THE POWER OF CONSULTATIVE SELLING
Win the client through consulting, not giving advice
Since the 1970s, business consultants have been spreading the gospel of consultative selling. According to that gospel, if you position yourself as the purveyor of solutions, you will capture sales, make friends and reap rewards for many days.
While that’s not inaccurate, consultative selling is often misunderstood. I’ve seen more than a few producers equate “consult” with “advise.” Their brand of consultative selling amounts to going in and telling the prospect
what he or she ought to be doing, then adding, “Oh, and by the way, my product/service does exactly that.”
Consultative selling is less about advising and more about helping.
In true consultative selling, the sales professional creates an experience in which both parties—seller and
prospect—undertake problem-solving together. It’s an experience built on sincerity and early trust. It’s established with dialogue and characterized by a spirit of one person seeking to help the other accomplish something important.
Setting the tone
Sales professionals create such an experience in two ways: by leveraging their gifts and by developing a core set of other abilities that uniquely equip them to be of service.
Leveraging gifts is easy. Each of us has talents and strengths that can be tapped when we call on prospective clients. The gift of humor, the gift of empathy, the gift of technical or industry expertise—whatever you have, you
must harvest it when you engage with the person sitting across from you in a sales call. The prospect will begin to see you for who you are—and when that happens, you take the first step toward building a relationship. But it’s not enough to tap that innate talent. You must develop other abilities that give you the power to create
real value for your prospect. Having worked with dozens of producers and sales teams, I’ve identified three core
abilities that, when combined with a salesperson’s individual gifts, create a genuine consultative experience that
consistently leads to a positive result.
Preparing through study
First is the ability to study. Effective studying goes beyond a Google search that yields a few quick facts. It involves deeper preparation. You must picture what it’s like to be in the chair of the prospective
client—envisioning the challenges, anticipating the questions, imagining the reality. This kind of preparation involves delving into research, examining industry trends, studying recent developments at the prospective company, and understanding the prospect’s individual roles and responsibilities.
But it’s not enough to do the homework. Developing the ability to study also requires self-examination, as well as
studying your own habits and behaviors to ensure that they work to your advantage, not to your detriment. Practice your eye contact, so that you never look away when asked a question. Eliminate personal distractions—the pen you unconsciously click, the bracelet you absently twirl. Acknowledge your own attitudes and emotions so that you can keep them in check when conversations move into certain territories.
Preparing meaningful questions
Advanced study of content (and self) forces you to envision the sales call, and when that happens, questions will come to mind. This is good, because the ability to ask meaningful questions is the second component of true
The operative word here is “meaningful.” The staple questions of a sales call—“Who’s your current agent?” and “What are you now paying?”—have their place, but that place is after you’ve engaged in a true dialogue with
your prospect. So the questions you prepare must guide you into an open dialogue, during which you will uncover areas of need and points of pain.
These are connecting questions, open-ended inquiries that engage the prospect and fuel discussion. The first of
the weather, sports, that photograph on the wall. They may be these are simple forays into common ground—
followed by more personal (though not prying) kinds of questions about the enterprise and your prospect’s
involvement in it: “Tell me about how you came to work here.” Or: “What about the industry has changed the most since you joined [Company name]?”
Each question opens a door to another. Through each door, you make your way to the day-to-day reality of your prospective client. You’re not working through a list of interrogatories; you’re seeking information and following up. In your forward-looking questions, use this key phrase: “Tell me.” “Tell me about your company’s growth plans. Are new initiatives in place for this year or beyond? Tell me more.”
During this conversational journey, it’s crucial that you pay close attention to the energy of your prospective client. Is he or she enjoying the dialogue? When the prospect’s interest seems to wane, move on to the next
Paying attention to the prospect’s energy leads to that third core ability needed for consultative selling: the ability to actively listen.
There’s a profound difference between simply listening to your prospect and actively listening. Mere listening is
hearing what is being said. Active listening involves interpretation and taking steps to collaborate with the speaker. It requires you to observe the behavior of the speaker, pick up on nonverbal cues, and become attuned to feelings or emotions.
Eliminating personal distractions, as noted above, provides the focus that’s needed for active listening. This focus is further sharpened when you summarize, paraphrase or suggest examples about what your prospect is saying. The prospect is glad to be heard, but there’s a benefit to you as well: When you actually speak what you hear, you begin to embrace its meaning. And when you do that, you’re well on your way to partnering with your prospect.
The right mode
Studying, asking meaningful questions, actively listening—these abilities seem so elementary, so obvious. For
some of us, they are the natural gifts we can leverage. For others, they’re more elusive. Why is that?
One reason is lack of time. The pressure to deliver sales results puts us in constant overdrive. We mistakenly believe that the more we do quickly, the more likely we are to get a result. But this kind of pace invariably pushes us into transaction mode. Producers who spend more time on fewer prospects are far more likely to build relationships and gain an understanding of the prospect’s needs and aims.
Another factor is the sales culture. Sales cultures are fast-moving, sometimes free-wheeling. Producers often thrive on the adrenaline that comes from the volume of BlackBerry messages and phone calls—go, go, go.
Sales become transactions. To sell with authenticity, you must get out of transaction mode and get into thoughtful mode.
The most effective producers I’ve seen are those who have mastered the ability to sell consultatively. They leave
their agenda and their ego at the door. They care about helping and serving their prospective clients. They conduct deep study, ask meaningful questions and actively listen. As a result, they’re able to close the space
between problem and solution.
It’s easy to be transactional. It’s much harder to be consultative. But the results are much more rewarding—for
you and your prospect.
Demmie Hicks is president and CEO of DBH Consulting, a firm that helps insurance distribution companies grow and sustain their growth. She has provided management consulting, growth strategies, and sales and marketing expertise to the insurance industry for more than 20 years.