What is consultative selling (and will it heal my deal rate)?

Posted on: October 27, 2021

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Category: B2B sales

What is consultative selling (and will it heal my deal rate)?

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The importance of relationships has long been a staple of sales philosophy. But consultative selling places it at its very heart and soul.

The idea here is to develop a deep, almost therapeutic, relationship first – and to sell second.

You do this by:

  • Asking meaningful questions
  • Actively listening to your prospect’s answers
  • Gaining an understanding of their needs
  • And, then, tailoring a bespoke offering just for them

The aim is to ensure the prospect (not the product or the process) is the focus of the sale. And the end game is to genuinely personalise what you sell to your prospect, rather than try to cram square blocks into circular holes.

In this overview of consultative selling, we’ll explore exactly what it is and ask whether it works. We’ll then go on to look at some practical tips and background principles for incorporating a consultative approach into your sales techniques, including how you can build bespoke solutions for your prospects.

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What is consultative selling?

Consultative selling is where you deliberately take your eye off the sale, simply to place the prospect and their needs in greater focus.

In this approach, you would not dream of offering a solution to a prospect before you had made sure you were 100% on their challenges and pain points. You would build trust before you start to sell.

This sort of sales process was first formulated in the 1970s by Mack Hanan. His book,  Consultative Selling: The Hanan Formula for High-Margin Sales at High Levels, was effective in popularising this new way of thinking.

It is now, in many ways, an accepted part of most people’s sales training. For who could argue against the merits of building relationships to qualify prospects as you try and tailor a solution to their needs?

What sets consultative selling apart?

If you are looking to add value then consultative selling is ideal: it gives you a lot more insight into what your prospect is actually looking for than other sales techniques. And this makes it easier for you to upsell and cross-sell throughout the sales journey and after the prospect becomes a customer.

Let’s quickly map out the differences between a product-based approach and a consultative approach to sales.

Product approachConsultative approach
Focus on priceFocus on deliverables
The product defines valueThe prospect defines value
The prospect determines worthThe salesperson helps define worth
Hard sellSmart sell
The salesperson looks to winThe salesperson looks to win trust

What’s needed for successful consultative selling?

Lead qualification and consultative selling actually go hand in hand.

And better qualified leads mean more chance of closing the deal – but you’ll need to approach each sale in a certain way to make it work.

1.     Gain trust

Trust is not given – it is earned.

To gain the trust of your prospects you need to demonstrate thought leadership, meaningful insight and authority in the area or sector you are selling into.

Forget just being a great salesperson, you need to establish yourself as an expert.

  • Have case studies, testimonials, statistics and facts always at your fingertips – these are your essential credentials
  • Focus on providing answers and insight into your clients’ biggest pain points
  • It’s not all big picture selling – make sure you can answer the detail too

2.     Curate valuable content

Don’t worry – it’s not all on you!

This is where sales and marketing alignment really comes into play – your marketing colleagues can help you by creating content that addresses the issues that most concerns your clients.

This is a long-term strategy – keep your infographics, videos, case studies, white papers, research pieces, eBooks and blogs squarely focussed on the areas you need to build authority in.

Trust is not created overnight.

Use your social media posts to promote this content, always adding a personal insight to make the content your own. And embellish this by sharing or, better still, curating other’s insights into your specialist areas.

Finally, accept any opportunity to host or speak on a webinar or conference themed around your area of expertise. Make sure your talk is recorded and promoted, along with the slide deck that you used.

3.     Research

Of course, it is not generic expertise you are looking to have: to make your insight, knowledge and empathy apparent to your prospect you are going to need to base it on research into what really matters to them.

This information must go beyond the basics of company size, revenue, key competitors and target markets. It must zoom into current problems and challenges and all the latest sector news.

4.     Taking the conversational lead

The sweet spot here is very hard to hit.

On the one hand you need to actively listening and on the other you need to lead the conversation to ensure you can draw out all the key information from your prospect that will help you progress the sale.

Walk this tightrope carefully.

5.     Building bespoke solutions

A bespoke solution can only be built from a deep understanding of your prospect’s needs.

While much of this understanding rests on a factual alignment there is also an emotional connection that comes into play.

For instance:

  • Buying decisions are influenced by fear, whether this is fear of missing out or fear of failure
  • A prospect’s relationship with you – and perception of the value you add – can sway decisions as strongly as features and price
  • The value your solution offers the prospect themselves can help to swing the deal too: everyone wants to shine in front of their colleagues.

The consultative close

  • Listened?

  • Understood?

  • Built trust?

  • Shared insight?

  • Tailored a solution?

  • Closed?
    Not quite!

You have almost made it.

Here are your final couple of hurdles to take in your stride before you make it over the consultative sale threshold.

The why

Communicating your ‘why’ need not have all the revelatory force of a ‘Eureka’ moment, so you can leave the bathtub at home!

Instead, let your justifications subtly flavour everything you say – and let it be driven by a good dose of optimism as many studies have revealed that positive thinking can carry a salesperson a lot further than any sales skill.

Don’t think that as your relationship develops challenging your buyer is a no-no. Stick to your guns and let your honesty and reliability ring out: if your ‘story’ is good from the start, there never need be a reason to change it.

The how

Sales deals very rarely end with a bang – but let’s hope they don’t end with a whimper either. Rather than a climactic close, there is usually quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing before the deal can be signed off.

Usually, other buyers and stakeholders are brought in as the close gets closer – and the CEO may need convincing that your solution is synched up with the overall business strategy – but don’t worry, because you have already done your homework.

It’s your role at this point to stay patient and focused as you help your buyer out with the fine points and all the I’s that need dotting and T’s that need crossing.

Should everything go a bit quiet, have a few articles on hand that will reinforce your solution and its fit. Keep thinking how else you can demonstrate value or add personal value.

Consultative selling in 25 words (or less).

So, you have closed your deal.

Congratulations – now let’s do it all over again.

To keep you on track here is consultative selling summed up in 25 words (and maybe even one or two fewer).

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