Consultative selling and selling consultatively – do not confuse them

Every once in awhile in any field it is useful to get down into the weeds – explore language, word usage, and other things that go bump in the night.

In this case, the weeds involve drawing the distinction between the term consultative selling and the concept of selling consultatively.

As starters, Mark Hanan established the branding this term in his brilliantly written book Consultative Selling – an early and extremely important work about selling consultatively. Because of the branding, Consultative Selling has become one of the “ings” in our field like: SPIN Selling, Conceptual Selling and Solution Selling?

Now, why is it worth making this point about confusion in regard to selling consultatively?

We would suggest there are at least two. One relates to the just noted language distinction; the other to an important trend in the world of buying. Let’s first look at the language point.

Language. The failure to draw the language distinction becomes important because it can be assumed that a sales model other than the branded one is not somehow as well designed for selling consultatively – and that is clearly not the case. Take, for example, SPIN Selling. The SPIN model for questioning, as well as, the other techniques in the program are fundamental for selling consultatively. We would suggest this is equally true for the best of all the modern day selling models.

In regard to this distinction point, the really important distinction is between all the models that provide help for selling consultatively and those approaches that are mainly about tips, tricks and product pitches. They are not about selling consultatively; they are basically about manipulation.

Buying trends. The second point relates to an important trend in the world of B2B buying and it is the strategic reason for making a big to-do about selling consultatively. Let’s take a look.

Recently Ian Altman published a Forbes article entitled – Top 10 Business Trends that will Drive Success in 2015.

In the article the author makes the following point when discussing trend Number 1:“customers don’t value old-school high pressure manipulative sales methods. In fact, many executives say they have decided not to select a vendor because of a negative sales experience. Customers value subject-matter experts.  As customers increasingly value subject-matter experts, salespeople need refined consultative skills.”    

In 2015 and beyond your sales team will need to be able to sell consultatively at a very high level of competency in order meet customer expectations and to differentiate you from the other guys who have gotten the message.  This means you have to be very good at the following:

Consultative Selling Skills. Today customers have changed dramatically in regard to their expectations of the role of the salesperson. They are not looking for a product facilitator. They want a trusted advisor that can help bring fresh ideas for redefining their business challenges and new insight for formulating innovative solutions. You have to be able to position the value of your solutions and company for being a business partner helping to solve business challenges. This requires competency in at least three consultative selling skill domains:

  • Fundamental consultative selling skills. These are the competencies that are addressed in those aforementioned programs. They are based on great questioning and active listening skills – the ability to determine fit between the customer’s decision specifications and preferences and your capabilities and emerging skills like: working effectively and efficiently as a member of an expert-based team and being able to leverage the new technologies for designing and delivering value-based customer interactions.
  • Second-level product knowledge. First-order product knowledge is all about features and functions. The second-order refers to the application of product knowledge to the customer’s business challenges. How do your products individually or collectively solve the problems likely to be encountered by your customer base? How do they impact productivity, risk, expense and revenue? Can you relate a customer story or describe the research that demonstrates your product does what you say it does? And can you fine-tune these narratives based on whether you are talking with a Marketing Manager or Engineer or Chief Information Officer?
  • Customer knowledge. Today, customers expect salespeople to know more their company and industry than ever before. They expect sales reps to provide new ideas, imagination, and insights to: manufacture products more quickly, improve product quality, shorten order times, or improve the customer service experience.

Consultative skills.  The second set of skills relates back to Ian’s point in the article.  Selling consultatively requires more than selling skills; it requires consulting skills. Here is a short list:

  • Subject-matter expertise.  If you are selling enterprise software, then you have to understand the technology and applications in order to bring the expertise required to help the customer solve their business challenges.
  • Business acumen.  Being able to integrate a business and economic perspective into customer interactions.
  • Adaptive thinking.  Coming up with creative and innovative solutions that are not rule-based.
  • Computational thinking.  Being able to translate vast amounts of data into useful information.
  • Transdisciplinary competency.  Knowing how to integrate knowledge and concepts across disciplines and areas of expertise.

As VPs of Sales and Sales Training Directors sit down to explore the training needs for 2015, we would suggest that meeting customer’s expectation in 2015 does indeed require your sales team to be able to sell consultatively. If one buys the notion, then the 2015 sales training for most companies needs to be more than just a little adjusting and upgrading here and there. While it is it is easy to learn tips and tricks; it is extremely difficult to learn to sell consultatively.