Published January 18th, 2023
Consultative selling is a sales process that centres on the client and their needs, to improve their experience and increase sales.
A consultative salesperson acts as a consultant, helping the prospect to identify a problem or opportunity and then providing a solution. Consultative selling uses a distinctive approach, with distinctive results. In this guide, we’ll look at its most important aspects:
Consultative selling is sometimes also known as solution selling or needs-based selling.
The key difference between a consultative sales approach and other sales techniques lies in the relationship between the consultative sales person and their prospect. In a consultative sales process, the salesperson takes an advisory role, listening to the prospect’s concerns and helping them to find solutions, rather than simply trying to sell them a product or service.
Consultative selling is often used in complex sales scenarios or when there is a long sales cycle, where the prospect’s needs are not immediately obvious or where the solution is not a simple “one size fits all” product. Consultative selling best practices explore the complexities of this situation and probe for unacknowledged needs. Success doesn’t come from creating a need that didn’t exist, as in traditional mass marketing, but from helping the client to express needs they weren’t talking about, or perhaps didn’t know they had.
It’s particularly useful when selling to high-value, B2B clients seeking ongoing services, such as financial or account management SaaS. By going beyond simple questions about the client’s needs and into the how and why, consultative selling unveils hidden potential while creating a closer bond with the prospect, and so turning them into a client.
The consultative selling approach typically consists of the following steps:
Consultative selling starts when you turn your attention onto the prospect’s needs.
Some of this can be done before you even start talking with the prospect. A consultative sales agent should do their homework first. That means seeking out information about the prospect, the context they’re working in, and the sort of challenges they might face. For a completely new prospect, that will mostly mean internet-based research, looking at the company’s news and social media feeds, the personal blogs of its executives, and the news from their industry. For a repeat customer, it can mean going through your own records, using tools such as revenue intelligence to learn patterns in the prospect’s behaviour and the needs these reflect.
The next part is the most substantial, and the one that the whole process hinges on: the initial conversation with the prospect. This should focus on what their needs are and what problems they face that your products might help with.
Getting your approach right here is critical. In consultative selling, questions are key, but they shouldn’t be the sort of regimented, directing questions that traditional sales uses to drive prospects to a “yes”. In a consultative sales approach, questions are more often open-ended, designed to let the prospect lead the conversation. You’re trying to identify their needs, and might sometimes have to direct the conversation back on topic, but the prospect knows the challenges they face better than you do, and if you give them space, they’ll give you clues to what those needs are.
Active listening is important in this needs definition process. Presenting a sympathetic ear will encourage the client to open up, perhaps exploring problems that they normally don’t talk about outside their business, problems that you’re aiming to solve for them.
This isn’t to say that you should never direct the conversation. Your research might have unearthed upcoming challenges. Feel free to bring these up, again using open-ended questions: “What do you think about xxx?” “How do you feel yyy will impact your business?” “What challenges has zzz created for you?” This will make the prospect think about these issues. It might even lead them to consider challenges they hadn’t identified before, ones you’re in an ideal position to solve.
By the end of this conversation, you should know about the problems the prospect is facing and have some thoughts about solutions you could offer. It’s also possible that you’ll realise this is a dead end. Consultative selling uses conversations like this to open up a sales route, but sometimes it’ll become clear that the challenges the prospect faces aren’t ones you can solve. Sunk cost fallacy makes it tempting to plough on, but that will only lead to more wasted effort. If, by the end of the conversation, you don’t think that you can help with the prospect’s problems, then acknowledge that and be ready to move on. If you know someone else who could help, you might even recommend them: it doesn’t directly help you, but it’ll improve the prospect’s view of you for future dealings.
More likely, though, you’ll have a good understanding of the challenges the client faces, challenges you’re going to help them face.
The next step in the consultative sales method is to present solutions to the prospect’s problems, solutions that involve using your products. This is a great way to start the prospect on a client journey with you, as it shows them how perfectly you’ll fill a gap in their business.
Sometimes, the initial conversation will make clear how you can help the prospect. If you’ve got a pitch already that directly addresses their need, present it then. But often, you’ll need to go away and consider the options. This isn’t a bad thing. Taking time to find the right answer, then getting back in contact, shows the prospect that you’ve listened and taken their challenges seriously.
Remember, the solution you present shouldn’t be pitched in a standardised way. You asked all those consultative sales questions not only to understand the prospect but so you could shape your responses around them. Adapt your examples, solutions, and pitching materials to reflect the things that they’ve told you. Explain how your specific product fits with their specific problems, and why it’s a good solution for them.
Active listening isn’t just important in the first meeting. It’s also important to listen carefully when you’re presenting your solution, to judge your prospect’s reactions.
For example, a prospect might be enthusiastic when you start talking about your solution, but then go quiet. A good consultative sales agent will notice that silence and respond to it, using the sorts of open-ended questions that make the consultative sales approach so powerful. A question as simple as “What do you think so far?” will give the prospect an opening to raise whatever’s on their mind.
Avoid getting defensive if the prospect’s response seems critical of what you’re saying. You’re not here to defend your solutions but to solve the prospect’s problems. Maybe something you’re suggesting doesn’t fit how they work, but there’s a way you could change that. Listen, adapt, and steer into the elements that interest this potential client. If they bring up more problems, this may also be an opportunity to offer more solutions.
This is an area where good client management coaching can be useful, training sales teams to take a more holistic approach to the client, building a dialogue and a relationship that leads to a solution.
If the prospect has continued to show interest in what you’re pitching, then you’re getting closer to closing the deal. Quite aside from the solution you’re presenting, sunk cost fallacy now works in your favour: the prospect won’t want all these useful conversations about their problems to go to waste.
Presumably, they have the budget and authority to authorise the sale, so you may get an agreement at this stage. But remember, the consultative sales method is a long game. You’ve given them plenty to think about, and if it’s a big purchase, they might want time to consider.
This doesn’t mean that you let the conversation drop. Follow up with the client to summarise what you discussed and ask if they have any more questions. If you don’t hear back in a few days, then contact them again. While the pitch itself is personalised, your process can be standardised behind the scenes, with follow up action items at set points so that you don’t let a promising prospect drift away.
Between research, conversations with prospects, and developing custom solutions, the consultative sales method can be time-consuming. So what are the benefits you get for going through all these steps?
A consultative sales approach can build trust and rapport between the salesperson and prospect.
There are a lot of negative images of how to talk as a salesperson, ones that put prospects on the defensive, putting up barriers between you and them. People are inherently distrustful of anyone who’s selling them something, and brace themselves to fend off the sales pitch.
The way that you communicate with a prospect in consultative sales is perfect for dissolving those barriers. Asking open-ended questions and actively listening to the client goes against all the sales clichés. It leads the client to understand that you care about what they say. When you then present a solution that’s all about the client, not the product you’re selling, you show that you can be trusted to listen, to work with their priorities, and to present something that will genuinely help.
This has obvious benefits during the selling process. A prospect who trusts you is more likely to believe your pitch and to buy what you’re selling. They’re more open to your messages and so to being persuaded to offer you a good deal. But the benefits don’t end with sales.
The trust you’ve established bleeds over into the client’s relationships with the rest of your business. Their positive view of you means a positive view of the other people working with you. This makes things easier for the client success team when you hand the customer over, as they have the beginnings of a positive relationship. It’s a solid foundation to build on, one that sets the whole company up for success.
When you go into a sales situation, you have some idea of the needs you think you’re catering to, and that your product has been designed to meet. Some of those needs will even match those of potential clients, and raising them will provide sales. But your understanding of your prospects’ interests will never be as good as their own.
By using consultative selling questions, especially open-ended questions about the prospect’s work and the challenges they face, you lead them to express other needs. These might be concerns you had no idea about, or subtle nuances of an issue you were already working toward. Whatever it is, it will give you more problems to solve, and so more ways to make your products useful.
In a consultative sales approach, the questions you ask don’t just reveal the concerns that prospects already have. They also help prospects to identify problems or opportunities they may not have been aware of, but which emerge through discussion. This is where research can be particularly useful, as it will let you open up the conversation into wider issues within their industry.
Identifying new needs means that you’ll have more angles for selling your product, and a more convincing case for why the client needs your services.
Part of consultative selling’s value is that it can result in more satisfied customers. This happens in two ways.
Firstly, and most obviously, the prospect is more likely to feel that they have received a solution that meets their specific needs. Through the questions of a consultative sales approach you’ve not only identified their needs, you’ve made a show of doing that. The client will be very aware of how the solution is tailored to them.
Secondly, there’s a broader feeling of satisfaction that comes from being listened to. As human beings, most of us like to talk, and particularly to talk about ourselves. By the nature of their approach, a consultative sales agent spends a lot of time listening, actively showing that they’ve taken in the words, and encouraging the prospect to talk more. That’s going to make most prospects feel more positive about the experience, regardless of how good the solution is at the end. It automatically increases satisfaction.
Trust and satisfaction can set you up for long-term success with clients, but ultimately, this is about sales, and no one would be using a consultative sales approach if it didn’t sell.
Consultative selling works. It can lead to higher value sales, as the salesperson is able to sell a comprehensive solution, rather than just a product or service. The steps you go through in consultative sales lead to a better understanding of the client’s situation, more problems to solve, and more awareness of how they could use your product. You can offer a more complete package and better evidence for why your prospect needs you.
The information you gain through the consultative selling process can even help with further sales down the line. Include notes on what you learned when you hand the client over to a client success team, as colleagues can use this information to cross-sell up upsell the client later.
Consultative selling isn’t right for every salesperson. It’s a high-effort approach that pays off when there are big rewards available. If you’re working in that sort of environment, and you want to try these techniques, then how can you go about becoming an effective consultative sales agent?
To be a great consultative seller, you need to provide a solution that meets the needs of your specific customers. It’s not enough to list off the major features or provide a broad brushstrokes pitch; you need to provide an honest response that relates your specific product to the client’s specific problems. Ideally, you should know not just what’s currently available but what could reasonably be changed to adapt your solutions for the client.
This requires you to have a deep understanding of your products and services so that you can relate them to the customer's specific problems. There are all sorts of ways to do this: reading your company’s own materials, talking with the people who produce the products, even experiencing the client journey yourself. Try to understand what the products and services are like from the client’s perspective and what they’re capable of from your business’s perspective, so that you can find ways to solve new problems.
Consultative sales techniques are all built on hearing what the client says, so the best consultative sellers are also great listeners. They take the time to understand the customer's situation and what they are looking to achieve.
To get better at this, learn about and practice active listening. This is an approach that goes beyond letting someone talk at you, into ways that you can show your attention, reflect back what they’re saying, and encourage them to talk more. It’s useful in any relationship, but particularly useful in consultative sales, where an approach of asking questions and taking the time to listen is central to understanding what the client wants.
Because active listening is useful in any relationship, you can practice it in almost any conversation. Practice using this skill in other areas of your life, until it becomes second nature. Your family and friends will appreciate it and don’t need to know that they’re helping you practice you pitch.
Finally, consultative sellers are always looking for ways to improve their products and services. They are constantly innovating and seeking even better solutions.
A lot of the ideas for this come naturally from conversations with potential clients. The problems they have that you can’t solve, or where your product doesn’t quite match what they’re after, could provide you with inspiration for innovation. This is especially true if multiple prospects raise the same problem or missing feature: it’s a sign that you’re not meeting expectations, or that there’s a valuable unmet need for you to tap into. A consultative sales conversation that leads to you saying “we can’t do that” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means that you’ve found a gap in what you’re offering, and that gap could be your opportunity to do better, to meet the needs of a wider group of customers.
Once you’ve found opportunities for improvement, you’ll need to feed them back to the relevant teams in your organisation. In the excitement of seeing a new opportunity, it can be tempting to just hammer out an email and hit send, but take some time to think about how you deliver the message. Make sure that you’re presenting an opportunity for something new, not a criticism of what’s there already, as the teams you’re talking to might be invested in and proud of what they have. Putting them on the defensive will only make them resist your ideas, whereas providing an interesting opportunity could stir their enthusiasm.
By listening to customers and working collaboratively with colleagues, you can use consultative sales to constantly improve not just your pitch but the products you offer. This commitment to excellence ensures that your customers always receive the best possible value for money.
A consultative sales approach involves hard work, both in the steps you go through with the client and the skills you develop to succeed. It’s worth the investment because consultative selling is very effective. It bonds you to your clients, increases sales, and leads to better products. If sales to your clients are valuable enough to justify the effort, then it can be a transformative approach.