Tired of the traditional sales approach that feels pushy and untrustworthy? If so, it's time to embrace consultative selling!
In this ultimate guide, I’ll show you the principles and strategies behind consultative selling so you can switch up your sales process to the tune of increased revenue.
Wait, What Is Consultative Selling?
Consultative selling is a customer-centric approach that builds relationships and provides value rather than simply pushing products or services. Once you understand your customer's needs, challenges and goals, you can tailor your sales pitch to address their pain points and offer personalized solutions.
Plus, it’s a fantastic way to position yourself as your client’s strategic partner instead of just being a vendor.
The business case for consultative selling is clear. We’re in a customer’s market and customers have more options than ever. They are no longer interested in being sold to; instead, they want to work with sales professionals who understand their unique needs and can provide tailored solutions.
According to LinkedIn’s 2021 report, 75% of buyers and 82% of sellers agree that the buyer’s success metrics must be aligned for successful purchases. At the same time, 65% of sellers believe they put buyers first, but only 23% of buyers actually agree.
There’s a lot of work to be done, but the good thing is that by going the extra mile, you’ll automatically position yourself more favorably than your competitors. Instead of focusing solely on price or features, you’ll show the value and knowledge you bring to the table.
8 Consultative Selling Steps (and Examples)
Suppose you’re working for a software company that offers CRM software. You’re meeting with a prospect who owns a small eCommerce business.
You could immediately pitch your CRM offer – or you could take a consultative approach:
Step 1. Understand the Prospect
Start the conversation by asking open-ended questions to learn about the customer's current challenges and objectives.
For example, you might ask, "Can you tell me more about the specific issues you’re currently dealing with when it comes to managing customer data?”
If doing consultative selling at scale, your first step will be understanding what makes your customers tick (and what ticks them off). Analyze their industry, competitors and current challenges thoroughly to build a complete picture of their needs and potential solutions.
Sometimes, you’ll do this as part of your prospecting process. Sometimes, you may hop on a call with an existing customer, network partner or another connection that can give you insights into your target audience. The more information you gather, the better equipped you will be!
Step 2. Active Listening and Rapport in Consultative Selling
Once you have gathered the necessary information, it's time to build rapport and trust. At this point, you’ll have enough information to establish common ground. If the customer isn’t yet open to speaking candidly with you, you can use the shared interests to break the ice and make them feel more comfortable opening up to you.
As the customer describes their challenges, you actively listen to their concerns and pay attention to their pain points, such as (in our example) data organization, communication with customers and sales tracking.
Now, you should be honest about what you can and can’t deliver and always follow through on your promises.
Step 3. Empathize and Clarify
With the challenges understood, you start empathizing with the customer’s situation and ask for further clarification on points that may lead to your solution.
For example, if they mention difficulties with customer communication, you might ask, "Can you give me an example of a recent challenge you had when communicating with your customers?"
Don’t get shy – ask follow-up questions to make sure you’ve understood the situation correctly. Sometimes, customers think their main problem is lead conversion when it’s qualification, so ask away until you find the root cause!
Asking probing questions also demonstrates your expertise and shows the customer that you are genuinely interested in understanding their unique circumstances. This shifts the conversation from a sales call to an active business counseling session where you’re the dedicated advisor committed to finding the best solution for their needs.
Step 4. Provide Insights
Based on what you've learned, share relevant insights, offer helpful resources and demonstrate your expertise in the customer's industry.
You might say, "It sounds like you're looking for a solution that can help you streamline customer data management and improve communication. Our CRM software is designed to address these exact issues and has helped businesses similar to yours."
Step 5. Provide a Customized Solution as Part of the Consultative Selling Process
With the insights gathered (and provided), it’s time to tailor your solution to the customer’s specific needs. This is where your expertise and industry knowledge come into play.
Based on the customer's needs and pain points, offer solutions that address their specific challenges and help them achieve their goals.
When presenting your recommendations, focus on the value and benefits they will bring to the customer. Explain how your solution solves their pain points, improves their operations or increases their revenue. Use real-life examples, case studies and data to support your recommendations and build credibility.
Remember that consultative selling is not about pushing your products or services. Instead, it's about finding the best solution for the customer, even if it means recommending a competitor's offering.
In our CRM sales example, you’d explain how you could customize the CRM to address their specific pain points.
(Bonus points if you provide a relevant demo or case study to illustrate its effectiveness.)
Step 6. Address Objections
When faced with an objection, take the time to understand the underlying concern. Ask follow-up questions to gain clarity and provide a thoughtful response. Use data, testimonials or case studies to address the objection and demonstrate your value.
However, stay calm. Understand the customer’s perspective and reestablish common ground, which you’ll then back with crucial information when you address their objections.
For example, if cost is a concern, you can discuss pricing options, return on investment and potential cost savings. You might even ask about the specific budget they’ve had in mind for this implementation and any features they definitely want to use.
Then, explain how your pricing is flexible or how the software will pay for itself. This approach addresses the objection while reestablishing common ground with the customer and presenting key information to support their response.
Step 7. Explain How You’ll Follow up and Support the Client
Don’t pitch and stick around to hear crickets.
Instead, you explain how you’ll continue to support the customer and help them transition to your CRM solution. You could even provide references or connect them with customers who have been very happy with your product.
In our CRM example, you might outline the specific next steps they’ll receive as support, including the following:
- Onboarding: “Our dedicated support team will guide your employees through the setup process and help them become proficient users.”
- Customer Support: “Our customer support team is available to assist you with any questions or issues that may arise. You can reach out to us through email, phone or our online support portal.”
- Regular Check-Ins: “Your dedicated account manager will schedule regular check-ins to assess your progress, address concerns and provide insights on how to get the most out of our CRM solution.”
- Customization: “If you have specific needs or want to further customize the software, we can work with you to make those adjustments.”
- References: “If you'd like, we can connect you with some of our satisfied customers who have experienced significant improvements in their business operations after implementing our CRM. They can share their success stories and insights.”
The ultimate message will be that you’re not there to sell them the solution today but to partner with them for the long haul.
Step 8. Close the Sale
After discussing all the details and addressing the customer's questions, ask for their commitment and offer assistance with the next steps, such as setting up a trial or making a purchase.
Double down on the value proposition of your solution and the ROI it will deliver:
- When presenting the closing pitch, reiterate the customer's pain points and connect them to how your solution addresses them.
- To demonstrate ROI, try to quantify the potential results, whether in the form of cost savings, increased revenue, improved efficiency or similar metrics.
Do you see the difference now? Instead of prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution, you approach the conversation and the sale from a holistic standpoint that makes the customer feel seen, understood and catered to.
How to Implement Consultative Selling in Your Organization
When you start implementing consultative selling, what you’re really doing is shifting the focus from your product or service to the customer’s needs. It becomes less about meeting quotas and more about meeting quotas with ideal prospects who will increase their LTV because they trust you as a partner.
Adapt Your Strategy and Sales Processes
On an organizational level, you’ll first need to assess your current sales strategy and your user base.
Evaluate your current sales processes, techniques and training to identify areas that can be modified to be more consultative.
For example, you could start by analyzing past sales data, customer feedback and the performance of your sales team. Are there consistent objections, a drop in conversion rates or customer satisfaction issues?
With the improvement areas clear, modify your existing processes to incorporate consultative selling. The new process should guide your sales team from the initial contact to closing a deal.
Secure Buy-In from Your Company Leadership
It’s impossible to do anything without the main stakeholders being on board with the changes you need to make.
Top-level management should actively support consultative selling and demonstrate their commitment. For example, they can attend training sessions and meetings and explain how consultative selling aligns with the company’s mission.
In addition to securing the necessary funds, securing buy-in will also show the rest of the company that the entire company believes in consultative selling and motivate every rep on the team to do their best.
Consultative Selling Training and Development
If your team hasn’t done consultative selling in the past, they’ll need practical training, which includes role-plays, scenarios and workshops.
At the very least, the training for consultative selling should cover:
- Active listening and empathizing with customers
- Asking probing questions
- Tailoring solutions to meet customer needs
Keep in mind that tailored solutions, if they’re not already a part of your integral offer, will need to be polished so your sales professionals know exactly where they have room for flexibility and what remains the core offer.
Take these training sessions as an opportunity to clarify your ICPs for different market segments.
For example, if you sell software, you might have personas like "Small Business Owner Sarah" and "IT Manager David." These personas help your sales team understand different persona’s challenges and goals and you can also use them to craft core offers with flexible touchpoints.
Develop Your Internal Consultative Selling Playbooks
Give your team the tools they need to succeed, especially if this is their first experience with consultative selling.
At the very least, you should provide objection-handling templates and scripts.
Make the playbook as thorough as possible, outlining specific tactics such as listening to customers’ frustrations and tailoring their responses accordingly. Similarly, you could create an objection resolution playbook.
(For more tactics, read on! I’ll cover them in depth in the next section.)
Establish KPIs and Set Goals
As with any sales approach, you’ll need KPIs to be your beacons. When it comes to consultative selling, the crucial KPIs you’ll need include the following:
- The number of meaningful customer interactions
- Conversion rates
- Customer satisfaction scores
- Average contract value
- Lifetime value
Then, decide which goals you’ll focus on. For example, you might want to go for a slower transition to consultative selling. In that case, you might aim to increase the number of meaningful customer interactions by 20% in the upcoming quarter.
Don’t Forget about Customer Feedback
Consultative selling isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it affair. Instead, create a system for gathering and incorporating customer feedback.
For example, after a sale, you could send surveys to customers to get their thoughts on the process and the solutions. Use this feedback to improve your overall approach to consultative selling, as well as the approach of every individual salesperson.
P.S. If you spot a delighted customer, don’t forget to ask for a sales referral!
The Best Consultative Selling Methods
While consultative selling is infinitely creative and dependent on what your specific audience wants to hear, there are a few methods I’ve loved through the years:
1. Stay Conversational, not Bullish
Listen, being in sales is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, our intensity often helps us pursue deals until we successfully close them. But on the other hand, the intensity can sacrifice the casualness of the conversation that makes a consultative selling prospect open up.
In short, add more subtlety.
Instead of asking, “What are your challenges when it comes to customer communications?” try something softer like: “I’m curious to hear what you struggle with the most when talking to your customers.”
Vocabulary is everything, so pay attention to how you pose certain questions and lead the conversations. See if there’s room to be less formal and more compassionate.
2. Position Insights to Reinforce Empathy
Let’s suppose the prospect is frustrated with data reporting. Instead of immediately saying: “Yep, we can tackle that for you!” and launching into your pitch, balance it out with empathetic insights.
Consider saying things like: "I can understand how dealing with data reporting can be frustrating. I was recently talking to a customer who [expand on the same issue and explain what you did to help].”
At the same time, be mindful of the ratio between the customer talking vs. you or your reps talking. Steer the conversation; don’t monopolize it.
3. Follow up Like a Professional Consultative Salesperson
Are you itching to follow up by asking if they’re ready to commit? Don’t.
Instead, put your consultant hat on and follow up with more valuable insights. For example, if you and the prospect talked about data reporting challenges, point them to a helpful resource, whether internal or external.
Show that you’ve remembered what you spoke about and are committed to making them succeed – even if you don’t land that sale.
(Coincidentally, that level of understanding is what will land you the sale.)
4. Become Knowledgeable about the Prospect’s Industry
You don’t have to be in eCommerce just because your customers are. But if you plan to use consultative selling to get more revenue, you’ll need to stay updated on the industry changes and principles. It’s the only way to position yourself as a knowledgeable resource.
If you’re in a managing position, clearly split your ICPs. Then, provide training and frequent update opportunities to your sales professionals for the industries they’re covering.
For example, if your prospects are marketing agencies, you’ll need to be familiar with the GDPR and CCPA functioning that affects how they do their business.
5. Nurture Relationships
If you’ve properly qualified your prospects, you’ll know that these are the relationships worth building. This means nurturing them with polite follow-ups initially, but it also means staying in touch with the prospects even after the sale.
For example, schedule regular check-ins to ensure the client is happy with their decision and to provide any additional support.
Go the Extra Mile with Consultative Selling
Most of your competitors only think about customers in terms of numbers. I’m not proposing you forget about your revenue targets. However, there is a strong business case for making your prospects feel valued as a way to increase your contract values.
When you make your prospects feel seen, understood and pampered, they’ll be more willing to keep you on as their partner. As they scale, this means increasing their lifetime value, securing more referrals and significantly boosting your bottom line.
So, sit down with your team and see where your opportunities to become strategic advisors lie. I’m sure you’ll find a place or two where a little empathy is exactly what the prospect ordered!