Contrary to popular belief, being a great salesperson doesn’t require an outgoing personality or an aggressive attitude. It requires knowledge of how to help people make decisions. In fact, top salespeople are often called “consultative salespeople,” because of their ability to meet objections and make their product or service seem like the obvious solution to a customer’s problem. Their approach is so subtle that it can seem like they are hardly selling at all, which is the opposite of a traditional sales approach.
Traditional Selling vs. Consultative Selling
Here’s how a traditional, old school salesperson approaches a buyer: The salesperson has a product to sell. The first thing he needs to do is figure out if the buyer wants or needs the product, so he asks a few questions. Usually, these sound like someone fishing for information: “What sort of computer are you looking for?” “Is your company in the market for improved run times?” “How are you guys handling the increased network load?”
When the salesperson spots a need that his product can fill, he jumps at the chance to tell the buyer all about his solution. He spins a picture of the benefits, weaving a story about how their lives/company will be better once they’ve purchased the product. Then he asks them if they’d like to buy it. At that point, the buyer raises objections, which the salesperson endeavors to counter with logic and examples.
While there’s nothing about this approach that’s dishonest, it feels manipulative. As soon as a salesperson starts asking questions to find out what a buyer needs, the buyer knows his answers will be used to “trap” him into buying, and that is bound to create resistance. It feels awkward to the buyer, and it also feels awkward to the salesperson.
No One Wants to Feel Awkward
Most salespeople don’t want to feel manipulative. They don’t want to feel pushy. But they also know that their product or service is a great solution for the buyer. So they try to be convincing, telling the buyer how wonderful it is by explaining the benefits. When the buyer objects, the salesperson uses various techniques to handle the objection–all of which feel manipulative to both the buyer and the salesperson.
What’s a salesperson to do? One solution is to learn how to be more consultative. Consultants help people make decisions all the time, often very high-value, multi-layered decisions. What if a salesperson could use consulting techniques to sell products and services?
Fortunately, they can. By studying consulting skills, a salesperson can learn how to ask questions the right way, how to step back from the solution and really understand the problem, and how to raise objections and explore them proactively, giving buyers the space to make decisions that make sense to them.
Here’s an example of some typical sales questions in a traditional selling mode: “How do you feel about four-wheel drive?” “What are your financial goals?” “When do you want to put your home on the market?”
Here are the questions a more consultative salesperson might ask: “What sorts of things bother you about your current truck?” “What are you hoping a financial planner will help you do?” “What concerns do you have about the timing of putting your house on the market?”
The traditional sales questions are appropriate, but at a much later time in the conversation than they’re usually asked. Consultative selling usually means having a longer opening conversation, where the consultant seeks to understand not just what a person wants to buy, but why they’re buying, and what might stop them from buying.
When he gets information, the consultative salesperson doesn’t use it to sell his product. He uses it to ask more questions. One consultative approach to asking questions is to use question chains. A question chain is a pattern of question-statement-question-statement, all with the intention of drilling down deeper.
Here’s an example:
- Homeowner: “We’re worried that our house will sell too soon and then we’ll have to put stuff in storage.”
- Realtor: “That would be disruptive, wouldn’t it? If it did sell too soon, what other options have you considered, other than putting stuff in storage?” (The realtor is not fixing the problem for them, or telling them they’re wrong, or explaining the timing of a typical sale. Instead, the realtor is acknowledging their concern is valid by repeating what they said, then drilling down further.)
- Homeowner: “Well, we’ve thought about putting our stuff in a friend’s garage, but that would feel weird.”
- Realtor: “I can understand that. What else have you thought about doing?” (The realtor isn’t stopping at one solution, but instead is drilling down for more solutions. Eventually, the homeowner will come up with their own best solution by evaluating each solution through the realtor’s encouragement.)
Closing the Sale
The beauty of a consultative approach to selling is that a salesperson doesn’t feel pushy because he’s not “setting up” the buyer. After the buyer has thought more about each question, the salesperson then can offer his solution. Most buyers by then are willing to listen to the solution, because the salesperson has listened to them fully. That makes closing, which is the final step of any sale, much easier on both the salesperson and the buyer.