What is a Consultative Sales Process?
The Consultative Sales Process is a method of selling which requires the salesperson to ask a series of targeted discovery questions which allows the prospect to uncover for themselves the reasons they should buy. Consultative selling is very different from traditional transactional selling as the conversation is customer-focused and on diagnosing problems, not trying to sell.
Why is the Consultative Sales Process Important?
The Consultative Sales Process is important because traditional sales techniques have become less effective and buyers no longer want Salespeople to try and sell to them.
Buyers prefer Salespeople who are experts and show an interest in them by asking targeted and relevant questions.
1. Consultative Sales vs Transactional Sales Process
hen you have an appointment with your Doctor, 95% of the appointment is spent diagnosing the problems and only 5% of the time on the solution. Consultative Selling is the same in that, 95% of the sales meeting is spent using questioning and critical thinking to accurately diagnose the prospects business pain. This is the opposite of Traditional Sales techniques where the Sales Rep spends 95% of the time discussing their products and their services, in an attempt to sell.
This client-centred approach is counter-intuitive as most salespeople struggle to stop themselves trying to sell, and stop themselves talking about their products and services. Modern buyers are smarter and better educated than ever before and the Traditional Sales approach of getting in front of someone and pitching your Features & Benefits is not only outdated, but it is also off-putting to the modern buyer.
Furthermore old school sales closing techniques are obvious to the modern buyer, and they have developed well-drilled stalls and objections to counter them, leaving the traditional Sales Rep largely ineffective.
In modern selling the more you try and sell anything to anyone the more unsuccessful you will be. The key to sales success is not going out to sell, but simply going out and having the right type of conversation, with the right people, in a structured and repeatable way.
Having conversations focused on a buyer’s needs and wants is much more powerful than turning up with a PowerPoint presentation, as people hate to be sold to, but love to buy. The role of the Consultative Sales Professional is to simply facilitate the right conditions for the buyer to buy.
Salespeople who have never been trained in traditional techniques naturally default to the more traditional sales approach, as they believe they have to convince people to buy. Trying to convince anyone to buy is not nearly as powerful as the prospect convincing themselves to buy as they do with a Consultative Selling Process.
2. The History of Consultative Selling
The roots of the modern Consultative Sales process lie in 470BC with the classical Greek philosopher Socrates who developed an educational method based on asking questions that became known as Socratic Questioning.
According to a student of Socrates, Plato, Socratic Questioning was “a disciplined practice of thoughtful questioning”, a form of critical thinking using discovery questions that allowed the students to question and explore their thoughts and complex ideas.
Consultative Selling is a disciplined practice of exploring and questioning the complex business issues and challenges that the sales prospect may be experiencing.
3. Which Products and Services work best with Consultative Sales Techniques?
The advantages of the Consultative Selling Process are that the fundamental principles can be used on any product or service, in any industry.
Even a traditional telephone sales call or social media interaction can be approached in a consultative sales manner.
The flexibility combined with the maturing of sales teams has resulted in a shift over the years by companies who had previously been using a more traditional Transactional Sales Methodology, who have moved, or at least try to move, into a more Consultative Selling approach.
4. Advantages of a Consultative Sales Approach
The Consultative Sales approach requires people skills and Emotional Intelligence that makes the Consultant much more than a Trusted Advisor, as they develop their conversations into deeper than normal relationships.
Consultative Selling Skills are used by many organisations in different industries primarily with a complex sales process and can be difficult to master.
Consultative sales training will set your team up for long term success and position them as though leaders and trusted advisors within their industry.
5. Consultative Sales Approach Steps
Consultative Sales Approach Steps
1. Define the Symptoms
What are the symptoms of the business pain (problem) the prospect is experiencing?
2. Root Cause Analysis
Ask questions to diagnose the underlying causes of the pain.
3. Business Impact
Ask how the pain is impacting the business in terms of growth, profitability, morale or performance.
4. Financial Impact
Ask how much the problem will cost the business if they don’t fix it.
5. Personal Impact
Lastly ask how the problem affects the prospect personally – how do they feel about it.
Consultative Sales Approach Steps in Detail
- Define the Symptoms
- This step is used to confirm and prioritise the symptoms according to the prospect. Many buyers have a surface-level knowledge of the Business pain points they are trying to solve however they lack the deep understanding and knowledge of the Expert Consultant. Because of this many buyers initially discuss the symptoms they are experiencing.
- The role of the Consultant is to dig deeper to find the root cause of the problem. Many Salespeople know they can fix the buyers problem and immediately move into full sales mode when they hear the symptoms and the danger here is that they are moving to fast for the buyer. To speed the sale up, it’s important to slow the sales down.
- Furthermore diving into sales mode early without truly knowing and understanding the underlying problems may well need to them recommending the wrong solution.
- In medical terms prescription without accurate diagnosis is negligence, sales are no different. It’s not possible to prescribe the best solution without knowing everything about the context of the buyer’s symptoms.
- Root Cause Analysis
- This step is used to dig deeper and find the root cause of the business pain the prospect is experiencing. This is where the expertise, product/service, and domain knowledge of the salesperson is important.
- The background to this is step is understanding why Product and domain knowledge is important. This knowledge must only be used in two ways.
- Firstly product Knowledge should only be used to generate powerful questions that position the salesperson as the expert, experience and a safe pair of hands.
- The second use of product & domain knowledge is to build the confidence of the salesperson.
- Knowing no matter what question you are asked in the C-suite you will be able to answer is extremely powerful and confidence-building.
- Business Impact
- When the Sales Rep and the prospect have agreed on the accurate diagnosis of the business pain points it’s important to understand how this is impacting the business?
- Is the business impact affecting growth, does it threaten stability, will this affect market share or impact the brand in some way?
- If the Business Pain has little or no impact then it’s probably not something the prospect will invest time and money in to resolve and they will learn to live with the pain.
- It’s important not to drag the prospect through the Consultative sales process and each stage is a checkpoint for both parties to stop or continue.
- Better to get a NO early so you can move on than push through and waste time and resources trying to close a deal where there is simply no fit.
- Financial Impact
- Once the Business Impact has been confirmed it’s important to discover any financial impact on the organisation.
- Without quantifying the financial impact it’s unlikely the prospect will move forward however there are objective measurements such as pound notes and subjective measurements such as culture, morale, confidence, brand, values and teamwork.
- Whilst Subjective measures are important it’s more powerful when you can tie in monetary value from an objective measurement.
- Personal Impact
- If the business pain does not affect the prospect personally then again they are less likely to invest in any solution.
- Will your solution have a direct impact on the prospects personal ability to build or run their Department?
- Will your solution have a direct impact on the prospects personal reputation or ego.?
- Will your solution have a direct impact on the prospects personal ability to reduce time wasted, inefficient or ineffective work process and systems?
At this stage, many prospects have come to the realisation that there is a “good fit” between what they need and what you do so they are often happy to move to go move forward. Going forward does not necessarily mean providing a purchase order it simply means moving forward to what the next clear step was that should have been agreed before the meeting.
In complex solution sales, this 5 step process may have to be repeated multiple times as you move through the prospects buying process and talk with different departments and stakeholders.
6. Skills Required for the Consultative Sales Methodology
6.1. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence (EI) refers to our ability to perceive, control, and evaluate emotions. As people buy emotionally we need to be able to read and understand those emotions and respond where appropriate.
Expertise means having a high level of skill and knowledge of your chosen product or service. The knowledge should never be used to bombard Decision-makers but instead used to create powerful and insightful questions. People prefer to deal with Experts and all things being equal the expert will always win over the generalist.
6.3. Self Awareness
Self-awareness is our ability to notice, understand and manage our thoughts and feelings in terms of why we feel, what we feel and why we behave in a particular way. As an example, if you have ever talked to a prospect and felt like you couldn’t wait for the prospect to stop talking so you could talk. In those moments where you are waiting to jump into the conversation, you are not truly listening. It’s always better to pause and think before you respond and never interrupt the prospect.
6.4. Domain Knowledge
Domain Knowledge refers to the specialised knowledge a salesperson has of the whole domain. It’s no longer enough to only know your customer, you must know and understand your customers’ customer. Knowing the wants and needs of your customers, customers put you in a better position to help your customer, sell, service and support their customers.
6.5. Active Listening
Active listening is the skill of using body language to demonstrate not only that we are listening, but that we are mentally and emotionally engaged. Mentally engaged means that our body language demonstrates that we are “present” and focussed on the prospect and the conversation and not distracted in any way. Emotionally engaged means that our body language represents the appropriate emotion whilst the prospect is talking. This could be interest, excitement, confusion or empathy. As body language can represent up to 57% of communication active listening is an import skill for every sales team.
7. Consultative Sales Methodology Differentiates You From Competitors
Most salespeople believe they miss orders by miles, when in reality it takes very little to lose the sale.
When the kitchen re-modelling salesperson visits the buyer at home and parks on the buyers’ driveway; it’s over. It’s over because when you come home from a hard day’s work do you want to find someone else’s car on your drive, forcing you to park down the street?
When the software Sales Rep talks so much techno-babble and uses buzzwords the non-technical buyer switches off, it’s over.
When the pensions & investment salesperson turns up 45 minutes late for the interview for a $150,000 per annum job because he slept in it’s over.
All these are true stories shared to us by Business Leaders. It only takes the smallest of mistakes to lose a deal, but the good news then is, it can only take the smallest of things to help you win the sale. By using a consultative approach which is truly focussed on the prospect this alone can often be the small difference that separates sales reps from those using the traditional approach.
8. Consultative Sales Questions
The Consultative Sales Approach includes advanced questioning skills that go beyond the traditional Open & Closed questions. They use techniques that include types of questions such as Redirect, Presumptive, Summary, Funneling, Opposing and Presumptive that are much more powerful.
8.1. Reasons for Questions
In order for there to be any form of qualified sales opportunity there needs to be a gap between where the prospect is currently and where they desire to be after the successful implementation of your solution. No gap means no sale. We use questions to discover if there is a gap in a structured order.
Whilst it’s important to ask open ended questions, these are much more impactful. These questions are designed in a way to funnel the prospect to the pain points that are most relevant and help the prospect themselves understand the impact of the pain points.
- Where are they now? – Be a good listener, be compassionate, empathise and nurture. Let them emotionally dump on you with all their problems.
- Where would they like to be? –
- the right questions. What does your perfect look like in your world? Paint me a picture.
- What’s stopping you from getting there? – Listen and gauge importance and commitment.
- Without trust & rapport the customer will not open up to you and questions demonstrate your interest in them, their business and their problems.
- Customers may find it difficult to articulate their problems and if so use your product knowledge to ask questions to nudge and guide them.
- Helps us hear and understand prospects needs, wants, objectives, goals and problems.
- Questions See how our solutions may or may not fit before we concede our position.
- Help gather information to quantify the value of the solution to the prospect.
- Respond to objections before they are even voiced on our terms.
- Give direction to the sales conversation; take the prospect down a certain path of your choosing and help the prospect uncover more Pain.
- Assure the customer they are safe with you – they may be concerned with how
- they are perceived in an organisation.
- the choice will affect the organisation, save money, make money.
- the right decision.
- Create empathy – our ability to share and recognise the importance of the Gap or Business Pain.
- Help you Up-sell and Cross-sell other products and services.
- Evoke emotions to motivate the prospect to take action.
- Stop us from presenting solutions to early in the sales process ie before the root cause analysis has been performed.
- Identify Resources available & the Decision-making Process used by the prospect.
8.2. Types of Consultative Selling Questions
|Open end questions / Closed questions|| Open questions are used to gather further information and closed questions should be used for confirmation|
Example: “Charlie people often tell me that they just want the cheapest insurance but they are concerned that inexpensive policies won’t provide the level of cover they are looking for. How do you evaluate the Risk attached to a cheaper policy?”
|Summary Questions||Summary questions are used to confirm you have correctly understood what the prospect has said. This is done by summarising or paraphrasing the prospects statement and adding a conformation question at the end. |
Example: “Can I just recap to make sure I have got this right? You are saying you have a problem with x which is negatively impacting Y and this is costing you Z. Is that right?”
|Funneling Questions||Funneling questions are used to channel the sales conversation towards a particular area or topic. |
Example: “I think we’re both now agreed on what the root cause of the problems are, is it worth spending some time about how this is impacting the business?” This moves the prospect from Step 2 to Step 3 in the process.
|Redirect Questions||Redirect questions are used to control the conversation and keep the prospect from moving forward in the sales process if the Salesperson is not yet ready to move forward.|
Example: If the prospect asks “How much does this cost?” but you haven’t yet discussed Root Cause of the problems, the business impact or the financial impact you could say. “That’s a great question and at this stage I’m not even sure if we can help you. Would it make sense if you tell me a bit more about why you think you’re having problems with xyz?”
|Opposing Redirect||Opposing redirect question is answering a question with the opposite response that would be expected by the prospect and turning it into a question.|
Example: Prospect – Your prices are high!
Salesperson – Absolutely, but why do you think all our customers are happy to pay that?
|Presumptive Questions||Presumptive questions are questions used when we know or presume the prospect does not know the answer. |
Example: When your current telecoms provider reviewed your account to look for savings what did they come up with? This question is used to position yourself as you know the existing supplier does not do this but it would be a benefit to the prospect if they did.
8.3. Rules for Questions
- Evoke Emotions – this is the most important as Emotion = Pain and Pain = Change. Craft your questions so that they avoid a logical response and instead trigger answers from the prospects gut.
- Lead with Softening Statements – these maintain rapport, OK’ness and demonstrate respect and empathy to the prospect.
- Dig Deeper, don’t stop at the first answer, ask a deeper question – this will evoke a deeper emotional response especially if you focus around:
- of money, time, opportunity, promotion, status, business or job.
- performance or poor results of self, company or workers.
- of time, money or status.
- Use all six types of questions:
- funneling, summary, redirect, negative redirect, presumptive questions
- Questions demonstrate expertise and position you as a GAP closer.
The information gathered is fed back into the solution forming phase of the conversation which allows the buyer to take ownership of the final solution.
9. Consultative Sales Training
Consultative Sales Training Courses lasting one and two days are available from a specialist training providers like ourselves. The courses will cover the main topics such as social media, building trust, advanced questioning techniques, the consultative sales model and understanding people.
We also run Bespoke Sales Training courses In-house where we overlay the principles of Consultative Selling to your own business processes.
You can read more about Consultative Sales Training in the course guide.
10. Consultative Sales Coaching
Whilst training is important often Salespeople need support and reinforcement outside of training.
Coaching should be used to support the practical application of the knowledge passed on during training.
Consultative sales coaching provides the support that Salespeople need to make the adjustment from a more traditional sales approach to a consultative one.
Often the biggest problem Sales Reps face is remembering what questions to ask when they get in-front of prospects.
So we put together a simple one page sheet that contains the most important questions to use as a visual prompt and allows Salespeople to ask the questions and take notes.
You can see how we use the Meeting Notes templates and integrate it into our Consultative Sales Coaching in Using OneNote for Sales Management.
11. Recommended Reading
You can read more about and download all the FREE tools templates and guides mentioned in this article via our Sales Tools page.
You can learn more about Selling Value in our article How to Sell Value Not Price.