At first glance, the term “consultative selling” might seem intuitive but many people mistake the consultation element as simply providing answers to customer questions. In reality, consultative selling is more about exploring customer needs and possible solutions to their problems.
In this article, we articulate a consultative selling definition, detail the benefits and key principles, and provide some techniques for your team to implement this approach in your sales process.
What is Consultative Selling?
Consultative selling is an approach to sales that focuses more on the customer than the product or service, exploring customer needs in depth through a series of insightful questions and discussions.
Traditionally, a sales rep relied more on a monologue about how their product or service could fit into the prospect’s life or business, but consultative selling attempts to fit the product or service to the customer.
Principles and Benefits of Consultative Selling
A sales principle is a mental model for how your team should think about their processes and implement changes in behavior to take advantage of the key benefits. Below, we detail four principles of consultative selling as well as their benefits.
Principle #1: Active Listening
One of the most important aspects of consultative selling is truly listening to the customer as they explain their problem, use case, or unique situation. The customer’s unique situation is your opportunity to deliver a unique selling proposition, so listen.
Successful active listening will depend on the setting and forum of the discussion. If you’re on the phone, note-taking while the customer talks is a great way to focus on listening and engaging. If in-person, use body language and eye contact to give the customer your undivided attention.
Restating the customer’s problem and summarizing it in your own words can help to better understand the problem and potential solutions but also makes the prospect feel heard.
Ultimately, the benefit of active listening is the deep dive understanding of the customer’s needs and nuances.
Principle #2: Probing Questions
Use the customer’s comments to position your follow-up questions, pulling on the threads you think are most important when working towards a solution.
Consultative selling is not scripted, it’s improvisation. Let the natural conversation tee up your clarifying questions that can add more context to the potential sale. A good analogy to the questioning in a consultative selling strategy is an investigative journalist — the journalist interviews the parties, slowly peeling back the layers and uncovering new information.
The benefit of asking thoughtful questions is that you will likely uncover helpful information that the prospect might have thought useless.
Principle #3: Pushback
Don’t forget that you’re the expert when it comes to your solution, which means your feedback and pushback are valuable.
Perhaps the customer is explaining a problem their team is facing that they’d like you to solve, but from your previous experience, you know it will not be a profitable pursuit. What do you do? Pushback and tell the prospect why you believe another route could be more beneficial and profitable; most customers will appreciate this as adding consultative value.
Pushback can be beneficial because it helps guide the customer away from potential pitfalls, based on your experience with the problems being faced.
Principle #4: Qualify Leads Based on Value
We all know what SQLs are, but here we advocate for finding value-qualified leads (VQLs). One of the biggest benefits of a consultative sales process is the ability to quickly identify when a prospective customer is not a good fit for the product or service.
If you realize you won’t be able to deliver significant value and ROI, it’s best to be transparent and end the consultative process to save everyone time and money. This is also a form of goodwill that will increase the likelihood of a lost deal becoming a referral partner in the future.
One way to achieve Value Qualified Leads is to align marketing and sales enablement to make sure lead gen efforts are bringing in leads that have at least expressed interest in pre-requisite content.
Product Selling vs. Consultative Selling
Product-led growth (PLG) startups build tools that can be used by the majority of use-cases while consultative sellers focus on building solutions for the edge cases. If PLG is a one-size-fits-all approach to sales, consultative selling is custom-tailored.
These are two vastly different approaches and in fact, the processes for each are almost completely inverted:
For consultative selling, the focus is on the customer needs while PLG focuses on the standard features and benefits of the product. The consultative sales call relies more on questions, compared to product selling which answers any questions the customer has about the product.
The sales process for consultative selling is highly customized and no two deals will be identical, so it’s important to deeply understand the capabilities and core competencies of your product, service, and team. PLG sales teams, on the other hand, can rely more heavily on scripts and templates to take a more standardized approach to sales.
Ultimately, the sales pitch for PLG companies comes down to the product demo, which showcases how the customer can fit into the product. Consultative selling is more about pitching a strategy for how the product can fit the customer.
Consultative Selling Techniques
There are a few techniques that your team can implement to quickly and effectively build a better consultative selling experience for customers (and reps).
Due Diligence Discovery
Conduct surface-level research to avoid a completely cold call or meeting. Although the conversation could go in unforeseen directions, having some context of the business can make for a more productive discussion.
It also helps you showcase knowledge of the prospect’s industry and your research can signal your level of interest in working together.
Using the information you gathered in the initial discovery phase, you can start to form questions that will help guide the conversation. In most scenarios, the customer doesn’t know what information will be helpful for you, which is why your line of questioning must be thoughtful.
The goal is to ask questions that get to the bottom of the customer’s problem which is why it can be helpful to have some questions prepared in case the customer is not forthcoming with their answers.
If the conversation isn’t progressing and the exchange of information is lacking, pull from your bank of general questions as long as they can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.
Be Audible Ready
While having questions prepared is a good technique for consultative sellers to leverage, being agile and letting the conversation guide your subsequent questions is essential.
Your experiences in the consultative process will further strengthen your ability to identify the threads to pull on to go deeper into an area of interest. It’s up to you to decide the appropriate depth on a given subject but being open-minded and flexible as the conversation progresses will allow you to have more thoughtful discussions moving forward.
Add Strategic Value
One of the key tenets of a consultative selling strategy is to actually provide consultation. Some people are hesitant to give away the farm before it’s been bought, but showing how you think through the customer’s problems and can build a strategy for them, highlights how you can provide value long term.
Bringing ideas to the table early on also presents an opportunity for customers to provide feedback which can lead to more ideas. This strategic back and forth can serve as initial buy-in from the customer, helping to close the deal.
Use a Follow-Up Feedback Loop
This technique is less deal-focused and more of a process-oriented strategy for management.
Get in the habit of running through a post-mortem discussion on every deal with your team to understand where your consultative selling processes are breaking down and find areas for improvement.
Perhaps reps are relying more on scripted questions than agile conversations, which leaves the customer feeling unimportant and the problem potentially misdiagnosed. Or maybe your team isn’t following up with actionable ideas to sell the customer on the product or service. Identifying these issues and coaching your team towards improving will make for a better consultative sales process.
The Future of Consultative Selling
Some companies falter between a PLG and consultative selling approach trying to be flexible and build whatever it is the customer wants. This strategy is usually unsustainable which is why it’s important to choose the right model for your business.
Consultative selling is likely to grow in popularity as the B2B SaaS industry matures and companies adequately solve the general business and infrastructure problems, the need for customization built on top will become apparent.
As a consultative sales team moving forward, you’ll be able to leverage machine learning and AI technology to surface insights scientifically and focus on the art of consultative selling. One such opportunity is integrating People.ai in your sales process to automate the creation and modernization of CRM contacts, relationships, and deals.