Consultative selling, also known as needs-based selling, is a sales tactic in which the seller acts primarily as an advisor, focused on helping a prospect solve one or more critical business issues.
The ideal conclusion to the conversation, of course, is that the prospect decides the seller’s product or service is the best path to their ideal solution. But achieving that outcome requires three critical elements and a fair amount of practice:
- Advanced product and industry knowledge
- Intensive prospect research
- Well-practiced active listening skills
To successfully use this method, sales professionals must be flexible and adjust their selling strategy according to the primary challenges voiced by prospects. The following steps can be used to implement a winning needs-based selling strategy.
Step One: Become an Authority
You are a product expert…
The first role every sales representative must master — even before they make their first sales call — is that of a product expert. If you don’t know the solution you’re selling forwards-and-backward, there’s little chance you’ll be ready to find workarounds or handle objections when the time comes. This is true whether you’re selling cars or software subscriptions.
To master these skills quickly and effectively, you’ll want to:
Interview your coworkers
It’s a great first step to interview, one-on-one, coworkers from each major team in your company. Find out what they do to contribute to the product’s success, what their main challenges are, and how their work impacts the customer. As a sales professional, you will be required to wear many different hats throughout your career. Additionally, you’ll inevitably need your teammates’ help and/or knowledge to close a deal. These intra-company relationships are absolutely vital.
Use the product
Also, selling becomes more natural when you know how the product actually performs from the customer’s perspective. New and experienced agents should use the product regularly, if not in their own work, then on a trial-basis. This will help sellers learn workarounds when necessary and empathize with potential clients during demos and prospecting calls.
Shadow Customer Support
Sales professionals can flatten their learning curves by shadowing the company’s support agents. Sitting in on phone calls and reading responses to email and chat exchanges is valuable for a couple of reasons.
First, it’ll give new sales representatives an idea of how the customers are actually using the product. This helps when prospecting potential clients as well as advising during the sales process.
Second, it gives the sales team second-to-none training in how to create workarounds and handle objections. The perfect product doesn’t exist, but support representatives are masters at finding functional solutions and offering an empathetic ear to client issues. These two skills are essential to closing new business.
Act as an Industry Guide
Successful sales professionals know almost everything about their own product and company and have forged strong relationships with their coworkers to cover the rest.
But clearly, every worthy competitor studies and respects their counterparts. To know what you’re up against, sales reps should know exactly what similar companies are offering, and how their own features and benefits match up. Sales enablement materials will cover some gaps in knowledge, but nothing makes a seller sound authoritative like a quick and confident response to prospect inquiries.
To find out all you can about similar products, it’s important to read (and when you’re done reading, read some more). To get a full view of everything that’s going on, sales reps should regularly be visiting competitor websites, taking in the pricing, features, and FAQ pages. Customer forums or review sites are also a good way to learn what pain points their clients need help solving.
Professional publications are also invaluable sources of knowledge. Even learning about trends from related industries can create helpful talking points during sales calls. Knowledge is a key element when both building rapport with prospects and eventually closing the deal.
Step Two: Research the Right Individual
Individual Prospect Research
It’s considered professional due-diligence. Successful sales professionals know that the more they learn about a prospect, the higher the likelihood of a productive conversation.
But the research doesn’t end there. By looking at a prospective client’s professional history on Linkedin, you may get a better idea of what types of positions they’ve held, and how they process information.
Do they have a background in accounting? Perhaps they’re more analytically focused. Maybe they frequently post about recent team outings and are constantly shouting-out their coworkers for a job well done. This could indicate an extraverted personality.
Has the prospect published on Medium or other industry-specific platforms? This could give you a strong indication of what they value in terms of goals, products, and performance. A quick Google News search for the prospect’s name (or “name+company”) could reveal a trove of valuable context.
Create Buyer Personas for Targeted Sales Conversations
To help guide your prospect research, it’s common to filter individuals into buyer persona categories. These classifications designate which type of buyer a prospect is likely to be, and can help you tailor your pitch to match their personality and professional wants.
Buyer categories include, but are not limited to:
- Analytical vs. Emotional
- Extroverted vs. Introverted
- Detail-Oriented vs. Big-Picture-Focused
- Risky vs. Conservative
Not every personality will neatly fit into a buyer persona, and sometimes adjustments will need to be made mid-conversation. However, if you enter a call or email thread knowing approximately what type of buyer you’re dealing with, you can direct the interaction down a more promising route.
Step Three: Practice Active Listening
What is Active Listening?
Active listening involves processing a speaker’s words and then verbally letting them know you hear and understand what they’ve said. This practice promotes empathy in listeners and creates a stronger bond between speaker and listener.
Active listening in sales is the process of demonstrating to a speaker that you’re engaged in the conversation, thereby encouraging the speaker — through verbal cues — to continue providing information.
Why Active Listening Works in Sales
As humans, we have a natural tendency to want to talk about ourselves. Perhaps it’s because the digital age has made direct forms of communication rarer, but people seem to be more prone to the shift-response. That is to say, manipulating conversations to talk about oneself.
As a sales representative, you can use this impulse to gather important information during prospecting calls and demos. Furthermore, by allowing your prospect to speak, you create a sense of respect and empathy between the two of you. This, in turn, creates trust, which makes prospects more likely to listen to your thoughts and suggestions.
How to Listen Actively
Comprehend. Active listening requires the sales representative to deeply understand what the prospect is telling them. While this involves a heightened level of concentration while in the conversation, strong comprehension begins during the research phases. Sales reps should already enter conversations with a fairly accurate idea of what problems, positions, and ideas the prospect holds.
But more than auditory understanding, comprehension is about feeling. When the prospective customer tells a sales rep about their challenges, goals, and ambitions, the seller must try to put themselves in the speaker’s shoes. What would success feel like? What are the consequences of failure? This will help the sales professional understand the stakes of the deal, beyond merely meeting quota.
Retain. Understanding the speaker does little good if the information isn’t properly stored, both in the sales rep’s mind and a reliable system of record such as their CRM system.
While on the call, sales reps should take brief notes on main points. These shouldn’t be so detailed that they pull you out of the conversation, but enough that they can lead you in asking open-ended questions later on.
After a call ends, more detailed analysis and notes should be uploaded into a shared system. This will help you maintain personalized conversations later on.
Retention also requires a laser focus on the conversation at hand. If possible, remove environmental distractions and mute notifications. Anything that pulls sales reps away from the conversation only undermines the sense of personal connection that consultative sales process requires.
Respond. The power of active listening in sales comes from the way reps verbally acknowledge the speaker’s points and artfully tease out more information.
These points of recognition can include small phrases such as “I see,” and “go on,” as well as strategically timed follow-up questions.
For example, an active listener might ask, “How do you plan to achieve that goal?” or “Are there any other benchmarks you want to achieve this year?”
Generally speaking, the more open-ended questions you can ask, the better. This creates a sense of comfort and trust between you and the prospect. When they feel like you know a significant amount about their situation, they’ll be more likely to hear your advice for improvement.
Step Four: Sell the Story of Their Success
Before you get to the final, consultative selling, step, it’s important to frame your offering as a solution that’ll help advance prospect’s goals.
Using the information you’ve gathered through prospecting, company research, and your active listening questions, you should be able to recall a story — a true customer story — that matches your prospect’s needs.
In essence, there are three phases to a good storytelling sales approach.
1. There was a problem that needed to be solved
By mirroring your potential client’s issues, this draws them into the story and put’s them at ease knowing their problems aren’t unique or unsolvable.
2. Previous attempts at a solution failed
Acknowledge the existence of other solutions, and how/why they all eventually didn’t satisfy this other customer’s needs. Explain the shortcomings of other solutions.
3. Your approach saw the customer through to success
In the end, your product was the difference maker. When possible, it’s best to supplement the conclusion with hard statistics on what improved.
Step Five: Consult to the Finish Line!
At this point, you’ve learned your product front-to-back, done a hefty amount of industry research, become a trusted listener, and explained how other companies have used your product to achieve their goals.
This is when the sales hat comes off (read: on). Your role is now that of an industry consultant, one that’s genuinely trying to see their client through to success.
They have problems, and you’re an expert offering winning advice. Of course, you’re also a sales representative, so if your product is a perfect fit (or can be minimally adapted to fit the customer’s needs), it should be showcased first and foremost.
It’s important to mention, using a consultative selling process, you shouldn’t jump straight to an all-encompassing conclusion — tease out just how nice a match your product and prospect would make.
That is to say, explain case by case and goal by goal how your product can offer value to the prospect.
But remember, as a consultant, you don’t want to give bad advice. This includes encouraging a prospect to purchase your product even after you discover they’re a poor use case. Signing ill-suited clients might have a short-term positive effect on your monthly metrics, but will eventually backfire, whether that be via customer support nightmares, negative reviews, or a quick churn.
Even when your product isn’t right for a client, you should still try to help. Naturally, you’ll want to avoid ringing endorsements for competitors, but truly helpful advice will continue endearing your prospect to your brand.
Priorities and budgets change — maybe your product will be a good fit a few months or years in the future. Plus, the trusted relationships you form now may end up playing pivotal roles in future chapters of your own professional story.
This article was originally published on February 21, 2019, and has since been updated.