.
- Always add value first.