Much of the traditional sales cycle has moved online, with 71% of B2B customers conducting online research for three months or more—often before they ever talk with a sales rep, according to a DemandBase survey of C-level executives.
They are reading reviews, comparing pricing models, exploring case studies and looking at analyst rankings. Additionally, 59% have formal buying groups or committees in place to review purchases.
To engage today’s highly educated buyers, sales reps need to use a different approach that involves uncovering more insights from prospects and addressing their specific needs, rather than pitching features and benefits. This approach is known as consultative selling.
Below, we offer some helpful background about the consultative sales process and how you can leverage it to close more deals.
Consultative selling is a sales philosophy that focuses on building trust and providing value for buyers before a purchase begins by taking time to understand their unique needs and illuminating their path to purchase.
Over time, successful companies have discovered that, because buyers arrive to the conversation already highly informed on the solution, it’s much more effective for a rep to act as a reliable partner than an ultimate authority.
Unlike traditional sales, where reps’ primary goal was to sell through assertive tactics, teams using consultative sales provide education and resources, and tailor their solution and process to each buyer’s unique needs. In other words, a consultative sales approach shifts the focus from the product to the customer.
Imagine this common scenario: You receive a new lead — a prospect who, according to the data within your CRM, has engaged with several pieces of marketing collateral and eventually requested a demo. After you complete the demo, follow-up, and proposal, the CRM tells you there’s a 70% chance the customer will close.
But weeks pass, and the prospect doesn’t respond. Eventually, you learn they’ve signed a contract with your competitor. How could your data be so wrong?
First of all, you’re not alone.
CEOs report pipeline forecasts are only about 50% accurate, according to Sales Benchmark Index (SBI).
And 79% of opportunity-related data collected by sales reps never makes it into their CRM, according to data shared by Affinity.
When forecasting is inaccurate, it usually has little to do with the technology. Even the most robust CRM in the world can’t produce results if you’re not inputting enough useful data.
But you can’t place all the blame on your sales reps. After all, many organizations set up their sales funnels based on workflows rooted in spotty data rather than actual buyer behavior. Sales reps are just following protocol.
Often the information used to qualify prospects is based on broad factors, such as budget and timeline. This process leaves out the crucial micro-decisions, such as what drove a prospect to seek a solution in the first place, the pressures they feel, and their objective for the project.
By engaging in a consultative sales approach, you can identify those micro-decisions and adjust your processes accordingly. And by encouraging your sales reps to enter these data into the CRM, you’ll have more consistent criteria and increased accuracy for qualifying deals in the future.
Organizations that leverage customer behavioral data outperform peers by 85% in sales growth and more than 25% in gross margin, according to data from Gallup.
To successfully shift to a fully consultative approach, you have to reconfigure your sales call plan.
Before you begin, it’s critical to recognize you are often selling to a committee rather than an individual. This means your primary contact is likely taking information back to other stakeholders, some of whom may carry more decision-making power than others. Before you dive further into the selling process, you need to ensure it addresses three buying roles:
In almost every buying committee, there is one person who has ultimate decision-making power. Usually, this person is the most senior member, and focused on high-level objectives, such as ROI. They’re less interested in what makes your offering unique, or its many technical features. When engaging this member of the committee, it’s essential you offer case studies and testimonials.
If you don’t get buy-in from the person responsible for implementing the solution, it’s going to be a much harder sell. As part of the consultative sales process, you must take time to understand the goals and duties of those handling implementation. Then, show them how your offering will help make their job more effective.
Professionals who handle the final review of contracts for risk, compliance, privacy, and security concerns have the power to stall or kill a deal in its end stages. It’s a good idea to engage anyone in this role early on to identify and resolve issues before the deal reaches the end of the decision phase.
After identifying who makes up the buying committee, it’s time to plan your sales calls. Here are four valuable tips to keep in mind as you prepare and build your consultative sales process:
In the traditional sales model, solutions are fixed, and customers are expected to adapt. In the consultative model, though, solutions are tailored to address customers’ challenges and pain points. While saying “yes” to unique (but possible) requests may make for more work at the forefront of the deal, it will help foster a longer, more lucrative relationship in the long run.
When it comes to sales calls, word choice is everything. In improv, actors use the phrase “Yes, and…” to extend a scene — and you can use the same tactic to keep a conversation moving forward. In addition to letting a customer know something is possible, use “and” as an opportunity to share another benefit.
For example, “Yes, you’ll have access to back-end reporting, and we can help you customize your own dashboard so you can visualize key metrics at-a-glance.”
It’s challenging to know exactly how you can provide solutions to customers without understanding their unique needs. Asking questions provides an open door to insights you might not have gained from simply presenting your offering. “Why?” and “how?” questions may garner a deeper response compared to questions that focus on “what?”, but all responses will differ depending on your consultative sales approach. Come prepared with queries, but keep in mind that this approach is meant to be conversational, so be prepared to adjust them as necessary.
Lying to customers isn’t just unethical — it can also cost you deals, and your reputation. As a consultant, you need to remain open and transparent with your prospects throughout the conversation. What’s more, the consultative selling process is about building rapport and trust with your potential customer. Being honest also allows you to be realistic about how your product or service can meet their goals and set expectations that you are able to deliver on.
Your prospects need to know they’re being heard, and attentive listening can help prove you’re fully engaged. After all, if you’re unaware of the pain points of a potential customer, it can be difficult to provide a solution that’s worth them taking a look at.
Two tenets of attentive listening are testing understanding and summarizing. Choose a few key points a prospect expressed and validate your understanding. Share what you understand, and allow them to clarify. Before moving on to another topic, restate what a prospect has said in one-to-two sentences.
“If you can find out what a person or company’s true need or problem is by asking the right questions and letting people speak until they tell you, then you can also be the person who offers the perfect solution.”
-Ken Kupchik, author and sales expert, in an article for the American Management Association (AMA)
Imagine you’re hosting a dinner party and need to buy several bottles of wine. At the store, you’re overwhelmed by the massive selection and approach the owner for help.
Instead of rattling off her favorite wines or immediately ringing up the most expensive bottles, she asks about your budget and the food you’ll be serving. Then she guides you around the store, recommending a few bottles at various price points. She patiently answers your questions and educates you about wine regions and aging processes.
This example of consultative selling can be applied across nearly every industry and product offering.
Another example could be collaborating on a new project proposal between your company and potential charitable partners. Instead of coming up with a list of requirements or a set roadmap that you hope will ensure support, take the time to consider the potential partner's view and purpose and whether they have engaged in projects like this in the past. From there, you can come up with relevant questions and address solutions that suit their specific needs. Building a relationship that addresses concerns rather than tries to fix them with presumptive options is part of the key to success regarding the consultative selling process.
Here’s why it works:
By asking a few key questions, the seller was able to identify precisely what the buyer needed.
Instead of pushing the buyer toward the close, they offered resources and education to ensure the buyer was fully prepared to purchase and guided them toward the next step.
The seller offered a variety of options while remaining mindful of the unique needs the buyer shared at the beginning of their conversation. This demonstrates the seller was attentively listening and helps solidify their role as a trusted consultant.
One of the most frustrating things you’ll experience as a sales professional is a stalled deal — especially when you’ve already invested a significant amount of time and energy working with a prospect. Luckily, consultative selling can help overcome this common obstacle, too.
Creating urgency with customers in an effective and genuine way requires understanding the buyer’s thinking at every point of the sales cycle. Are they under pressure to implement a new solution before the end of the year? Are there budgeting constraints that could make it more difficult for them to get approval later? The more you know about their responsibilities, industry and challenges, the more credibility you’ll have.
At first, it can seem challenging to shift your sales team toward a consultative sales approach, especially if you’re still mired in traditional practices. However, you’ll likely discover some of your best reps are already practicing elements of a consultative sales process, whether they are actively listening, developing informed questions, or saying yes and remembering the power of “and.” While these are important strides, the foundational details can make all the difference.
Here are a few critical skills you’ll need to build to set your team up for success:
Before engaging with prospects, reps need to do plenty of research. Because the consultative approach focuses on tailoring the experience to the potential customer, salespeople need to enter initial conversations with plenty of background knowledge. This will help them identify potential questions to ask and topics to cover.
Conversations are a pillar of the consultative selling process. Sales reps need to be highly skilled in starting and maintaining genuine conversations without sounding too pushy or self-serving. The better sales reps can react to their prospects’ responses, the more insights they can glean. By the way, it’s a myth that you always need to ask open-ended questions. The reality is, it doesn’t matter if the questions your sellers are asking are well-crafted and reflect preparation; if they aren’t reacting appropriately to your prospect’s responses, they will not gather information needed to make a sale.
Like most skills, attentive listening takes practice. It’s crucial reps not only know how to listen carefully, but also show prospects they understand. Attentive, or active listening helps move the conversation forward while establishing a sense of trust.
As buyer habits continue to morph and shift, consultative selling will only become more vital for your organization. By implementing this approach, you can build better, longer-lasting client relationships and boost your revenue potential.