One of the hottest topics in business circles right now is ‘what do sales teams need to do to be successful when faced with today’s buyers?’ Because things have changed - in large part down to the growth in online – and focus has shifted away from the product and onto the customer themselves. What this means for teams is that a new approach is now needed.
Long gone are the days where simply listing a product, its features and benefits was sufficient to make a sale. Today’s buyers are sophisticated, informed and proactive. By the time they start talking to any potential suppliers they’re already well down the decision-making road and have done their research.
At this stage what they want is to be truly understood and listened to. They want to feel they are receiving real value and continuous support.
In our article looking at sales strategies for 2016 and beyond we discussed this topic in great detail. Now we’re going to look at a very specific sales tactic - consultative selling - and why it needs to be on your radar if you’re going to be effective in the face of this new breed of buyer.
What is consultative selling?
Consultative selling is a sales approach that shifts focus away from the product a company is selling and instead focuses on the needs of the customer they want to sell to.
‘Solution’ is an often overused word here, with sales teams tending to think and talk in terms of which of their products will be the solution. However, that isn’t all there is to consultative selling.
When used in combination with content marking, the approach means that marketing and sales together have a really good and close look at their leads and how they behave. They then use this intelligence to move a buyer towards a conversion. The key ingredients to success are getting sales and marketing working together, utilizing technology and developing a customer-centric culture.
So what does the process of consultative selling involve?
Before sales contacts a lead you need to have fully researched them. That means looking up the company website, checking what they’re up to, figuring out who they are selling to, what their business model is, what their latest news is, what the news from their industry is, if they are facing any obvious threats, etc. Further research should also be done on the individual, including what role they have within the company, how long they’ve been there and anything else that can be found out about them.
2. Plan how to start a conversation
Thanks to the research, you are now armed with intelligence that you can use when you contact the prospect. Instead of trying to get the conversation going with generic sales patter about your product, you can ask them something relevant about them - like how the latest event in their industry may affect them (for example, a change in the law or legislation, or some other industry news). Or you may have found out that they recently launched a new product, so you could ask them how that’s going. In order to do so, and to do it well, you have to do your research fully. You will also need to make some assumptions along the way and these should then be tested over the course of your conversation.
3. Establish contact and evaluate need
Once you take the plunge and speak to the person make sure you go into their world. Leave yours behind for a moment and fully immerse yourself in what happens in theirs. Your sole focus for this initial contact is to establish just that – contact – so you can start building a relationship and decide whether they are a good fit and have a real need that you can help with.
4. Ask lots of questions
When taking a consultative sales approach you firstly need to truly understand your potential customer and what they need. In order to do this, you need to ask a lot of questions. Have a list prepared and ready before you contact them and use open-ended questions to encourage them to get talking. Some closed questions (ones which require a yes or no answer) may be useful for gathering accurate information on certain questions.
5. Actively listen
Listening is a skill and to do it well you shouldn’t be thinking about what you will say next while someone is talking. Instead, let them speak and concentrate on what they’re saying. This is the hardest thing for any sales person to start doing, especially when they’re changing their approach from traditional sales to consultative sales. It also won’t work if you try to fake it. We’re talking about a complete mind shift here, where sales people stop worrying about their own dialogue and instead are fully there every moment with the prospect.
6. Define need and timeline
When you start contacting prospects you should have one single aim - to establish if they're ready to buy and that means checking budget, authority, need and timescale – neatly shortened to ‘B.A.N.T’. Once you have checked each of these points you can start thinking about closing the deal, but not before. Going in too early is a rookie mistake that people often make when first starting out with consultative selling.
B for budget
Do they have the money available to purchase or invest in your products and services.
A for authority
Has the person you are talking to got the appropriate authority to be able to make a purchase? Or are they an influencer who could help you reach and convince the actual decision maker?
N for need
Are you offering something they truly need? What is their pain point and how will your solution help eliminate it?
T for time
Is the timing right? The bigger the cost attached to any purchase the more important timing is.
You will be able to find out all these things by asking the right questions. The sales reps who are the most successful with this approach will be the ones who naturally throw questions into the conversation that lead to the answers and information they need. For example, instead of asking "Are you thinking of buying a new printer at the moment?" they may ask "When you purchased your last printer, how did you estimate the need in your office?" then listen to the answer and continue with something like "Have you found your estimate to be accurate, or would you change it now?"
By asking in this way you can gather a lot more information and gauge whether they are potentially looking at a new solution right now, without having to ask them outright.
Other important information you will want to find out from your prospect is whether they are going to be a good fit for your company. Again, this is more important when selling a service over a longer period of time than it may be for some quicker purchases. But if you have to spend two years on a project with them you want to make sure that there is some synergy, in order to save you both a lot of frustration.
7. Teach instead of sell
A good consultative seller will use every opportunity they get to teach and generally be helpful. A good place to start is by always having a list of tips and tricks at the ready and freely giving advice whenever possible. This can be totally unrelated to your products. The idea is to understand what your client needs and to help them get it. An example would be if you’re an agency dealing with mid-sized companies and somehow you end up talking to someone who needs your services but who doesn’t have the budget necessary. Instead of simply saying goodbye and turning away you could refer them to someone in your network who you know could help them in some other way, or who would be a good contact for them to make.
8. Qualify each lead
Finally, after you have gathered in all the intelligence you need, it’s time to make an honest decision about how qualified your lead is and what you should do next. If the time isn’t quite right then they may need to be moved into a low-level marketing nurturing campaign to keep them ticking along until they are in a better place.
If you have a qualified lead and they are ready, then push ahead and close that deal! It is important to ask for the sale when the time is right. Experienced sales execs develop some kind of intuition and often know when that moment has arrived. But that takes a lot of practice and many questions to get to, so always use the information you have gathered to help you recognize the right moment.
Consultative selling, which is focused on a customer’s needs, wouldn’t be what it says it is if there wasn’t a loop included to make sure you deliver on your promises. Success in business stems from delivering on your promises in time and on budget, then word of mouth will take its course and before long new leads will be knocking on your door, ready to buy.
There’s one big caveat to all this, and that is that anyone using this method needs to be well skilled in asking the right questions and working with people in this way. It isn’t always easy and can take time to develop a real skill for it. However, in today’s world, where information is just a click away and reviews are easy to come by, truly valuing your customer is going to get you the win, so it's definitely worth the effort.