The Consultative Selling Transition

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One of the most common challenges for sales leaders who are working to drive growth in today’s complex, competitive (and often shrinking) markets, is helping (or forcing) their salespeople to evolve from product presenters to true consultative sellers. It is easy to say “we need to be more consultative in our sales approach,” but driving genuine change in a salesperson who has deeply ingrained behavior patterns is often very difficult. Doing the same thing for an entire sales team is even more difficult.

Here are the main reasons why most product-driven salespeople resist the transition to a consultative selling approach:

  • What they’re doing now works just fine. At least for the salespeople. If a salesperson is making a good living just pushing product, why bother changing? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is their perspective. This attitude often results from compensation models that are disconnected from the financial success of the company. If a company is dependent upon sales growth from new accounts, but sales compensation treats all sales volume equally (from existing accounts and new accounts) and salespeople are achieving adequate incomes without new account growth, there really is no incentive for them to do the extra hard work of gaining new business.
  • Genuine consultative selling is harder. It takes more time and requires greater skill. A consultative salesperson has to develop the ability to ask both tactical and strategic questions, listen actively, ask follow-up questions to drill down deeper, think intensely during every conversation to help the customer clarify needs and related challenges. Consultative sales proposals are more challenging to write, because you can’t just copy and paste the prospect’s contact information onto a previous proposal – it has to be customized based upon the prospect’s unique needs and challenges. For many salespeople, all of this extra effort feels like a waste of time.
  • Consultative takes more time. Often a consultative sales approach involves multiple conversations, along with “homework” for the salesperson after the call, to determine the best next step for the prospective customer. Because the consultation process is designed to bring to the surface customer needs which may not have been readily apparent (even to customer) in the first place, it is typically more time intensive that simply conducting a product walk-through.
  • You have to “earn the right” to sell in a consultative manner. Imagine that you conducted a survey of your customers and prospects, asking them what sort of sales approach they would prefer, and the two options were:
  1. Consultative conversations with a salesperson, to identify my needs and determine the best solutions for me.
  2. Just send me the information by email and let me decide.

Do you have any doubt that most of your customers would choose the second option? Many of them do not really enjoy the time they spend with salespeople, they hate the potential for pressure, and they feel perfectly capable of making their own good decisions without “interference” from a salesperson. Consultative selling can often bring to the surface needs and issues that the customer was not aware of, but it is precisely this lack of current awareness or perceived need, that prevent the customer from engaging in the necessary dialogue.

If a salesperson is going to engage in consultative conversations with these customers, he or she is going to have to “earn the right” to have those conversations. And this is an additional skills set that most salespeople do not have.

Consultative selling sometimes reveals hard truths. Getting to know the customer’s needs at a deeper level can be painful for a salesperson. When salespeople begin to have conversations with customers about the issues and challenges which are most relevant to them, it is not uncommon to discover that many of the salesperson’s products or services are not particularly relevant to the customer. This fact may have been masked for many years, because the products and services themselves were not developed with a customer-centric consultative approach. Not surprisingly, many organizations who lack a consultative selling mindset also lack a consultative product development process.

So why bother? Is it really worth the effort to drive your sales team to transition from product-centric presentations to solution-oriented consultations? If the product-centric approach is achieving the desired sales results, then obviously there is no need to change. But if you are struggling to drive sales growth, consultative selling has the potential to:

  1. Open new accounts that have previously been unresponsive to your product-centric approach.
  2. Drive greater sales volume in your existing accounts by surfacing new needs and problems to solve.
  3. Create differentiation that will be difficult for your competitors to emulate.
  4. Improve profitability by minimizing product pricing erosion.

If you decide to take the plunge and drive the consultative transition with your sales team, there are a number of things you can do to increase your likelihood of success. These include:

  • Align sales compensation with the specific new behaviors you are driving.
  • Completely re-train your sales managers first. Their entire sales coaching approach will have to change, and you want them to be prepared to reinforce the consultative approach as you roll it out to your sales team.
  • Begin with a detailed assessment of current skills, habits and attitudes of your sales team. You want to have an accurate picture of every individual salesperson’s current skills set, plus you want to be able to view the skills of the entire team as a whole. This will help you determine where to concentrate your training and coaching efforts. There are many good selling skills assessments available, including the Professional Selling SkillMap™ which is an online assessment. (click the link above for more details)
  • Develop a customized Consultative Selling Model that is unique to your business, based upon the practical realities your salespeople are facing. It is OK to start with one of the standard consultative selling programs (Miller Heiman, PSS, Real Selling, etc.) but before this is deployed to your sales team it should be fully customized to reflect their real world selling situations.

Shameless plug: Developing a customized selling model for your organization does not have to be expensive or time consuming. The Real Selling program was developed with an “open architecture” that allows for quick and cost-effective customization.

  • Create “real world” audio and video examples of sales interactions using your customized consultative selling model. While this can be time consuming and (sometimes) expensive, it is one of the most powerful training tools you can have. Especially when you are driving new sales behaviors, being able to show salespeople exactly what those behaviors look like in action will save you months of training and coaching time.
  • Live workshops must include extensive role playing even though salespeople hate it. Only through role playing can you give them an opportunity to fail in a safe environment, get immediate feedback, then practice again and again until the skills are mastered.
  • Deploy pre-learning and post-training reinforcement using a broad range of media. Remember, you are trying to drive a significant behavioral change. So don’t assume that one workshop is going to produce this massive change. Prior to the workshop, provide your salespeople with significant pre-learning resources so they know exactly what to expect coming in. And after the workshop, deploy reinforcement training through as many media as possible: e-learning, podcasting, m-learning (via mobile phones), audio CD’s, video DvD’s, etc.
  • Provide sales managers with coaching forms and tools to reinforce the new approach.
  • Monitor and measure specific metrics tied to the new approach. These will be different for every organization, based upon their unique selling model and selling cycle.
  • Conduct a post-training assessment similar to the initial assessment in order to quantify the specific behavior changes and identify individuals who need further training/coaching.

This may seem like a lot of effort. But the hard truth is that without a comprehensive training and reinforcement plan, your likelihood for success in driving this transition is pretty low. For most salespeople, this is a very difficult transition. Many sales leaders have attempted to drive a consultative selling transition by running their people through a workshop, or delivering a rousing speech at a national sales meeting, or badgering sales managers to coach their people to become more consultative. Most of those efforts fail, not because the strategy isn’t right – but because the training execution isn’t deep enough.

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