Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

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.

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