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Is Consultative Selling Relevant?

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Question:

Over the years, I have adopted what I consider to be a consultative approach to selling.  Lately, I’ve left  meetings feeling a little “unfinished”.  I spend so much time asking questions that I feel there is inadequate time for presenting solutions.  Is it time to adopt a new model of selling?

Answer:

If you’re asking if consultative selling is obsolete, the answer is no.  Some experts feel that transactional selling has prevailed over the last couple of years, however all agree that consultative selling is more important now than ever.  We agree.   Perhaps the definition of consultative selling needs to be visited.  Some salespeople define consultative selling by what it’s not; not using a standard approach, not overdoing features and benefits, not talking too much, etc.  While these are all probable pieces of a consultative sales model, they are not the complete picture.   It sounds like you have fallen into a trap that many salespeople have.  Over the years, consultative selling has been promoted as the way to sell, and I agree.  However, the key word is sell.  There are those that believe that consultative selling means that you only ask questions and solutions will develop on their own.  While asking questions is a key to uncovering needs, if that’s all you do on your sales calls you will disappoint yourself and your customer.

If a customer takes time out of their presumably busy schedule to meet with you, they must be interested in what you can offer them.  They just don’t want to know everything about what you offer!  Asking questions alone without making recommendations causes the customer to feel empty, like they wasted their time.

Consultative selling is somewhat of a well-timed dance.   Dancers that are in-tune to each other seem glide, anticipating every turn and movement.  Ideally, customer interactions should feel the same way.  In a recent class on consultative selling, I asked the group to define what consultative selling was.  I like the definition they came up with, “Consultative selling is to identify needs and suggest solutions that help a customer solve problems or more adequately reach their goals.”   This is more of a collaboration between salesperson and customer rather than the more self-servicing sales models.

If you’re feeling “unfinished”, it may be that you are spending too much time asking empty questions.  You should never feel like you are firing off questions.  The questions you ask should be the result of pre-call analysis that reveals what you know and what you need to find out.  Questions should be strategically woven into the conversation to produce the desired result.   The most fulfilling consultative sales situation is when you help the customer uncover a better means of accomplishing their goals.  Asking the right questions is key to getting to that point.  However, questions are like the tools of a mechanic.  You don’t pull out a wrench when you need a hammer.  Each question you ask should be purposeful.  For instance:

Help customers reveal needs by asking questions about their goals – These should not be general questions, but questions that relate to how you might help them.  For instance, if you were selling office machinery, you might ask them how productive their office staff is.  Listen for gaps that you can fill.  Ask open-ended questions to provoke thought and uncover needs.  You should think these through in advance of your sales calls.  Start by asking what you know about the customer and what you need to know.

Ask questions that reveal value for the customer – “What would a 10% increase in productivity mean to your bottom line?”

Check the pulse of the customer by asking involvement questions – These tell you how close a customer is to a commitment.  As customers reach a decision, they begin to think about how your suggestion will fit into their situation.  So, you ask specific questions about how they will use your product of service in advance of the sale.  How they answer tells you where they are mentally.  For example, “If you decide to go ahead with this, what plant will you want to have trained first?”  If the customer’s response, “I haven’t thought about it.”, you have a bit more selling to do.  If the customer’s response is, “I was hoping to start with the Waukesha plant,” close the sale!

Ask questions to position a solution – “Keeping up with technology is difficult these days, isn’t it?”  If the customer agrees that this is a challenge for them, you would present the applicable solution to solve their issue.

Here are some additional tips to ensure that you have adequate time to position solutions during your sales calls:

Position a single solution after each discovery instead of waiting until the end – Doing so will enable you to keep the customer involved in the conversation   and build interest throughout the sales call.  The customer will see the “What’s In It For Me?”  throughout your interaction.

Set expectations up front – Position why you are there and what you expect to  accomplish.  This will ensure that you and the customer are on the same page right from the start.  You could simply state something like, “Here’s what I’d like to do today.  I’d like to review your need for just in time inventory and your current  practices to see if we can help you meet your requirements.  Is that what you expect?”

Schedule a follow-up meeting to present solutions – Don’t assume that you have   to accomplish the entire sales process in one meeting.

Only provide solutions that are of value to that specific customer – You may  indeed offer many valuable features and benefits.  The only ones that matter are  those that apply specifically to that customer’s concerns.

Don’t think of consultative selling as a single event – Take regular tours of your customer’s production areas to help you understand their challenges.

 

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