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Viewpoints
from Systema

The Power Behind
Consultative Selling

By Marsha Wells and Jack R. Snader

Why do some people excel in selling products or services while others, who work just as hard, fall short of meeting sales goals?

One principal talent distinguishes elite profit makers from the rest: top sellers skillfully diagnose and solve problems better and quicker than the rest.

Because of the critical importance of sales in any business, a cornucopia of resources to help salespeople improve selling skills has proliferated. But regardless of the sophistication of those resources, many of the vast array of workshops, manuals, "how-to-sell" books, and interactive videos, CD Roms, and Internet learning tools available miss the point because they don't address basic problem-solving.

Problem-solving approach

The problem-solver's approach to selling is different from the rest. A problem solver realizes that only part of the selling equation is understanding the features, benefits, and technical aspects of the product line, and reciting them in her sleep. She also has taken the time to be trained and stay up-to-date on the latest offerings. But most importantly she recognizes that her clients' problems and needs, not her own products, are her most pressing concern.

The problem-solving approach to selling, known as consultative selling, is somewhat analogous to the work of a physician. Prescribing a cure without first asking questions to diagnose the patient's problem makes for medical malpractice. Similarly, offering products or services in sales to "cure" business problems without first asking in-depth questions about the needs and concerns of the company makes for poor selling. Like a good physician, the problem-solving salesperson probes for information and conducts a thorough exam about current problems before prescribing a remedy.

The larger the sale, the more this is true. If a doctor recommends heavy medication or major surgery after only a brief interview, the patient would feel apprehensive and probably seek another opinion. However, if the doctor spends time gathering facts, learning how the patient feels, performs a series of tests, and only then draws conclusions and makes a major recommendation, the patient will feel more confident of it.

In the same way, the salesperson's thorough analysis makes a prospective buyer more comfortable with the suggested products or services to solve their larger business problems. Effective questioning that involves open-ended probes to understand needs, feelings, and attitudes helps the consultative salesperson develop a complete understanding of the buyer's situation and builds client confidence in the salesperson's recommendations.

Adding value

In many industries, similar products at similar prices are available from many suppliers. Buyers are more likely to favor the salesperson who adds value to his products by effectively shaping solutions to the buyer's needs, in effect, helping the buyer think through his problems to develop solutions as a team. With a diagnostic, consultative approach to selling presented in a non manipulative way, the result is a deeper understanding of the customer's needs that wins the salesperson long-term relationships. Consultative salespeople quickly build large networks of prospects and long lists of referrals.

Evolution of consultative selling

In the traditional, product-oriented sales approach, popular in the 40s, 50s, 60s and continued well into the 70s , the salesperson was a presenter of information. The product was more important than the client. Let's apply the concepts here to one industry. For example, a short-sighted real-estate agent using this method focuses on what he is selling and tries to convince a potential buyer to purchase one of his available properties, with little regard for the buyer's original goals. He first pitches the biggest or most expensive property available, then shows less costly properties if he sees he is above the buyer's income level.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of needs-benefit selling developed. Salespeople worked to find client needs, then showed how their products or services filled those needs. A real-estate agent using that method might ask if, as a young couple, the prospective buyers plan to have children. Receiving an affirmative answer, the agent may begin enthusiastically to talk up the benefits of a home with more bedrooms, and to direct them toward his largest homes.

By contrast, consultative selling, which evolved in the 1970s, is buyer-oriented. The salesperson conducts a needs analysis, investing time to listen to the potential buyer and asking questions to uncover financial ability to buy as well as primary needs and wants, attitudes and concerns.

The salesperson then serves as a resource to his prospect, suggesting possible solutions that have been adapted to buyer problems and goals. The enlightened real-estate representative using this approach considers the prospect's total needs and then evaluates how available properties may match them. Only then does he use his prospect's and his own valuable time to visit properties perceived as matching needs.

The difference between product-oriented selling and consultative selling is the difference between sales and marketing. Traditionally, sales asks, "What do I have to sell?" while marketing asks, "What does the client want to buy?" Marketing, like consultative selling, focuses on the market's needs, beginning with an understanding of client demographics, realities, needs, and values.

But consultative selling takes marketing a step further, because very often the product a prospect buys (and wants!) is not what he originally thought he wanted. The time a consultative salesperson spends analyzing needs and preferences by asking open, in-depth questions and carefully evaluating answers assists the buyer in clarifying his own needs.

Best practices

Research has determined that, although effective selling techniques may vary slightly from one business to the next, there are many skills shared by top salespeople. The most successful salespeople:

  • are not "fast talkers" but rather good listeners
  • never present products or services until they learn client objectives, needs, and problems
  • begin sales calls by engaging prospective customers in dialog
  • present only those product features and benefits relevant to client problems or concerns, and dismiss features or benefits irrelevant to the client
  • close not only after it's clear that their product or service meets the client's needs, but also after the customer has said they have no more issues to discuss relative to the purchase
  • treat client resistance as a series of concerns, questions, or misunderstandings to be clarified and answered, not as objections to overcome
  • consider every completed sale as the beginning of a long-term relationship, not as an ending, even when subsequent purchases are not imminent
  • strive to develop beyond being a sales agent, becoming instead a sustaining resource to the client, thus gaining referrals and building a reputation in the community

The above list describes the behaviors and techniques of the consultative salesperson, the problem-solver. Problem-solving capability translates into repeat business, new business, and additional markets.

So how does this apply to your industry? Systema has developed a resource bank of materials to apply the consultative selling approach to a wide variety of industries, from the two-minute sales meeting with a physician to sell pharmaceuticals to the seven-year closing process in selling municipal power plants to city government. Contact us for more information on how you or your sales organization can sell more by talking less.

Want to learn more?

For more information on on how to assess management, sales management, and selling skills within your sales organization. E-mail us at: systema@systema.com

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