Consultative selling is an approach to sales that is centered around the customer and their needs.
Contrary to a more traditional sales approach (sometimes known as “transactional selling”), consultative selling shifts the focus away from the product’s features and benefits, and instead focuses on asking customers open-ended questions, building trust with them, and tailoring the product offer around their unique pain points.
While this methodology is sometimes considered “untraditional,” many salespeople actually find that the process comes more naturally to them than a standard sales pitch. Becoming skilled in consultative selling is simply a matter of understanding the concept and practicing the process — all of which we’ll go over in this article.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What is consultative selling?
- What is the consultative selling process?
- Examples of consultative selling
- Consultative selling strategies for success
What Is Consultative Selling?
The term might sound trendy, but don’t write it off as a buzzword — when used correctly, consultative selling is a really effective sales method. It’s especially successful for big ticket deals. Consultative selling can help you:
- Qualify more leads, more efficiently
- Create authentic, trusting, mutually beneficial relationships with clients (which leads to lots of repeat business and referrals)
- Seamlessly solve clients’ problems and help drive their businesses forward
In today’s digital age, customers have access to more information than ever. Researching, comparing, and crowdsourcing reviews can all be done quickly and easily online. As a result, salespeople are interacting with potential customers much later in the sales process than in decades past. In fact, many customers are making purchasing decisions without ever needing to speak to a salesperson at all.
That means that when a sales professional does eventually connect with a potential customer, it’s critical that they can meet the needs of the customer exactly where they are in their buying journey.
The sales rep needs to be able to speak very specifically to the needs of the client, and show a genuine investment in helping them succeed.
This is where consultative selling really shines, because the process is all about building rapport and earning your client’s trust. The goal of this approach is not to push your product onto the customer, and they take it or leave it — but instead, to ask thought-provoking questions, empathize with their concerns, and allow them to steer the decision-making process.
What Is the Consultative Sales Process?
Don’t worry — the process is pretty straightforward and even somewhat enjoyable to learn! Over time, and with practice, each step will feel more natural (and we’re willing to bet the results will speak for themselves).
Let’s take a closer look.
Step 1: Research (and Then Research Some More)
Of course, researching your potential client’s company is a no-brainer, and should be a key aspect of any sales approach. Spend time on their company website, LinkedIn, and social media. Check out their online reviews. You might even gather some intel about their competitors to see what sets them apart. These tidbits are all important, and will help you build important foundational knowledge about the customer.
From a consultative selling lens, consider going one step further and researching the client’s field as whole. For example, let’s say you have a call scheduled with a freight forwarding company. In this field, rates and regulations fluctuate regularly, so being able to craft an offer around up-to-date market conditions will really set you apart from your competition.
It may sound silly, but a consultative seller is a bit like a therapist. A therapist’s job is to listen carefully to your concerns, learn about your history and background, and use both of those things to create a custom treatment plan. A good therapist would never just write a generic prescription and call it a day — you would likely fire them if they did so. Their job is to learn as much about you as they can, so that they can tailor and target the treatment they provide. The more the therapist knows about your motivations, fears, and current and past events in your life, the better they’re able to help you push through barriers and solve problems.
Thankfully, your job as a consultative sales rep is a lot less personal! No need to swap sixth grade horror stories, but the client should walk away feeling heard, understood and like you have a keen interest in helping them. Effective research will help you get there.
Step 2: Ask (the Right) Questions
Most consumers can spot a sales pitch from a mile away — stay away from questions that are poorly-designed segways into your product. Nobody likes being sold to.
And while you’re at it, get rid of anything that can be answered with “yes” or “no.”
Instead, opt for open-ended questions. The idea here is to (respectfully, and sensitively) get the client to dig into their own pain points. Ideally, you want to hear them talk about their hopes and dreams, successes and failures.
This can sometimes feel intrusive for some salespeople, and it can take some trial and error to find the right tone. But as long as you remain respectful and professional, try not to worry about overstepping — it’s human nature to want to talk about yourself, and most clients will jump at the chance to talk about their business to someone who shows interest in listening.
Here are some open-ended questions to try on your next consultative sales call:
- Tell me about what you’re looking to accomplish.
- What challenges have you faced in the past when trying to accomplish this?
- Have you tried to solve this problem in the past? How did it go?
- What worries do you have about facing this challenge?
Follow-up questions are also super helpful, and can often get even the toughest nuts to crack open (where appropriate, of course — remember to be genuine and only ask questions when it makes sense to do so).
Here are some follow-up questions:
- I heard you say X. Can you tell me more about that?
- Why do you think that is?
- What is your thought process behind X?
- Is there anything we haven’t discussed yet that you’d like me to understand about your business needs?
Notice that these questions are open-ended, probing (but not overly personal), and — most importantly — entirely focused on the customer. Asking the right questions will build trust and an eagerness to move forward.
Tip: Always be in the know of what’s working and what’s not in your sales process — Yesware gives you the tools you need to understand buyer behavior — right from your Outlook or Gmail inbox.
Step 3: Active Listening
Heads up — this part is deceptively tricky, and probably more nuanced than you think.
The first (and easy) part: try to listen at least twice as much as you talk. Pretty straightforward and easy to achieve with a little willpower and practice.
The next part, however, is often overlooked. Many salespeople claim to be great listeners, but the reality could not be farther from the truth.
“Listening” the way we’re talking about here isn’t just about hearing the client’s answers and coming up with a response on the fly.
The kind of listening we’re talking about is a bit more involved. It requires:
- Hearing what the client is saying
- Showing a genuine interest in understanding their concerns
- Quickly synthesizing what they’re saying with what you already know, and using both pieces to read between the lines
- Problem-solving directly within the sales conversation
Being an active listener is actually pretty simple, and most people practice this skill (perhaps subconsciously) with the people they’re closest to. For better or for worse, somewhere along the line the traditional sales model adopted a pushier and less personal approach — which is why active listening within a sales context can feel a bit unnatural. But a little practice goes a long way!
Here are some tips for active listening:
- Paraphrase the customer’s needs. Remember, people love to talk about themselves. They also love to listen to other people talk about them (as long as what they’re saying is positive or validating, of course). That’s what makes paraphrasing such a powerful tool; it speaks to the client’s highest priority (themself/their business), and it shows that you understand and have an interest in their concerns.
- Use body language to communicate. It might feel a little bit over the top at first, but paying attention to your posture, being intentional with facial expressions, and utilizing other nonverbal cues (like nodding while the other person is speaking) can go a long way in helping the client feel heard.
- Add value where possible. If you hear a client describe a problem that you know how to solve — go ahead and problem-solve with them! Even if the solution is not directly related to your product, you should always be looking for an opportunity to help or advise the potential customer. This sentiment goes a long way in helping them feel like you’re there to help them find solutions, not just close a deal. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it here — remember, your product is valuable and deserves to be treated as such. But sharing select expertise at no cost is a great way to earn client trust. We’ll go over this tactic more in the next section.
The bottom line? Listen with the intent to understand.
Step 4: Inform/Collaborate
The consultative selling approach is all about solving problems for the potential customer. You are the expert on your product; use that expertise to your customer’s advantage. Share what you know, when appropriate — but make sure you share in such a way that won’t eliminate the need for the customer to eventually hire you.
In some cases, this might mean offering knowledge. It could also mean coming up with a strategy on the fly, or even providing referrals that aren’t directly related to your product. In other words, don’t shy away from sharing something that’s helpful, related, and valuable — but try to do so without giving away the product or service for free.
When done properly, taking on the role of consultant or advisor before you’re technically hired as such will pay off. Think of it like giving a free sample at the grocery store; if you’re confident in your offer, let them have a taste. Chances are, they’ll want the whole package.
This step is also where you can begin speaking directly to your product or service, but take care to avoid the standard old list of features or benefits. Instead, craft your talking points specifically around the concerns the client has already shared with you. If one of the features of your product is integration with Gmail, but your client uses Outlook, skip that part. The feature may be great — maybe even the top-selling point — but bringing it up will make the client feel like you haven’t listened at all.
Between your research, questioning, and active listening, you will have created a client puzzle, of sorts. But the puzzle is missing just a few pieces. Those missing pieces are their pain points. Your job is to take your product, and shape it into the exact shape of those missing puzzle pieces for your client.
Step 5: Close
In an ideal world, all of your deals would close seamlessly after all of that listening and understanding and solution-providing. In reality, though, that won’t always be the case. You may or may not close the deal at the end of the conversation.
And that’s okay.
Consultative selling isn’t about how many deals you close in a week, or how much each contract is worth. You need to be in it for the long game — remember, the point is not the product, but the relationship. Your success should be measured in how well you were able to meet your client’s needs.
The biggest mistake most salespeople make with this approach is trying to close too soon. The reality is, it takes a while to close:
The close should feel natural and mutually beneficial — if it doesn’t, it’s not the right time to close. Either it’s not a good fit in general (that’s okay too!), or the prospect needs more time.
In that case, be patient. Feel free to follow up with a friendly and professional email, but leave the last-minute sales pitch out. Instead, briefly recap the conversation and let the client know that your door is always open for further discussion.
Many times, the decision-maker simply needs time to consider the offer and will end up moving forward. And even if you don’t end up closing the deal, you’ve now formed a solid professional relationship that could always become fruitful in the future.
3 Examples of Consultative Selling
The process is simple, but can take some practice. Here are a few examples of consultative selling in action. Notice that there are a variety of outcomes — this approach doesn’t always take a Point A to Point B route, but it does always end up with a very happy customer.
1. A Simple Tip Goes a Long Way
An energy-based SaaS company is working with a large city to cut their municipal buildings’ energy costs. The client approaches the seller with the belief that they would need to re-outfit their buildings with an entirely new electrical system.
Through effective questioning, the sales rep learns that the city is losing a large chunk of money by over-utilizing their hot water heater during peak usage times — a problem that could easily be solved by simply shifting their bulk usage time by an hour. The sales rep offers this advice (for free, and independent of the service the client requested) and then goes on to speak on additional tactics and savings that could be achieved through a handful of their programs. He also speaks to the pros and cons of re-outfitting the electrical system as originally requested by the client.
As he presents the various programs, he speaks directly to the concerns shared by the client earlier in the conversation. This helps the client feel heard, helped, and in control, leading him to eventually opt in to two of the services suggested by the rep before re-outfitting the buildings.
2. Overdeliver by Underselling
A small business blog was struggling to make sense of their engagement data. The blogger reached out to a conversion optimization agency for help, her main concern being her excessively high bounce rate. She approached the agency with the intention of utilizing their copywriting and web design services to hopefully entice people to stay longer on her page.
Although the blogger had already accurately pinpointed her issue — the bounce rate — the salesperson asked some follow-up questions.
- What were her thoughts on the copy, as it was currently? Did she like it, or did she think it could be better?
- Was she happy with her current web design?
- Did she know what people were doing once they got to her blog — were they scrolling at all? Getting stuck somewhere?
These were questions that the sales rep could have easily forgone. Instead, he dug a little deeper to get a full picture. The conversation was an easy back-and-forth and somewhat off-the-cuff, going with the flow until all bases were covered.
In learning that the blogger really didn’t want to hire another web designer or copywriter — she was quite happy with the current design, and believed that her writing should be authentically her own — the sales rep suggested leaving the web design and copy as-was, at least in the short term.
Instead, he suggested that the blogger use their heat map analysis service for a month to further diagnose the bounce rate problem. The blogger agreed, and in turn learned that about 60% of her visitors were experiencing pop-up problems immediately upon arriving at her page. Problem solved!
While this may not seem like an outright win for the sales rep, it actually couldn’t have gone better from a consultative sales perspective. The rep didn’t “close the deal” — he didn’t sell the more expensive copywriting or web design services — but he did build rapport, and a really solid foundation for a trusted client/provider relationship.
The blogger now knows that this agency truly has her success in mind, and also cared enough to ask about and honor her personal preferences for her business. It’s highly likely this customer will consult with the agency for all of her future marketing needs.
3. Expertise Is Priceless
An Amazon FBA seller reached out to a manufacturer for a quote for a new product he was hoping to launch. Before providing the requested quote, the manufacturer asked the Amazon seller where he planned to sell the product, and what the product market currently looked like. In hearing the market conditions, the supplier was able to recommend an easily-sourced bonus product that could be added at very little extra cost.
The supplier was also able to provide a couple of case studies of other sellers who had done the same, which increased their sales significantly.
Imagine the impression this “sales call” made on the Amazon seller. It would have been much easier for the supplier to crunch the numbers, put the quote in front of the client, and hope for the best.
Instead, with just a couple of simple, open-ended questions, he showed the client:
- He’s highly knowledgeable about the market
- He’s genuinely interested in seeing the seller succeed
- He has great business sense, and could potentially be a valuable asset to the seller’s business
It would be hard to imagine a scenario in which this client didn’t move forward with this particular manufacturer.
3 Consultative Selling Strategies for Success
Keep these tips in mind to hone in on your consultative selling strategies!
1. Be Curious
Remember to aim for open-ended questions. This is an instance in which immediate digital access to information presents a challenge — what kinds of questions can you reasonably ask someone, when you can find the answer to just about any of them online?
The key here is curiosity. Behave like an investigator, not an interviewer. Instead of asking questions to check boxes, consider asking questions that don’t have right or wrong answers. Your job is to synthesize the information, read between the lines, and pinpoint the problem — and then craft your offer as the solution to their highly unique circumstances.
2. Be Authentic
As we mentioned, it goes a long way in the eyes of your client to be an expert. You want them to see you as an authority on not only your product, but also the field in general. And offering value, as we discussed above, is a great way to do that.
But offering your expertise can be a slippery slope. If you go too heavy on “expert,” you run the risk of seeming too authoritative, too braggy, or — worst of all — a phony.
The antidote to these pitfalls? Be authentic. Both in acknowledging the pain points and in wanting to solve them.
Be authentic in your offer to share some knowledge at no cost. Be authentic in the conviction that you are your clients’ trusted consultant, and that you have their best interest in mind — even those of your clients who still fall in the “potential” category.
Remember, the consultative sales approach requires more time and patience than the more traditional methodology. It’s easy to get invested in every relationship — that’s the nature of the process.
Following up with your potential customers will maximize the effort you put into each relationship. Yesware makes it incredibly easy to follow up with all of your clients in a personalized, prompt, and streamlined way.