Consultative Selling

Meeting the Needs of Your Potential Client

(Also Known as Solution Selling and Relationship Selling)

Consultative Selling - Meeting the Needs of Your Potential Client

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Are you giving your clients the products or services that they want?

Have you ever experienced the "hard sell"? The salesperson smiles insincerely at you, and then launches into his pitch.

He lists the features and benefits of his product, and explains why it's so much better than other products on the market. He shows little interest in you or what you want, and he doesn't listen when you try to break in. You can't wait to end the conversation!

So, where did he go wrong?

Instead of trying to force you to his will, he should have asked questions and tailored a solution to your needs. In short, he should have used "consultative selling." With this approach, your meeting could have been very different, and would probably have had a better result.

Whether selling is a major or minor part of your role, the good news is that it's easy to learn and apply consultative selling. In this article, we'll look at the consultative selling process, and we'll discuss how you can develop the skills that you need at each stage.

What Is Consultative Selling?

Consultative selling (also known as "Solution Selling" and "Relationship Selling") is a sales approach that revolves almost entirely around the needs of your prospect (your potential client or customer).

Instead of doing a "hard sell" – where you talk about the features of your product and then ask your prospect to buy (this is sometimes called "Traditional Selling", or "Content Selling") – you spend much of your time listening to your prospect, and figuring out how your products or services can help solve your prospect's problems.

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Here are two simple examples that illustrate the difference between traditional content selling and consultative selling.

Traditional or Content Selling

Imagine that you sell point-of-sale software designed for large retailers, and you visit prospective clients daily. During your pitch, you do most of the talking. You tell your prospects about the technological features of your software and explain why it's so much better than competing products.

All of the points that you bring up focus on the software's features and benefits, such as the fast startup process, the inventory program, and the customer database option.

Consultative Selling

By contrast, consultative selling is a more tailored approach. You spend time getting to know your prospective client, including understanding his or her needs and the business problems he is facing.

For instance, when you talk with him, you spend most of your time listening. You ask questions to identify your his needs and problems in detail, and you structure your responses around how the software can meet those needs, and solve his problems.

So, instead of solely talking about the software's fast startup process, you talk about how much time it will save your prospect's people – time they can use to do other things. Instead of only talking about the cutting-edge inventory program, you stress how this feature will save your prospect thousands of dollars each quarter with more accurate inventory counts.

With consultative selling, you can become a valued partner to your clients. You build relationships with them based on trust and understanding, and you then focus your communication on how your product can help solve their problems, grow their businesses, or increase their revenues.

Note 1:

Consultative selling may not be effective if you're selling a product that is very similar to a competitor's product. Here, prospects are likely to buy based on factors like price or convenience.

Note 2:

In this article, a "product" is anything that is offered to a market to satisfy a want or need. This includes physical goods, services, and even ideas or talent.

The Consultative Selling Process

In their 2009 book, "Brilliant Selling," authors Jeremy Cassell and Tom Bird outlined a five-step process for consultative selling.

The five steps are:

  1. Identify needs and implications.
  2. Present solutions.
  3. Address objections.
  4. Negotiate.
  5. Ask for business.

*Reproduced with permission from Pearson Education Limited

Now, let's look at each step in greater detail.

Step 1: Identify Needs and Implications

The first step is to spend time identifying your prospect's needs, and understanding what these needs mean. So this step is all about asking questions and listening.

Start by making sure that you're asking the right questions. Use good questioning techniques such as asking open-ended questions and using specific, probing questions to understand the situation in more detail.

Possible questions might include:

  • What prompted you to look into this product?
  • What challenges are you facing right now?
  • What is your most important priority?
  • Which of your task and responsibilities in this area causes you the most issues?

Use your questions to help you identify the things that your prospect needs. (Keep in mind that she might not even know she has a need; it's your job to ask questions that reveal them!)

Listen attentively to what your prospect is saying. Use active listening skills so that you fully understand her needs, and to communicate that you are indeed paying attention to what she is saying.

Remember, this step is all about your prospect. Try to spend the majority of your time listening, not talking, and make careful notes on what you have learned.

Step 2: Present Solutions

Once you've identified your prospect's needs and have understood the implications of those needs, you can now present possible solutions. Explain the mix of products that would best address his needs. Depending on the situation, you can do this as part of a formal sales proposal, as a face-to-face conversation, or as a presentation.

Map his needs to what your product can offer, and then craft a value proposition – this concisely explains the unique benefit that your product can provide. Be specific! Make sure that you reiterate the key problems and challenges that your prospect is facing, and explain how your product will help him to overcome these issues.

If you're presenting solutions face-to-face, it's important to pay attention to his body language. This will provide clues on how well you're addressing his true needs and concerns. It can also show you which areas you need to explore or explain further.

Tip 1:

Talk to your prospect on a level that she can understand. Remember, she may not know the specialized vocabulary that your industry uses, and might not have your same level of technical expertise.

Avoid jargon whenever you talk to her, plan your communication effectively, and keep your approach simple and direct, so that anyone can understand what you're saying.

Tip 2:

It sound obvious, but you need to learn as much about your product as possible before you try to sell it, including its USP. You can't highlight its unique benefits if you don't actually know what these are!

Step 3: Address Objections

Once you've explained the specific benefits that your prospect will get from your product, there's a good chance that he will bring up some problems with what you're proposing.

Many people feel discouraged when this happens. But, objections can be a good thing! They're a sign that your prospect is interested in what you're saying and wants more information. By dealing with objections well, you can significantly increase your his confidence in your solution.

Objections are often based around the following:

  • Concerns over how far the product will meet needs.
  • Issues over price.
  • Resistance to moving to a new supplier or product.
  • Concerns about the product itself, or about add-ons like warranties and service-contracts.

Make sure that you listen closely when your prospect raises objections. Ask further questions to ensure that you fully understand his concerns, and take your time putting a response together.

As you work through this step, remember the principles from steps one and two, and amend your value proposition appropriately, so that you address his concerns fully.

Step 4: Negotiate

If you've done a thorough job explaining the benefits of your product and dealing with objections, then the negotiating step is really about clarifying the terms of the purchase, not making the sale itself.

This is your opportunity to develop a solution that works for both you and your prospect. Use Win-Win Negotiation or Integrative Negotiation strategies to do this.

You might also want to read our article on Thinking on Your Feet to learn how to stay cool under pressure.

If you don't feel comfortable negotiating, practice it before you meet with your prospect. Use Role-Playing with a friend or colleague to simulate the negotiation – this will give you the chance to get comfortable using different approaches.

Step 5: Asking for Business

This last step is the most important because it hopefully ends in a sale!

Before you ask for your prospect's business, check one more time to make sure that she doesn't have any other questions or objections, either about the product itself or about the terms of the purchase. If you ask for the sale too early she may not buy from you. (If she still has concerns, move back to the appropriate step in the process.)

Many people don't like to be pushed into buying something, so, instead of rushing in to close the sale in a "gung-ho" way, ask questions to get further commitment from her.

For instance, you could ask questions like:

  • Do you feel that you could work with us on this service?
  • Do you have everything you need to make a decision?
  • How can we take things forward?

Once you're sure that she is ready to buy from you, it's important that you get a final commitment by getting her to take action.

For example, you could ask her to sign a contract, or take payment details so that you can process an order.

Tip 1:

Good relationship-building is also important to sell successfully. So, take time to build trust and rapport with your prospects, where this is appropriate.

Tip 2:

Read our article on Cialdini's Six Principles of Influence for more on the factors that can help you to influence and persuade people during the sales process.

Tip 3:

Timing is key during the sales process. Don't rush people into making a decision, but don't let them "go cold" either.

Key Points

Consultative selling is an approach that revolves around understanding your potential customers' needs. You use the process by focusing on becoming a valuable resource and partner for your prospects, and by selling them a product that fits their needs.

In their book "Brilliant Selling," authors Jeremy Cassell and Tom Bird present a five-step approach to consultative selling. The steps are:

  1. Identifying needs and implications.
  2. Presenting solutions.
  3. Addressing objections.
  4. Negotiating.
  5. Asking for business.