Do you ever wish you had a mini consultant on your shoulder? Giving you advice on what to do?
Example: you’re shopping for a new tie and you’re torn between the bright red and the muted blue. You turn to your little consultant and they tell you, “red is out this year. Go with the blue to make a better impression.”
All of us, to some extent, wish we had some outside expertise in a variety of situations. It makes the decision making process faster and easier. It reduces your stress. It gives you a sense that you’re not alone. And it makes you more confident in whatever you eventually decide.
This is the principle behind consultative selling.
Everyone loves having a consultant – with a couple of exceptions and catches.
Make yourself a consultant for your prospect and you’ll be in a much better position to sell to them.
How can you master consultative selling? Read on and I’ll show you!
Table of Contents
- What Is Consultative Selling?
- The Principles of Effective Consultative Selling
- The Benefits of a Consultative Selling Approach
- Consultative Selling Skills to Master
- Consultative Selling Examples
What Is Consultative Selling?
Consultative selling is a sales methodology designed to put a sales rep in a trustworthy position with a target prospect.
It goes something like this.
You find a prospect through marketing, lead generation, or some combination of other strategies. You give them a bunch of information about your subject of expertise. You talk to them, find out more about them, and answer their questions.
Over time, you build a good relationship – and the prospect reaches out to you for advice or your perspective on a variety of different matters. When it comes time to solve a core problem or make a purchase, they’ll come to you for advice.
At that point, you can recommend your company’s own products or services. With enough trust and sincerity, your prospect will comply with your recommendation – and become a full-fledged customer.
The Principles of Effective Consultative Selling
Of course, you can’t just decide to be a consultative seller and find success.
Making recommendations and providing information to someone isn’t going to make them trust you automatically. In fact, with the right attitude or an insincere approach, you might end up turning someone away.
So what does it take to be an effective consultative seller?
What kind of pizza would you recommend to someone? Wait. What kind of person is this? Do they eat meat? Do they like thin crust or thick? You need to know more about this person before you tell them what kind of pizza they should try.
The same idea holds true in consultative selling. You can’t provide an effective recommendation, or consultation, unless you know who you’re talking to.
Do your research, both on a demographic level and an individual level, before reaching out.
Sales is all about persuasion, right? You’re supposed to manipulate a person into buying a product from you?
Wrong. At least in the consultative approach.
While you’ll definitely leverage some tools of persuasion, you’re going to be more focused on providing information and support than on manipulating or controlling the actions of your target prospects.
Inquiry and understanding.
There’s a lot to the discovery process in consultative selling. You need to ask lots of good questions, get to know your prospects, and give them exactly the information they need to achieve their goals.
In line with this, you also need to be a good, active listener. How are you going to give your prospect a good recommendation if you tuned them out halfway through the meeting?
Additionally, paying attention and showing that you’re listening to someone will help you establish trust and rapport.
People know when you’re paying attention (and when you’re not).
Advice and education.
The heart of consultative selling is – you guessed it – consultation. So you need to be ready to provide education and advice to your prospects.
That often means supplying them with eBooks, talking to them directly, giving them free trials, and answering their questions.
The more thorough you are, and the better information you give, the more they’re going to come to respect you.
Cooperative problem solving.
Too many salespeople are quasi-antagonistic. They see the prospect as prey to catch or an opponent in a battle to win.
But in this context, your prospect is a teammate. You’re working together to solve a problem. You’re collaborators. Cooperators.
And the more you embody this mentality, the easier it will be to land the final sale.
Surprised to see it? Flexibility and adaptability are key characteristics for a variety of different sales methodologies.
You have to be willing to collect data, review information, and make changes to your approach to keep getting better.
Don’t get complacent!
The Benefits of a Consultative Selling Approach
Why would you choose consultative selling over a different approach?
These are some of the benefits:
- Trust. Being a knowledgeable consultant gives you the opportunity to build trust. Your prospects will get to know you personally and know your business well. As you provide free information, with no costs or drawbacks, your prospects will come to appreciate the value you bring. That maximizes your chances of finalizing the sale.
- Respect. More than that, your prospects will respect you. Because of this, they’re going to be much more likely to respond.
- Brand loyalty. Working as a consultant makes your new customers feel warmer toward you. They trust you. They see you as an expert. And they want to keep working with you. Customers you win this way will be much more likely to stay loyal to your organization, even over the course of years.
What about drawbacks?
Consultative selling isn’t the miracle strategy, nor is it right for every business.
There are some weaknesses to consider.
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- 35-50% of sales go to the first-responding vendor.
- Following up within an hour increases your chances of success by 7x.
- Salespeople spend an average of 13 hours per week on email.
- Time spent. It takes a long time to build trust and be seen as an expert in the eyes of each target prospect. If all that extra time doesn’t result in a sale, it’s a lot of lost time.
- Inconsistency. Consultative selling can give you consistent results, but the process is inconsistent. You’ll need to change up your strategy and approach on the fly if you want to serve your prospects better.
- Training and education of sales reps. If you want to be seen as an expert, it helps if you’re actually an expert. But if you want all your sales reps to be realistic, knowledgeable professionals, you’ll need to spend adequate time educating and training them.
Consultative Selling Skills to Master
You’ll have a lot of sales skills to master no matter what methodology you follow, but these are some of the most important ones for consultant sales reps to develop:
How do you learn to be authentic? It’s almost a contradiction. What I mean here is that you have to be sincere and real in your approach.
Be yourself. Be honest.
Don’t conform to that weird, invisible “sales rep” stereotype.
You’re job isn’t to talk your prospect to death. In fact, you should probably be listening more than talking.
Ask questions, sit back, and patiently listen to what your prospects have to say.
Speaking of patience, you’ll need a lot of it. The consultative selling approach takes place over a variety of different interactions, and generally speaking, weeks and months of time – especially for large deals.
You need to be willing to let some potential deals go, and you need to remain confident in your product’s value.
Big surprise, huh? Good sales reps are good communicators. They’re articulate, responsive, and clear – across a wide range of mediums, including email and phone calls.
Work to master your language skills and build more prospect confidence.
Your 8-year-old cousin may be technically able to give you a recommendation on what enterprise resource planning software your business should buy, but he probably doesn’t have much expertise to back that recommendation.
One of your top skills will be knowledge and expertise in your chosen field – oftentimes, that’s something that comes naturally over time.
Confidence is key in any sales interaction, but it’s especially important if you want your advice to be taken seriously.
Some confidence will come naturally to you when you feel you’ve mastered a certain subject, but you’ll still need to pay attention to your tone, phrasing, body language, and more.
Not every prospect is going to respond to the same set of tactics. You need to vary your approach for each individual you interact with – and be willing to try new tactics regularly to see if they can yield better results.
Consultative Selling Examples
Let’s close this guide with a handful of examples of people who can use consultative selling.
This isn’t a B2B thing or a B2C thing or a big company thing or a startup thing.
Literally any business can use it. In fact, you can use it in a variety of non-business contexts too.
Take a look:
1. The bike shop owner.
You enter a bike shop looking for a new bike – but you’re not sure what you want.
You talk to the owner and they ask you questions about your riding habits, the bikes you’ve had in the past, and what your main objectives are. They recommend you fix your current bike rather than getting a new one, and point out a couple of inexpensive upgrades.
They win some short-term business and your long-term loyalty; when this bike wears out and it’s time for a new one, it’s the first store you’re going to think of.
2. The tech store employee.
You go to a tech store that’s full of computers, smartphones, and other devices. You know you need something for work – but you aren’t sure what type of computer would be best.
The knowledgeable employee teaches you about the different specs to look for in a computer, building your trust.
Even if you’re not ready to buy today, you’ll be more likely to return to complete the purchase.
3. The family lawyer.
You’ve just started a young family and you’re concerned about their financial future if anything were to happen to you. Accordingly, you reach out to a few different lawyers.
One of them is happy to give you a free consultation, getting to know you and your goals, answering your questions, and happily providing you with extra reading so you can make the right decision.
Some of the others won’t even talk to you without sending you an invoice. Who do you think you’re going to go with?
4. The marketing agency.
You’re thinking about starting an SEO campaign but you’re not sure what the heck it is. You find a marketing agency online that offers a ton of in-depth information, including downloadable eBooks that help you become more familiar with the subject.
You decide you need an agency’s help to do things right – and ultimately reach out to a sales rep to find out more.
5. The SaaS project management app rep.
You’ve been struggling with project management efficiency in your organization and you discover a cool infographic from a SaaS company on social media.
It’s enlightening, revealing just how much time your team wastes on manual tasks. In your research, you discover this company also happens to manage a project management tool that prioritizes automation and efficiency.
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Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics.