Hundreds of articles and analyst reports detail the amount of research buyers do on their own before contacting a sales rep, but most fail to mention the deep-seeded problems behind the “informed buyer” trend. Many buyers feel the need to “arm themselves” with tons of research due to the mistrust they have for sales reps and the sales process. They suspect sales organizations are more concerned with closing the deal than solving their problem.

Fortunately, there’s a way to reverse this trend and save buyers hours of mental labor they don’t really want to do in the first place. It’s called consultative selling and it puts the onus of customer education back on the seller. If executed successfully, a consultative sales approach will improve customer experience and ultimately increase sales by returning trust to the sales process.

But what exactly is consultative selling and how do you teach it to your sales team? Read on to find out.

What is consultative selling?

Consultative selling, also known as guided selling, is a sales approach in which sellers seek to first understand the buyer’s needs and then guide them to the best solution by providing expert advice and educational resources. 

In a consultative sales approach, the seller’s goal isn’t to persuade. The goal is to act as a trusted advisor and build a relationship with the customer. 

In his paper, Connecting the Consultative Experience, Robert Rose from Content Advisory defines consultative sellers as “trusted facilitators of the buying process.”

He argues that sales and marketing organizations need to stop treating buyers like experts and shift their focus to empowering sellers to “create a prescriptive, easy, successful buying experience” for customers. 

According to Rose, businesses building consultative sales experiences can “enable all kinds of front-line workers to distribute education while also exuding confidence, delivering value, and anticipating the needs of a buying group.”

A true consultative sales approach elevates the role of sellers from product vendors to problem solvers.

Why is the consultative sales approach better than other methods?

Consultative selling replaces common and traditional selling behaviors that can turn customers away, such as presumptive and negative selling.

Presumptive selling typically happens when a salesperson, in an effort to close the deal, intentionally assumes that a customer has already agreed to a sale. Presumptive selling can be an unfortunate side effect of the empowered buyer myth.

Negative selling refers to a salesperson talking negatively about a competitor's product or service. 

Both of these behaviors reflect poorly on the company and make for a bad customer experience. Most buyers don’t want to do a ton of research on their own. It’s time consuming and overwhelming, not to mention wasteful. No amount of buyer-conducted research will equal the level of expertise sales reps have about their industries and products.

Buyers also don’t want to enter into sales conversations with the assumption they already know all there is to know about the product and are set on making a purchase. They also don’t want to sit through a bunch of trash talk about the competition.

But shifting away from traditional selling methods and behaviors like these toward a consultative sales approach requires organizational change.

Sales Enablement Pro attributes these bad selling behaviors to “a status-quo mentality, where sellers do not think to change their approach because they’re comfortable with what they’ve always done” (source).

They also discuss how sales metrics become dangerous when reps work only toward vanity metrics and hitting their numbers. Focusing on cutting down time to quota or other speed-related metrics can lead to sales orgs that will do anything to get any sale, such as frequent discounting, negative selling, and taking on clients that aren't a good fit only for them to churn in six months.

Consultative sellers aren’t concerned with closing every deal as quickly as possible. Instead, they have an end goal of fitting each customer to their ideal solution and building trust as a result. 

How to teach consultative selling

Let’s look at some of the most impactful skills required to build a consultative sales team.

Key skills required for consultative selling 

  • Listening (more than speaking)

Successful sales reps ask questions and listen to the answers, rather than rambling off information from a pre-planned sales pitch. Good communication skills include working to develop a deep understanding of a customer's unique needs and communicating that understanding in a way that makes the customer feel heard.

  • Research

Understanding the customer is the foundation of guided selling. That requires reps to do some research on their prospects before and during the sales cycle so conversations have “context, personalization, and authority” (source). Reps can’t recommend solutions to customers if they don’t have a feel for their industry, company, and role, at a minimum. Knowing what type of information to seek and where to find it is a learned skill. 

  • Assessing customer problems and finding the right solutions

Remember, customers are ideally looking to salespeople to be trusted advisors. If they are communicating with you, they likely have a problem they need help solving. Whether it's an actual business problem or a buying process challenge, the salesperson should be there to offer advice and help find a solution.

  • Gaining and retaining product and market knowledge 

Communicating clearly and working to solve a customer's pain point should ideally segue into a salesperson communicating their company's unique value proposition. Therefore it's critical for reps to not only know the ins and outs of their own product or service but also to have some knowledge about similar products or services that are on the market. This way, sales reps can guide customers toward understanding which solution is most appropriate for their needs.

  • Disqualifying customers 

True guided selling requires reps to occasionally guide customers away from your company’s products. But turning customers away can be awkward even if it’s in their best interests. Your sellers need the ability to assess whether your product is the right fit for the customer as well as the tact to let them know — gently — if it isn't. 

  • Prescribing a buyers journey 

From the amount and timing of touchpoints to what content to share at what time, sellers need to be able to guide the buyer through their unique journey based on their needs and behaviors. This requires an attention to detail, a proactive approach, and the right data. Sales engagement tools that track buyer behavior to indicate where they are in their journey enables reps to prepare and lead prospects through a prescriptive sales process.

  • Building trust

This is the most difficult skill to develop as it doesn’t come with hard and fast rules. Trustworthiness is subjective. But if reps develop their interpersonal skills, answer questions honestly, back up claims with data, and focus on educating rather than persuading, trust will follow. This is where conversation intelligence tools that analyze the “vibe” somebody gives off when speaking come in handy.

How to teach guided selling skills

Instilling and developing these skills in your sales team is a matter of finding the right mix of tools, training, and coaching.

  • Make ongoing education and training a priority

The development of a salesperson's knowledge and skill set doesn’t end once they've completed an initial onboarding period. Ongoing education is critical to keep consultative skills fresh and ensure that the latest information about products or services is accurately passed on. 

Sales training in the forms of just-in-time and microlearning ensures reps retain and refresh product, market, and solution knowledge. You can enroll reps in a third-party selling course or even build your own in which reps become certified in consultative selling.

  • Provide tools to assist in the selling process

Part of enabling great sales skills is giving your sales team all the tools and resources available that can help them do their job to the best of their ability. Whether it's a CRM, a sales content management platform that lets reps easily find, share, and tailor educational content for customers, or software powered by AI that detects human emotion in real-time, the right tools are boons for skill development. 

  • Coach for success

Continually providing constructive feedback helps reps understand how they can improve the skills required for guided selling. A sales coaching program that includes role-play practice, peer feedback, and unbiased feedback from machine learning tools is critical for scaling the approach. If you certify reps in consultative selling, reps who have mastered the method can coach their teammates to disseminate their skills throughout your sales organization.

At first glance, a consultative sales approach that includes guiding some customers away from your products may sound counterintuitive, but it could be a real differentiator for your company. Any company adopting consultative selling will contribute to a more positive buyer perception of the sales process. 

When organizations shift their focus from numbers to customer experience, the sales process and the bottom line organically improve. 

And you’ll never regret providing a positive customer experience. It will always pay off in the long run — whether it’s through future sales or brand reputation. 

Is your organization looking for evolved strategies to increase the performance of your sales teams? Bigtincan provides sales enablement solutions that adapt to your unique business needs. Contact our sales team.