8 Steps to Better Sales with Consultative Selling

By Jessica Davis  |  Print this article Print

The bad economy has created a challenging environment for IT sales. Many sales representatives are complaining that what used to work isn't working anymore. That's why consultative selling is getting so much attention as a potential antidote to what ails sales today. To help you get started, Channel Insider has compiled the following list.

Consultative selling is getting a lot of buzz in sales circles these days as the answer to what ails sales organizations in this recession. But there can also be some confusion around what exactly the term means. Some people may even find the concept intimidating initially. To help clear the air and help you get started realizing the benefits of consultative selling, Channel Insider spoke with sales consultant Kendra Lee of The KLA Group. Lee's company works with solution providers to develop their sellers consultative selling practices. And before founding her own company, she was in the top 1 percent of sales representatives at IBM and was the top sales rep at Sybase. Here's a primer on getting started with consultative selling, based on Channel Insider's conversation with Lee.

1. First, understand what consultative selling is not.
It's certainly not product selling. Some people may also be surprised to hear that it's not solution selling either. Rather, Lee says, it's a way of connecting with clients by having a conversation with them about broader business issues. "Sometimes you may not even make a recommendation that you'll generate any revenue off of," says Lee. "But your contacts will be coming to you because they just want to talk. They treat you like a peer. You sit down and chat with people and share ideas. You become someone they want to talk to and stay in touch with."

2. Get comfortable with talking to clients rather than selling to them.
Picture yourself sitting at Starbucks having a coffee with one of your best friends, Lee advises. "You don't spend your whole time talking about business and giving them recommendations on what to do. You share ideas and banter back and forth about it. You don't try to worry about whether you will sell them."

3. Start by asking questions about your client's business or organization.
If you don't know the issues in their business, do some research.  For example, perhaps you are in the middle of a conversation about an ongoing project with your client. When there's a break in the conversation, say something like: "You know, John, I want to switch gears here for a minute. We've never really focused on your strategy beyond IT. What are some of the issues that your company and CEO are focused on?"

4. Realize that your recommendations to clients won't always be about the things your company can sell them.
Your recommendations won't always relate to your solutions, Lee says. You may actually end up sending your client to another solution provider or another kind of business entirely in search of what will ultimately resolve your client's issues. Or you may end up teaching your client how to solve the problem on their own. While you may not end up with today's sale, you are creating a relationship of trust. Your clients will seek you out to talk about their issues and problems in the future, and you will be the first one there when they do need something you sell.

5. Your biggest obstacle may be your lack of confidence.

You've mastered the technology, and you are a whiz at helping clients with technology problems and processes. But Lee says many technology sales professionals sometimes freeze up on consultative sales because they are afraid of what to say if a client asks a business question. What if a client turns to you and says "I don't know what to do because my credit line has just been cut in half." This, Lee says, is the biggest obstacle for sales representatives and companies looking to make the transition to consultative selling.

6. Don't be afraid of not knowing the answers to your customers' questions.
You may know more than you think, says Lee, or else you will have access to the right places to go to get that information. If you deal with other customers in the same or a similar industry, you can learn from how those other customers solve the same problems. In other words, maybe another one of your clients encountered and resolved the same issue. You might suggest your current client, who is experiencing the issue today, take a similar approach. You can say "I know someone else who was facing a similar issue and here's what worked for them."

7. Prepare for a longer sales cycle, but don't be surprised if the sales cycle stays the same.
The biggest concern sales managers have about transitioning to this approach is that sales will take longer. Indeed, Lee says she used to advise her sales consulting clients that they could expect a longer sales cycle with consultative selling. No more. In her experience, the sales cycle for consultative selling and for other types of sales end up being the same. That's because clients come to you when they have issues, and are ready to take action.

8. Remember that consultative selling is a collaborative process. You figure out the solution together.

Your job is to help the client see what their return will be if they do a certain project or what the productivity gains will be. "That can be very hard in IT." But if your client likes analytical information, this is the approach to take, and focusing on productivity gains may make the most sense. If you are working with a client who takes a strategic focus to a problem, you probably won’t have to provide the same level of analytical information, says Lee.

Remember, Lee says, "It’s not always about you, it’s about them."

Consultative selling is low pressure when compared to other types of sales, she says.

"I know that if I help the client now with his problem, even if I don’t sell him anything today, that something will happen eventually. That old saying, 'what goes around comes around,’ that’s consultative selling."


Jessica Davis covers the channel for eWeek and Channel Insider. Her technology journalism career began well before anyone heard of the World Wide Web and has included stints at Infoworld, Electronic News/EDN, and the Philadelphia Business Journal. Her work has also appeared on CNN and Forbes.com. She has covered hardware, software and networking, as well as the business side of technology. She has won several journalism awards, including a national ASBPE award for best staff-written column, and was named Marketing Computers hardest working tech journalist on their inaugural list of top tech journalists. Jessica can be reached at jessica.davis@ziffdavisenterprise.com