Sales Best Practices

A Step-by-Step Approach to Consultative Selling

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Serena Miller

Editor, Sales Best Practices

The sales industry is evolving with rising customer demands, a more competitive global market, and an enhanced focus on how each interaction impacts the buyer journey. Sales organizations must adapt their selling approach to ensure an excellent customer and employee experience — or risk losing both top talent and revenue.

But with so many different selling approaches at their disposal, sales managers often struggle to determine which one will provide the most value to reps and customers alike. Many modern organizations are turning to consultative selling, which offers a more engaging, customer-centric strategy than more traditional methods.

When implemented properly, consultative selling can help sales teams connect with customers more effectively, tailor their solutions to unique customer pain points, and ensure greater client satisfaction and retention rates.

Here, we’ll discuss everything that contributes to a strong consultative selling approach, including the step-by-step process and best practices for getting it right.

What Is Consultative Selling?

Consultative selling is a customer-focused sales approach that’s centered on personalizing each interaction in a way that resonates with your buyers. It prioritizes building strong customer relationships based on a deep understanding of individual clients’ specific pain points. Using consultative selling, reps can better understand and communicate how their company’s products and solutions will provide value to their buyers.

Consultative selling generally works best in instances where the buyer has already identified a need and has done at least some cursory research into potential solutions. For example, an operations manager of an equipment installation organization may realize their team’s process for dispatching its workers to job sites is inefficient, which is causing issues in productivity, customer service, and worker safety. After conducting some basic research, they discover that a robust field service management solution can optimize the dispatching process and boost the efficiency of their team.

From the seller’s perspective, this is a perfect opportunity to use consultative selling tactics with the prospect; first by listening to the customer’s concerns and intended outcomes, then by tweaking their messaging to differentiate the value of their field service management solution from their competitors’.

The approach is benefits both buyers and sellers for several reasons:

  • Keeps the buyer more engaged - Customers are more confident in their purchasing decisions when sellers take the time to understand their unique problems, obstacles, and objectives. Instead of treating them like just another prospect or coming across as pushy, reps offer their buyers valuable information and resources to engage their interest.
  • Ensures stronger relationships - Consumers say that trustworthiness and responsiveness in sales reps are the two most essential qualities they look for when making a purchase. Consultative selling encourages sellers to put themselves in the buyers’ shoes to build credibility and long-lasting, positive relationships.
  • Shortens the sales cycle - Building buyer trust and commitment are vital for speeding up your sales cycle, and a consultative approach helps reps do just that. Salespeople consistently demonstrate that they understand where the buyer is coming from, and offer specific, personalized solutions that help drive sales across the finish line faster.
  • Improves alignment - 69% of sales leaders report that buyers are asking about their stance on social justice, and nearly half believe this ask will increase in importance over the next two years. With consultative selling, reps take the time to research and discuss their prospects’ company culture, values, social efforts and more to ensure personable connections and better customer alignment.
  • Leads to bigger opportunities - Consultative selling requires reps to gain a deep understanding of their customers’ pain points and challenges. Through actively listening to their prospects, sellers can discover previously unrecognized need to crack into larger accounts or new markets.
  • Offers a competitive advantage - As buyers consider their options, they seek out providers who provide consistently excellent experiences and have positive reputations. In fact, 92% of people trust a word of mouth recommendation over any other type of referral, so a consultative approach — which builds brand loyalty and instills confidence — can become a valuable differentiator that gives your organization an edge over its competitors.

Consultative Selling Vs. Product-focused Selling

Traditionally, sales organizations have used a more product-focused approach throughout the sales process. But due to rapidly changing markets (which bred increased competition, better-informed buyers, and greater customer skepticism), teams had to shift their efforts to align with their buyers’ expectations and needs.

This is especially true in the B2B sales landscape, where higher price points, multiple decision makers, and complex processes call for more specialized selling methods. While product-focused selling is an adequate approach for buyers with straightforward pain points and simple use cases, a more sophisticated, personalized technique is required for today’s hyper-informed, intelligent B2B prospects.

Consultative selling 

  • Reps research and discuss each buyer’s unique challenges, objectives, and preferences
  • Sellers provide product information that’s both valuable and relevant to each prospect
  • Reps ask buyers thoughtful questions and use active listening to better understand their prospects’ perspectives
  • Reps focus on tailoring their solutions to fully align with each customer’s needs

Product-focused selling

  • Reps communicate the details and value of their product to potential buyers
  • Sellers make assumptions about buyers’ needs and objectives
  • Salespeople do the majority of the talking and often forgo collaboration with buyers
  • Reps attempt to sell their product to whomever they can, without first confirming that it’s actually the best fit

The Consultative Selling Approach

Adopting a consultative selling approach should be largely dependent upon your specific team, process, and customer base. But there are some key best practices every organization should follow for success:

Be Authentic

Buyers are smart, and they can smell phony reps from a mile away. To avoid turning prospects off before they even hear a pitch, lead with honesty and genuine curiosity. Because most reps really believe in the value of the products they sell, they can sometimes fall into seller-centric behaviors — like neglecting to listen, overtalking, or pushing unnecessary products to meet their quotas.

Sellers should instead demonstrate a sincere interest in each prospect’s distinct pain points and operate on facts rather than assumptions. It’s essential to keep interactions light and conversational, so buyers don’t feel as though they’re being pushed into making a purchase.

Above all, reps should help their prospects to find the best solution for their specific needs, even if that’s not your product. While your product might not be the right fit for one prospect, helping them to find another solution could drive them to refer your services to a peer down the line. 

Understand the Customer

People have an innate need to be seen and understood, and effective consultative selling is grounded in that fact. Using the psychology of sales, reps can trigger certain desirable emotions and reactions in their customers. They should focus on fostering a human connection, built on a deep understanding of each buyer’s point of view. 

That knowledge starts with thorough research into what your customers are looking for and how your solutions can best remedy their particular challenges. Reps should practice active listening and ask the right questions — and lots of them. Some strong questions might include:

  • What are your specific objectives?
  • What are you currently doing to reach those objectives?
  • What’s already working?
  • What needs to be fixed?
  • What qualities do you look for in a solutions provider?
  • What could a provider do to make you feel supported?
  • How do you expect your needs or objectives to change in the future?
  • How do you expect a solution to contribute to your company’s success?

Be an Authority

While it’s crucial to show prospects that you can be an accommodating solutions provider, it’s also vital to drive conversations in the right direction. Buyers want to work with confident reps who consistently demonstrate their expertise, so acting as an authority can set you apart from your less-assured competitors.

Start by building knowledge-based trust with valuable resources and content. Reps should be prepared to answer complicated buyer questions, but they also shouldn’t be afraid to admit when they’re unsure. Slick, fast-talking reps who act like they know it all don’t impress prospects; but those who are willing to acknowledge their shortcomings, find the right answer, and follow up make for strong thought-leaders who close more deals.

Consultative Selling: A Step-by-Step Process

With consultative selling, reps tweak the traditional sales process to better align with buyers’ needs before touting the value of their solution. An effective consultative process typically includes these key steps:

1. Prepare with Good Research

Customers want to purchase solutions that can address their specific concerns. Trying to sell a solution without first researching how that solution can solve a prospect’s unique challenges is often like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole; and today’s buyers are smart enough to see through generalized sales pitches and jargony presentations.

Start by conducting thorough research about each buyer to identify the actual problem. Look into the prospect’s industry, their competitors, and the solutions they’ve already implemented. Ask questions, speak with existing customers who have similar use cases, and determine how to thoughtfully position your product. Then, you can use that information to connect with the buyer on a more personal level.

2. Engage the Customer

Once you’ve got your foot in the door with a prospect, it’s time to start building a rapport that will engage their interest. Sure, personalized emails or LinkedIn messages are a good jumping-off point, but your sellers will likely find more success by focusing on buyer sentiment.

Some modern sales engagement platforms make it easy to detect the sentiment behind each interaction, with analysis tools that clearly categorize buyer intent. With those deep insights, your team can better understand how their efforts resonate with prospects, then adjust their strategy to boost engagement. It’s a data-backed way to consistently improve their consultative selling practice and create workflows that nudge customers through the sales pipeline.

3. Diagnose the Problem

You can’t fix something without first identifying the problem. Sellers should take the time to ask specific, targeted questions that help them pinpoint each customer’s obstacles. They should practice active listening and resist the urge to talk up their solution before fully understanding each pain point. Remember: If they’re too quick to make a recommendation, prospects can start to feel as though they’re being sold something they don’t actually need.

Once reps have dug deep to unearth the problem, they can begin to craft a better-positioned solution. Value propositions that are deeply rooted in your buyers’ specific concerns can help them more clearly see how your solution will lead to their intended outcomes. Thus, it’s vital for sellers to thoroughly outline how each product feature will contribute to those outcomes.

4. Present Findings

Once a seller has gathered their research, built a solid foundation with their prospect, identified the problem, and determined the right solution, they should have everything they need to confidently present their findings. Instead of offering up a pre-established, cookie cutter pitch, they can create a unique presentation that’s fully tailored to the buyer’s individual concerns.

It’s important for reps to demonstrate that they really heard the prospect and took any previous discussions into account as they built their pitch. They should show the buyer exactly how the solutions they’re recommending can impact their business, and continue to listen as the buyer reacts.

5. Guide Customers to a Decision

Unlike other selling methods, a consultative approach treats buying decisions as a collaborative process rather than a singular push to the finish line. Reps should be both patient and assertive, and manage their customers’ objections with confidence and certainty.

More likely than not, this step in the process will be a back-and-forth dance, but well prepared sellers shouldn’t be discouraged. They should lean on the relevant information they’ve collected thus far — along with the rapport they’ve taken the time to build — to guide the prospect through to close.

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Consultative Selling in Action

To get an even clearer idea of how consultative selling might work in the real world, let’s walk through our example from earlier; wherein a B2B field service management software provider seeks to resolve the dispatching issues of an equipment installation company:

1. The Research Phase

    Before the rep can even determine whether or not their solution will be a good fit, they must first understand the prospect’s challenges and objectives. The seller would dig into the equipment installation business’s website, LinkedIn, and other available materials to uncover the basics.

    Then, they’d try to discover which types of technology the prospect is already using to fulfill their dispatching needs. They might find that the company is already using a competitor’s field service management software or that they’re still using manual dispatching methods that leave much to be desired.

    Once they’ve captured all the information they can, it’s time to use it to their advantage as they connect with the prospect in the next step.

    2. Customer Conversations

    Armed with some strong preliminary information, the seller next reaches out to the prospect. If they’re using robust sales engagement software that offers sentiment analysis, they can easily see how the prospect reacts to that initial outreach, then adjust their next engagement as needed.

    For example purposes, we’ll say the prospect — an operations manager at the company — responds with some interest. Using the consultative selling method, the seller would ask the operations manager some key questions about their dispatching process, which might include:

    • How effective is your current dispatching process?
    • What are some challenges that impact the process?
    • What types of solutions is your company currently using to support the dispatching process?
    • What is already working well?
    • How does your current dispatching process contribute to the successes and failures of your business?
    • What would a strong dispatching process look like at your organization?

    The rep would be sure to listen to each answer carefully and ask follow-up questions that help them get an even clearer understanding of the customer.

    3. Uncovering the Problem

    After several conversations with the operations manager, the rep is able to accurately pinpoint what’s going wrong in the dispatching process. They discover that the equipment installation company is still using a manual dispatching process, which makes it extremely difficult to effectively prioritize jobs, route their workers from one job to the next, and communicate while in the field. And because of these dispatching inefficiencies, the prospect’s company is struggling to maintain worker productivity and boost customer satisfaction.

    The rep now sees exactly how their field service management software can ameliorate the customer's pain points. They can tie several product features directly to the operations manager’s desired outcomes, and can therefore begin to build a strong, personalized value proposition.

    4. Delivering Insights

    The seller is now ready to share their detailed diagnosis and suggested solutions with the operations manager, as well as with any other relevant decision maker(s) at the equipment installation company. They pull together an educational presentation which includes helpful resources, a demonstrative understanding of key pain points, and — ideally — information about how the products have helped similar types of businesses.

    The rep outlines how the robust features of their field service management software (like real-time GPS data, optimized routing, and automated job scheduling) can eliminate inefficiencies in their team’s dispatching process. They show exactly how those features will translate into improved productivity, customer service, and communication for an ultimately better bottom line.

    5. Decision Time

    As is the case for the majority of prospects, the equipment installation company doesn’t simply say “yes” and sign on the dotted line immediately following the rep’s pitch. They ask questions about pricing, how the solution might integrate with their existing tech stack, a potential deployment timeline, and more.

    But the seller is patient and handles each question and objection with empathy and confidence. They follow up on each discussion in a timely manner, and — after several weeks of negotiations, collaborative conversations, and resource sharing — closes the deal. Not only has the seller gotten one step closer to reaching their quota; they’ve also built a strong, lasting connection with their new customer, who knows they can rely on as a trusted solutions provider.

    Tips and Techniques

    To shift your team’s focus to be more aligned with the consultative approach, start by nailing down some of these basic techniques:

    • Use facts, not assumptions - Reps are often conditioned to operate based on some common assumptions they may have about certain types of buyers, industries, or roles. But this hinders their ability to truly listen, react, and adjust their sales approach and solution based on each individual. Instead, they should first gather all the facts possible from the prospect, then build their selling strategy based on those details.
    • Let the feedback guide your process - Implementing a collaborative, consultative practice means being open to all feedback. Sellers should encourage their prospects and existing customers to provide feedback at every step of the buying journey, then take that feedback to heart. It’ll help them fine-tune their process, messaging, and the customer experience moving forward.
    • Use a lot of qualifiers - Using qualifiers throughout each sales interaction can help reps better understand their customers’ perspectives. Qualifying questions (e.g. “what problem are you looking to solve?”; “what could prevent us from working together?”; “when do you plan to make a decision?”) show that reps are truly engaging with and listening to customers rather than interrogating them until they make a purchase.
    • Use Mutual Action Plans - Mutual action plans (MAPs) are documents that act as a clear framework for collaborative success. Sellers should use them to properly outline and communicate expectations, timelines, and priorities with customers across the entire buying process. That way, everyone is on the same page and customers are fully engaged with the process.

    Take Consultative Selling to The Next Level

    A consultative selling approach can help reps better engage their customers, build stronger relationships, and close more deals at a faster pace. But implementing consultative sales can be a time-consuming, burdensome challenge if your team isn’t supported by the proper tools.

    The Outreach Sales Execution Platform removes tedious, manual, non-selling tasks — like note taking and setting follow-up reminders — so sellers can better focus on their customers’ needs during critical discovery calls and meetings. With deal management solutions that offer conversation intelligence and transparent mutual action plans.

    Learn more about how investing in the right tools can help bolster your team’s consultative success, or request a demo today.