4 principles of the consultative sales approach

Have you ever heard Jeffrey Gitomer’s insight that “People don’t like to be sold—but they love to buy?”

Customers don’t like to feel pressured into purchasing anything. A pushy sales rep appears more concerned with making a commission than helping the customer.

Consultative selling avoids this by being solution-based and customer-centric. Essentially, the goal is to build positive relationships with customers by helping them solve their problems, whether through your product or someone else’s.

What exactly is consultative sales?

Consultative sales is a specific sales approach where reps act more like advisers than salespeople and recommend solutions to potential customers based on their needs and problems.

Put more concisely, it’s the process of selling a solution, not a product.

Of course, the consultative sales approach is not always appropriate. It generally applies if your customer has already done basic research on products or solutions but isn’t sure which solution is the right one for them.

In this case, the first contact with a customer generally occurs in the middle of their customer journey, rather than at the beginning. And while this may seem like an unlikely scenario, the growing availability of and access to online resources mean the consultative sales approach is becoming more relevant than ever.

Consultative selling at-a-glance

Because product information, solutions, reviews, and resources are readily available to consumers online, sales reps are having a harder time managing the customer conversation.

The consultative sales approach helps sales reps meet customers where they currently are in their customer journey, ensuring the interaction is both valuable and profitable.

In order for this approach to be effective, however, reps must first develop a thorough understanding of the customer and their needs.

  • Actively listen to your customer.
  • Ask your customer questions about their brand, pain points, challenges, current solutions, and needs.
  • Be objective.
  • Focus on solutions, rather than products or features.
  • Demonstrate a thorough understanding of your customer and their needs.
  • Provide information and valuable resources to your customer (without asking for anything in return).
  • Offer a solution that fits those needs, whether it’s your product or not.

Let’s look at an example of how this approach would apply to a potential sales scenario.

The consultative sales process in action

A business wants to invest in a CRM to assist with data storage and is considering your software. They reach out to you.

The potential customer has read blogs on the topic, downloaded thought leadership pieces, and participated in online forums. They understand what constitutes an efficient and effective CRM but aren’t exactly sure it would fit with their overall company strategy. That’s where you come in.

You ask specific questions to learn more about how they plan to use a CRM. You strive to understand everything you can about their business and their needs by watching their webinars and reading their company blog and news articles. You gather details about their existing software stack.

You then use your expertise to create a plan or offer suggestions to successfully incorporate a CRM and help them make the best decision for their business. In this scenario, the best decision for the customer’s business may not be your company’s CRM.

But that’s okay. Remember, consultative sales is about selling a solution, not a product. At the end of the day, the goal is to provide true value to and develop a strong relationship with the customer. Succeed at this goal, and it’s more likely that customer will come to you with their future business needs and refer you to others.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the four principles of consultative sales.

1. Ask the right questions to understand your customer’s needs

Know your potential consultative sales customer
Your customers are well aware of their own challenges. Your job is to determine whether or not what those customers think they need actually aligns with what they really need. Knowing how to ask the right questions is key to diagnosing the root cause of your customer’s challenges and, ultimately, suggesting the solution that’s right for their business.

Start your research on a macro-level, visiting your customer’s LinkedIn page to determine their company size, their product or service, and their target audience. Work down to a micro-level and learn about your customer as an individual by reviewing his or her:

  • Social media account
  • Personal blog
  • Personal LinkedIn page
  • Company news on the individual
  • Specific page visits and time visited (ask your marketing department for this information)

During initial conversations, find out how much your customer has budgeted for a solution and what resources will be available to them throughout the process of implementing that solution. This information will be key to ensuring whatever solution you recommend is both viable and appropriate for your customer’s specific needs.

At this stage, you may determine that your company’s product or solution is not the right fit for the customer. If this is the case, you can still offer solutions and advice, but move on after you point them in the right direction.

2. Use active listening to read between the lines

Consultative sales active listening
Every customer’s needs are different. Listen to what the customer says they want, but also try to pick up on what they need. Read between the lines and seek to understand.

The best way to be an active listener is to apply the 80/20 Rule of Communication. Spend 80% of your time listening and only 20% of your time speaking:

  • Learn more about the person.
  • Summarize details to make sure you understand.
  • Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues.

Let’s say you are a financial subscription business being approached by a potential customer: The individual says that they primarily want a reporting system, but you notice during the conversation that they keep referencing how scattered company receipts are. You determine that organization is the primary need.

Being an active listener will help you understand a potential customer’s motives for buying and how you can best assist them.

3. Educate your potential customer

solution based consultative selling
This is different from educating potential customers about your product or service. The type of information that you want to share at this point is more industry-related.

You have the expertise — use it. You are teaching the prospective customer how to make an educated decision. Assume that this person has done their research — your aim is to educate them on how to use what they already know.

Here are a few helpful things you can provide a potential customer:

  • Related examples from your experience
  • A plan for tackling their challenge
  • Suggestions for addressing related problems

In addition to in-person or phone conversations, you can also share this type of information through webinars, videos, and reports. While you don’t want to share everything you know, your goal is to be as helpful as possible. Act as a consultant, not a sales rep.

4. Customize your consultative approach

Customize your consultative sales approach

As you get closer to closing a sale, focus on customizing the customer’s experience.

Because you don’t want to pressure that customer to purchase your CRM, naturally suggest how certain features might meet their needs over the course of a conversation.

To prepare to do this, identify how your product/service meets that customer’s needs. Prove to the customer that investing in your company is worth it. Answer these types of questions:

  • How can I tweak what I’m offering to match the customer’s needs specifically?
  • Can we provide an additional product/service package?
  • Can we offer a certain discount or promotion?

Highlight the answers to these questions in your conversation and give the customer concrete examples of where it has worked for others in the past. Focus on what the customer will lose if they don’t take action.

The key to consultative sales: Be authentic

The guiding principle is to focus on being genuine and authentic with each potential customer. Try to view yourself as a trusted adviser to your customer’s team (a consultant) rather than an outside sales rep. Remember, consultative sales is not about making a one-sided transaction; it’s about building a positive, mutually beneficial, and long-lasting customer relationship.

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