The role of a consultative sales person has three distinct attributes. First of all they have to be a business consultant, second they have to be a strategic partner and finally an ally. Let’s look at these three roles. In the role of a business consultant the sales person has to be more concerned about the business health of the client then making a sale. Those who practice true consultative selling know this. Most product sales people think consultative selling is trapping the customer into buying by using their own words against them. During the interview process it is easy to weed these people out of the hiring process. Just ask them to explain the methodology they used to uncover the value of the business problem they used their product to address. They can’t do it. The client did all this before the sales person got there. I believe the best way to be a true consultative sales person is to throw your product knowledge away for the first sales call. Don’t worry about the solution until you understand the problem. Literally put yourself in the shoes of the client and try to find out what you would need to know to understand the magnitude of the problem if it was your problem.
Once you know the nature of the problem and the value of the problem you can begin to address it. If you have a commodity product and you are trying to take a consultative approach, what you are selling is service(s). You can’t differentiate the product. Generally speaking if you have a product that is in the later stages of the product life cycle, the client isn’t going to give you the time to engage in consultative selling. They know what they want; they generally have already applied the benefits to the organization. They are just looking for a price. You’ve got to find an angle to rise above this. It can only be done with service (s). Don’t be afraid to walk away from something that is not in your sweet spot. You will save your client, your company and yourself time and money. But take this opportunity to recommend another product or company that might more closely fit their needs. It will pay dividends in the long run.
The role of strategic partner is tricky. Being a strategic partner is not negotiating a volume discount. You really have to take the time to know their business and position yourself as a trusted advisor. There are no short cuts to this. If you are the type of sales person who does not call on a client unless you are looking for a sale, you will never be seen as a strategic partner. Not going to happen. You have to take the time to read their 10K’s and news releases. Use your network to help them fill positions. Understand what they see in other vendors they do business with. Understand which vendors they see as strategic and why. Seek their input on new product initiatives. You know you are getting to this level of trust when you spend a great deal of time talking about corporate initiatives and next years budget in stead of status of purchase orders and pricing.
The third role is easy for most good sales people. That is the role of ally or customer advocate. The tricky part is to understand what battles are worth fighting. You are an employee of the company, but you also have the responsibility to be the customer advocate. Where do you draw the line? The best way to help solve this dilemma is to understand the product roadmap of your company and the capabilities of internal resources. Capabilities does not mean what they can accomplish if time and money were not an issue. It means based on known workload and priorities what can reasonably be expected. If you advocate a position for your client that is a losing position, or will require undue stress to accomplish, you have tarnished your client's perception of your ability to get things done. You may win the battle but lose the war.
So how do you start down this path? It starts with the first impression. Always dress one-step above what you think is required. Psychologically this gives you an advantage. Plus it is better to error on the side of too much than too little. If you think your client will be put off by a tie then one of two things are true; the industry (construction, farming, etc.) is tie adverse and the one-step above rule still applies (sport coat, no tie) or the person you are talking with is not a player. If the later is true, move up the food chain. So you’ve made it through the door, you’ve read their 10K and their news releases, now what? Ask smart questions and take the time to actively listen to the answers. Ask questions that make the client think and draw conclusions. If you ask your client questions you could have answered simply by going to their Web site, how intelligent or hard working does that make you look? Now a phenomenon is going to happen. You will ask a question and not get a very quick monosyllable answer. You will be met with silence. Don’t help the client by suggesting answers. Let’s not make it multiple-choice. Give them time to think over the question and construct a meaningful answer. Silence is a good thing. Also listen closely to the answer, don’t use the time to construct your next question. This isn’t speed dating. If you need another head on the call to pull this off, bring one.
The skill to pull this off is not spontaneously acquired. It is developed over time and through preparation. If you are a shoot from the hip type of sales person you may earn a very good living, but nothing close to your potential. Collins stated in the book “Good to Great”, the enemy of Great is Good. If you start to believe you are good, you may never be great. Achieving nirvana as a sales person is a journey not a destination.
Consciousness is a phase of mental life, which arises in connection with the formation of new habits. When habit is formed, consciousness only interferes to spoil our performance. - W. R. Inge