Consultative Selling

by Wendy Tan

The bigger and more complicated a sale is, the more important it is for sales consultants to differentiate themselves by their consulting skills and partnership they build with their clients. They need to discover their clients’ underlying needs and deal with their concerns, so that customers need to feel understood and supported in making a good decision. This makes customer retention automatic.

Consultative Selling

The adage “hammer looking for nails” has been applied to the sales consultants who see every problem through their lens and suggest a solution that they can sell to their clients. We are all selling something, whether they are ideas, products or services. The difference is our values and skills in selling.

The first type of sales consultants are those who assume that they are the expert and prescribe solutions to the clients. They listen superficially to their customers and assert that their solutions will solve the problem. Selling the benefits of the solutions regardless of the client’s specific situation is typical.

I have attended a sales talk where the speaker positioned himself as the expert in property with a listing of his numerous personal acquisitions and the proclamation of large capital appreciation and fantastic rental yield. He even claimed, “if only you had listened to me then, you could be enjoying these gains too. But you did not.” Within this statement is an unstated judgment here that people who did not listen to him are not clever or astute. We have all occasionally met salespeople who listen poorly and instead continuously to sell the benefits of products. Sometimes the pressure exerted makes it difficult for the customer to say ‘no’.

The advantage of taking an expert role in selling is that it is faster and makes the sales consultant feel powerful. However, this is likely to be a short term relationship. If the prescribed solution does not meet the customers’ expectations subsequently, the sales consultant is blamed and chances of repeat sales will be destroyed.

The second type of sales consultants are like a pair of hands who take orders from the customers. The image of a waiter comes to mind. They also do not ask about the customers’ situation, preferences or problem. These sales consultants tend to be passive and react to customers’ instructions. This could be a sales engineer who waits for customers to tell him their specifications or an insurance agent who simply sells travel insurance when asked by their customers, without finding out changes in the family that might warrant more insurance coverage.

The advantage of being an order-taker is that it is easy and fast, if not brainless and it does not require much skill. This also seemingly makes it easy for the customers. This is often the focus of basic sales training in most service organizations – “smile and delight your customers by doing or giving what they want”. The disadvantage of being an order-taker is that there might be missed opportunities. If the sales consultant had understood the customers’ needs better, he might be able to sell more to them. The other disadvantage is the lack of differentiation in the type of relationship these sales consultants have with their customers. Sales consultants are the touch points with customers and if a lasting impression is made at that point, customer retention becomes automatic.

The third type of sales consultants require the highest level of skills and let’s label them as ‘collaborative’. They ask the right questions to understand the customers’ situation or problems and offer a range of options for the customers to make a good decision. They might even talk about the pros and cons of each option.

The advantages of such collaborative sales consultants are obvious. They sell more to customers and build a longer term relationship with them. Customers feel understood and supported in making the right decision and will come back in future. The disadvantage is that this requires more skills and takes a longer time, at least in the beginning. However, this might be a worthwhile investment to retain customers and have repeated sales.

Across all three types of sales consultants – expert, pair of hands and collaborative, product knowledge is essential. However, additional specific skills are required of such collaborative sales consultants. They include:

  • making a connection with the customer;
  • asking the right questions to understand customers’ needs;
  • paraphrasing to show the customer that you understand;
  • asking customers for their concerns and reactions to your suggestions;
  • giving support to the customers; and
  • building long term partnership with customers.

Partnership selling is eventually based on building a relationship with the customer. Underlying product knowledge and collaborative selling skills is a genuine interest in the customer and a desire to serve the customer. This is a competitive advantage that gains customers in the long haul and assures success in the marketplace.


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