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The roots of the consultative approach to selling took hold in the 70’s and 80’s when there was a move toward more collaboration with the buyer in the selling process. Rather than begin the development process by focusing on the product or service and its associated features, function, benefits, and advantages (in an attempt to persuade the prospect to buy), salespeople began by focusing on the prospect.

Utilizing an extensive list of questions, salespeople made an effort to “understand” the prospect—to uncover the company’s needs, wants, challenges, and goals, as well as the nature of the marketplace in which it competed, the companies with whom it competed, and the unique value it brought to its customers. And, there were questions to help salespeople better understand the internal structure of the company—its hierarchy, formal and informal chain of command, and centers of influence.

Presumably, by “consulting” with the prospect, i.e., obtaining answers to the long list of questions, the salesperson would be able to collaboratively develop a solution that was customer-focused and outcome oriented rather than product-focused and feature/benefit oriented.

At first glance, the consultative approach not only made sense, but it appeared to benefit the prospect. No longer would there be a need to manipulate or pressure the prospect into making an affirmative buying decision. That was the theory. And it worked for those salespeople who had the knowledge and skill to organize and analyze the newly discovered information in a manner that facilitated the development of meaningful solutions.
 
For some, there was another line of thinking.
By obtaining answers to the long list of questions, a salesperson would better understand the prospect’s situation—goals and challenges—as well as his or her values, feelings, and views. Presumably, the more the salesperson understood a prospect’s situation and thinking, the more likely he would be able to develop rapport and trust…and ultimately sway that prospect. The focus for many of the early adopters of the consultative approach was primarily on creating an environment that facilitated influencing prospects to adopt an opinion or to take action in the direction that favored the salesperson. Though more subtle, it was still a form of manipulation.

Salespeople who were asking questions for the sake of asking questions (and developing rapport and trust) were actually wasting time—theirs and their prospects’. Eventually, prospects caught on and would stop the inquisition by asking, “Why are you asking me all these questions?” or simply stating, “Just tell me what you got for me.”

So much for the “consultative” approach.

The ability to actually “consult” with a prospect and develop a customer-centered solution requires more than merely asking a series of questions to discover the scope of the prospect’s goal or challenge. It requires the experience and expertise to analyze the prospect’s situation and identify the real issues that underlie and contribute to the prospect’s challenges and goals. And, it requires sufficient product knowledge from which to develop and ask relevant questions that not only direct the prospect’s attention to those important issues, but also relate them to the appropriate aspects of your product or service that would provide a satisfactory and mutually beneficial outcome.

The consultative approach to selling is not so much about asking questions as a means of gathering information as it is about asking questions as a means of sharing and exploring information. Isn’t that what consulting is all about?

 

- Jody Williamson


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