Back in the 1980’s it was common for sales professionals to constantly opine the all-too-jaded mantra “always be closing.” Decades on these words could not be more unwelcome in the world of consultative, high-value solution selling! In fact, these days the mantra has been updated to “always be opening.” It is almost impossible to grasp the enormity of this change. Quite simply if we are always in a “closing” mindset with our clients we run the risk of shutting our conversations down far too quickly.
But if we should adopt an “opening” mindset then what is the best way of guiding the conversation in the right direction, without making our prospects feel interrogated, or indeed going round-and-round in pointless circles with them?
It is an undeniable fact that truly “consultative” sales professionals are characterised by certain beliefs and behaviours that set them apart from the rest. One of these is a firm conviction that the selling process is a two-way conversation in which the buyer should be fully engaged at all stages from beginning to end. The inherent stress in the conventional buyer-seller relationship is minimised, if not completely removed, as both became partners seeking to craft a solution to a problem.
One of the other key characteristics is a preference for showing the benefits of their offerings rather than telling. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of watching any of the BBC’s seemingly endless round of Victorian costume dramas will have noticed the character of the market place “barker” a sort of Artful Dodger type, who stands on a hastily erected platform crying out words such as: “Roll up, roll up, finest crockery for sale, unbeatable value, buy now five shillings off, you won’t regret it!”.
It’s tempting to think that this telling style has been consigned to the dustbin of history but sadly not. Anyone who has ever been spammed by an anonymous cold caller (during which the sales person demonstrated little or no actual knowledge or even interest in your needs) or a hastily cut-and-paste email with a list of random “features and benefits” has in a sense fallen foul of a modern-day Victorian “barker.”
So, if we really want to adopt a fully consultative style of selling what is the best way of doing it? It is certain that we will require a tried-and-tested framework to ensure that we are able to keep both ourselves and our prospects on track.
After years of providing consultative sales training to thousands of business development professionals across five continents, and as well has having had a successful career as a consultative salesman in the City of London, I believe there are 6 key distinct stages that fully encapsulate the consultative selling process:
- Objection handling
In the rest of this article, we’ll explore each stage in more detail.
Put simply what is our angle when approaching our prospect? Our angle is sometimes also referred to as our hook. One thing is for sure, if we begin with a run-of-the-mill “just wanted to introduce my company” mentality it is unlikely we will stand out from the crowd, and run the risk of boring our prospect before we have even started! What is needed is an Attention Grabber to really stop our prospect in their tracks, and to get them thinking. We need to be careful not to fall into the trap of being overly polite and deferential as this again will turn our audience off. We need to concentrate on dangling a massive carrot so that our prospect will be incentivised to come with us on to the next step of the journey.
At this most critical early stage of the Consultative Selling process we need to remember that the one thing our prospects really like talking about is themselves. Therefore, it’s helpful for us to be genuinely curious about our prospect’s situation. As the playwright Oscar Wilde aptly puts it in “Lady Windermere’s Fan”: “My own business bores me to death. I prefer other peoples.”
We can convey this interest through the deployment of well-structured, well-crafted questions that anticipate hot button topics in order to open the prospect up and to encourage them to express their feelings. This should help us to forge what I refer to as emotional resonance critical for building trust in the relationship.
It has been demonstrated by neuroscientists that our brains are roughly divided into an inner Limbic Brain and an outer Neocortex. The former has been handed down to us from prehistoric times, and cannot express itself in language preferring “gut feelings” and impressions. “Feminine intuition” also belongs in the realm of the Limbic Brain. By developing trust through asking the right sorts of questions, and listening very carefully, we will demonstrate to the prospect that we care about them, enabling them to form a positive feeling about us. If we fail to do this we are at the mercy of the prospect’s Neocortex – which is a cold, analytical realm based on facts and empirical evidence. This is not a place any truly consultative salesperson wants to be!
Once we have fully engaged our prospect in the discovery stage by focusing their minds on their problems, or at the very least on an area that requires attention and improvement, it is crucial that we avoid jumping too quickly to the presenting – “here look at my magnificent new solution!” – stage. By jumping the gun, we run the risk of squandering any of the good value we have started to build into our conversation, and of erecting unintended barriers.
Instead, it is vital that we encourage the prospect to assess the impact of their needs by asking them questions to this end. Remember we are not telling them about the impact of their problems, but asking them: “So tell me, how much is the (insert issue) costing you in man-hours / lost revenue?” etc. This will build urgency into the sale. Without this step we run the risk of permanently being at the mercy of our prospect’s indifference to our solution, or even their complacency towards it!
Notice how in the Consultative Selling Framework the Presenting step appears fairly late in the process? Transactional salespeople, the “Victorian barkers” that I referred to earlier, often present right at the beginning which immediately puts them at a major disadvantage. Having no knowledge of the prospect’s exact circumstances and potential needs they will regale them with a whole list of random unspecific “features and benefits” that their audience simply cannot relate to. This indifference wins them no favours! By contrast, consultative salespeople are able to deploy the invaluable intelligence they have gained in the earlier stages to deftly tailor the benefits to the prospect’s specific needs, thereby further cementing the relationship.
5. Objection handling
If we have done our job thoroughly in the preceding stages the likelihood of objections occurring will be greatly minimized. However, there is always a chance they will emerge, and when they do it is essential that we thoroughly address them as failing to do so it will place unwanted tension in the relationship which could run the risk, if unattended, of scuppering our deal.
It is essential to adopt a particular kind of mindset towards objections. Rather than viewing them as tiresome stumbling blocks we should see them as requests for further information. Naturally it helps if we can anticipate the sorts of objections that are likely to occur, and to have pre-prepared answers, so that we are not unduly caught off our guard!
As stated earlier, until we have completely addressed our prospect’s objections it will not be possible to move on to the next stage.
The final “closing” stage is really a culmination of all the hard work we have put into the preceding stages. In a sense we are gathering in our harvest, having won small victories along the way. By using the previous steps, we should, hopefully, have been able to build significant value in our relationship. It is this “value” that we are now seeking to harvest.
It is important to remember that all truly Consultative Salespeople highly prize the fullest engagement of their prospects at every step of the journey. The Securing stage is no different. Therefore, they will avoid sharing only one potential solution, preferring instead to suggest a number of options. This enables them to involve the prospect of finding exactly the right fit for their specific situation. This way the prospect does not feel like they are being sold to and instead joins the seller as an equal partner in finding a solution to a problem.
By using a carefully-considered consultative selling framework to navigate your journeys you will undoubtedly be able to add the fullest value to your prospect relationships every step of the way. Because you will have fully engaged them in a two-way conversation the creation of rapport and trust will have been exponentially accelerated.
Needless to say, the benefits of a consultative selling approach include building deeper, longer-lasting relationships with prospects, being able to scope out and prioritise opportunities more efficiently, and enjoying a much higher degree of loyalty from them.
As with any process, practice makes perfect, but as the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu once asserted: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in this article, why not get in touch? I am always keen to connect with individuals who feel as passionately about consultative sales best practice as I do!