In the ever changing business world, the sales community consistently welcomes the introduction of new sales methods. Each fresh new approach is quite effective for awhile, but without fail, the technique adopts a phrase that becomes trite, contrived, cliche… derived of no unique and specific meaning. Similar to phrases like customer service, value proposition, and features and benefits, Consultative Sales is the latest example. At first, the phrase suggested a partner who would listen, but now it’s overused and lost in the void of any real distinction.
The first sales techniques that come to mind are the used car and the door-to-door sales people. The root of sales success for these sterotypical sales people was all about volume in activity. Make more calls, knock on more doors, and as we’ve evolved, send more emails. — there is a certain base line of sales activity. Like anything, however there is a law of diminishing return. This is what was called “push selling.” It was all about features, features, features — volume begets results. But then the consumer caught on. And it did not work as well.
After push selling, the experts introduced the concept of “pull selling“. The door-to-door vacuum salesperson learned to ask questions of the potential buyer and to speak in terms of benefits, not just product features. The light weight vacuum became easy to maneuver. The long handle enabled the user to get to the top step or to move from room to room with ease. Consumers liked this approach, so selling remained this way for many years. But then the consumer caught on. And it did not work as well.
Somewhere along the line, another expert somewhere revolutionized sales organizations by introducing the concept of consultative selling. The sales process became about establishing rapport, building towards the opportunity to ask the right questions and listening. “Find and probe for the pain” became the mantra — all you had to do to close was describe how your product could solve your customers pain point. And for a long time, customers liked it. And then they caught on. They always catch on. One advancement leads to the counter. One adjustment in technique leads to an adaptive change in behavior by the buyer.
Today everyone sells in a consultative fashion, it has become all about asking questions. But have you earned the right? Are your questions asked a benefit to the prospect, or are they self-serving? I think the problem is one of timing. When you ask a girl to marry you on the first date, it rarely goes well. Good questions can only be asked when the audience is willing and interested in answering them, and that interest comes from some semblance of a relationship — whether you’re dating or selling. Consult Ed Wallaces book, “Business Relationships that Matter.” Ed points out that one must establish technical and soft skills to become a trusted advisor and that one must advance beyond an acquaintance relationship. This becomes the art and science side of relationships.
So how does consultative selling become less commoditized? Less predictable? Less trite? For me, consultative sales must be about:
- 1. Being a great company, with good products and services.
2. Not being afraid to talk about #1.
2. Making investments in relationships — giving before asking.
3. And asking questions after seeking permission. This is a simple way to differentiate.
But then they catch on…