4 principles of the consultative sales approach

Have you ever heard the phrase, “People don’t like to be sold…but they love to buy?”

The consultative sales approach reflects the truth of this statement.

In other words, customers don’t like a sale pushed on them. It only feels like the sales rep is interested in making a commission rather than actually caring about needs. Consultative selling helps to avoid this problem by being solution-based.

Consultative sales is a method of sales where your salespeople act more like advisers than salespeople and recommend solutions to potential customers based on their needs and problems.
Consultative sales approach principles
Of course, the consultative sales approach is not always appropriate. It generally applies if your audience has already done their research and now needs the proper guidance to use their knowledge and find a solution to their challenges. In-depth product/service research is normally done by a potential customer for larger, pricier purchases.

Solution based selling

Let’s say that a person wants to invest in a CRM to assist with data storage for their business. They decide to reach out to you.

The potential customer has read blogs on the topic, thought leadership pieces, and forums. They have an understanding of what constitutes a good 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 find out information on their general software stack and watch webinars, videos, and read company blog and news articles. You strive to understand everything you can about their business and needs.

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.

Here are four specific principles for the consultative sales process, designed to help you act as a trusted adviser and problem solver for your potential customers.

1. Know your potential customer

Know your potential consultative sales customer
Consultative selling is all about understanding your potential customer. The more you know, the better you can diagnose their pain points.

Consider this to be the research stage or a get-to-know-you exercise. Learn all you can about the potential customer. What problems do they have? What is their background? Does what they think they want align with their needs?

There are several ways you can attain this information. Start on a macro level, visiting LinkedIn pages to determine company size, their product or service, their audience, and specific features.

Work down to a micro level where you focus on the actual buyer. Review things like their:

  • 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, also ask the right questions about things you don’t know or understand. What is their budget? Who is the lead decision maker? How easy will it be to implement a plan suggestion?

In this stage, you should be able to determine if the potential customer is qualified or not. If they are not the right type of customer for your business, you can still be helpful in offering solutions and advice, but move on after you point them in the right direction. You don’t want to waste their time or yours by pushing a solution on them that doesn’t match their needs.

2. Listen to your potential customer’s needs

Consultative sales active listening
No two customers are alike. Their needs will, therefore, differ. Listen to what the customer says he wants, but also try to pick up on what he truly needs. Read between the lines and seek to understand.

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

Think about the following:

  • Remember that your goal is to learn more about the person
  • Summarize details to make sure you understand
  • Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues

This approach will help you actively listen with the intent to understand, not to speak.

To break this down further, let’s say you are a financial subscription business being approached by a potential customer: The individual says that he primarily wants a reporting system, but you notice during the conversation that he keeps referencing how scattered company receipts are. You determine that organization is actually 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. Go at it from the perspective that this person has done their research — your aim is to educate them on how to use the knowledge they have in the right way.

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

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

In addition to in-person or phone call 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. Again, act the role of the consultant, not the sales rep.

4. Customize your consultative approach

Customize your consultative sales approach

Similar to creating a personalized experience, customize the potential customer’s experience. This applies closer to the actual closing of the sale.

While you don’t want to shove your product/service down someone’s throat, do suggest how certain features might meet their needs. These suggestions need to be woven naturally into a conversation and not pressure the potential customer.

That said, before going into another conversation with the potential customer, consider how your product/service aligns with their needs. The fit already has to be there, but there are ways to prove to the potential 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 potential customer concrete examples of where it has worked for others in the past. Really focus on the pain points and what the customer will lose if they don’t take action.

The guiding aspect of each principle is to focus on being genuine and authentic with each potential customer. People can pick up on if you’re being fake or just focused on pushing the sale. View yourself as a trusted adviser of their team and remember that it’s not a one-sided transaction but a customer/sales rep relationship.

The consultative sales approach is not appropriate for all audiences but can shorten the sales cycle if used correctly. You can also apply these same principles to a certain extent in the regular sales process. The point is to be as customer-centric and helpful as possible.

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