Why taking a consultative approach to sales works best

Sep 9, 2021
Author: collin stewart

BEING CONSULTATIVE

Simeon Atkins, a recent guest on the Predictable Revenue Podcast, explains that being consultative, at its essence, comes down to having a fully customer-centric approach to sales. That means putting your customer’s needs, challenges, and aspirations at the heart of everything you do, be that doing your research, prospecting, setting a meeting, or having a sales call. It also means thinking about how you can add value to your prospect first, rather than thinking about how much you can sell to them. 

In reality, this is often easier said than done. In Simeon’s experience both in a sales role and observing those in sales roles, salespeople frequently dominate conversations with their prospects and customers and share as much information about their own products or services as possible. It’s easy to fall into this trap because as a salesperson you want to be the most knowledgeable person in the room and prove that you know what you’re talking about. Furthermore, salespeople’s onboarding and training centre around product or service training, rather than the markets or the companies that they’re selling into. This results in a knowledge gap between what they’re selling and who they’re trying to sell it to. 

Focusing on your own product or service as a salesperson is counterproductive, however. To be consultative or, as Simeon describes it, being effective at selling, you need to have the same level of knowledge about the customers you’re selling into as you do about your offering. The key to this is spending as much time as possible in early conversations asking the right questions to fully understand the customer’s needs, challenges, and aspirations. Simeon maintains that salespeople should get their prospects talking 90% of the time and then – only then – you’ll be able to effectively position your company as the solution to their problem.

NOT BEING CONSULTATIVE 

Simeon assets that salespeople are unable to sell effectively if they are not consultative to some degree. At the most basic level, you won’t be able to determine which of your products or services best meets your customer’s needs if you don’t do your research and ask the right questions. 

You’ll make the whole selling process more difficult. If your clients don’t understand the value you can bring to their business, they’re not going to buy from you. You risk losing credibility early in the conversation if clients get the impression that you don’t understand their business or don’t care about what they’re trying to achieve. This credibility is hard to win back. 

You make it harder for your prospect to sell your solution internally. Whoever you speak to is going to have to pass your information up the chain of command, likely to 6 or 7 decision-makers in the buying committee. If your prospect doesn’t understand the value you bring, they won’t bother trying to tell it to other stakeholders. On the off chance that they do, they’ll convey the value even less effectively than you did, and it will be that much harder to win the sale. You’ll prolong the sales cycle, lose the deal altogether, or minimize deal size potential.

Finally, you jeopardize your opportunities to retain and upsell clients.   

Woman and men sitting at a desk with laptops laughing

HIGH PRICE/LONG TERM COMMITMENTS 

In today’s landscape, customers have a vast amount of choice. A 2017 article by Forbes states that B2B customers “progress more than 70% of the way through the decision-making process before ever engaging a sales representative.” What this means, Simeon explains, is that by the time the prospect is speaking to you they’ve already made up their mind about what they want and how much they’re willing to spend. As a result, salespeople are drawn into conversations about pricing very quickly and are benchmarked against their competitors on this factor alone. 

Taking a consultative approach pulls the conversation in a different direction and gives it a new dimension. It allows salespeople to take a step back from the traditional buying process and help their prospects analyze what’s truly important to them and why they are in the best position to help them achieve it. This way, the decision can come down to value rather than price.

While consultative selling is effective in any type of sale, there are a few scenarios where being consultative is of particular merit. The first is if you are selling a solution that requires a long-term commitment, like a subscription model. The second is if you are selling a premium solution at a high price. In both scenarios, from the prospect’s perspective, there is a greater risk associated with making a decision. They have to be totally convinced and comfortable with the decision they’re making because they’re stuck with it for the long haul. The third scenario where consultative selling is vital is in customer retention. For a company to be profitable, it needs to not only sell one-off licences or one-time deals, but to retain and upsell customers year after year. As you move forward into a relationship with a client, you need to understand how their needs and challenges evolve, and constantly make sure that you are positioning yourself to help. This becomes particularly pertinent at times when your clients are considering scaling back on external vendors (ie during Covid). If you’re able to be consultative and add that extra, valuable layer to your relationship, you’re harder to dispose of.  

Example: SimilarWeb has a large customer in the logistics space. Simeon put together visuals on market trends in the company’s clients’ industry. This data had nothing to do with logistics or the solution they were offering. Bringing this data to their client added an exciting layer to their relationship. When it came time for the client to renew its contract with the logistics company, it chose to renew even though a competitor was offering a lower price. The deciding factor was the value they received from the logistics company above and beyond their solution.

BEHAVIOURAL PSYCHOLOGY

Simeon walked us through the theory behind the effectiveness of the consultative approach. He understands that a lot of salespeople today know that consultative selling is important and have a grasp on many of its aspects, but they don’t necessarily understand why.

It comes down to basic behavioural psychology. We’re all cavepeople governed by 2 operating systems: our system 1 brain and our system 2 brain. Our system 1 brain is what makes us cavepeople. It has been our dominant driver for hundreds of thousands of years, and it works well in static environments because it generates automatic responses that give us the competitiveness to survive. It is non-rational, fast, and instinctive. And, when we were living in caves, it was incredibly useful in helping us hunt for food and escape from danger. 

However, in today’s world, we don’t need to rely on those system 1 responses very much. That’s where the rational, calculating system 2 brain comes in, which is much more compatible with 21st-century life. The kicker is that our system 2 brains don’t fully develop until approximately 25 years of age, while our system 1 brain is fully developed 10 years prior. Essentially, as Simeon puts it, we’re working on outdated operating systems.

Complex sales require us to engage with our customers’ system 2 brains and the only way to do that is by being consultative. The system 1 brain can’t wrap itself around big, long-term, expensive commitments.

ENGAGING THE SYSTEM 2 BRAIN

Being consultative is a skill that can be learned and practiced. Simeon suggests that you take the word “consultative” literally and think of yourself as a consultant for your client. In your next meeting, pretend that you’re a consultant who’s been hired by this company to help address a problem they have or achieve a goal they want to achieve. What would a consultant do to be effective in their role? They’d ask a lot of well-thought-out questions and let their client speak most of the time. So, next time you’re on a sales call, see how many questions you can ask before you start talking about your product or services. Then, see how you can improve upon your consultative skills on your next call. 

The more consultative conversations you have with your customers, the more you’ll add to your bank of knowledge on your customers’ market and their companies. While each conversation you have will be unique, there will be common threads between certain customers which you can leverage.

FOR SALES LEADERS

Empowering your sales reps to be consultative starts when you onboard them. The biggest element of onboarding needs to be training your team on the markets and companies they’re selling into, rather than your solution alone. Something else that you can think about is how you incentivize them. Traditionally, most sales reps are compensated for revenue closed or opportunities created. To encourage consultative selling, encourage them to act in a more consultative manner by compensating reps on behavioural targets like asking questions or gathering information and presenting it internally. If salespeople aren’t motivated to sell consultatively it will be harder to change their mindset.

SIMILARWEB

SimilarWeb is a market intelligence tool that provides a unique data set on tens of millions of ecommerce websites and businesses. With its actionable insights, it helps sales reps understand what matters to their prospects and how to engage with them. It shows the data in an easily digestible manner and users can quickly find the information they need so that they can break through the noise with relevant cold outreach, be consultative on sales calls, and provide additional value to existing customers. The tool is particularly useful today as the ecommerce space becomes more and more saturated.

Example: Another logistics company working with SimilarWeb went to an event where they ran into a long-standing prospect. They utilized the SimilarWeb platform to research their prospect’s ecommerce website, and they saw that while 10% of their traffic came from the US, they weren’t currently shipping to the US. This logistics company met with their prospect, showed the data, and performed a calculation that showed them how much more revenue they could be making if they capitalized on the traffic in the US. This interaction transformed their relationship with the prospect and helped to open doors to conversations with other teams and more senior leaders before eventually so that they could win the sale.

BUSINESS IMPACT 

The business impacts when reps implement a consultative approach are copious. They will:

  • Express value to customers more easily
  • Create urgency around their customer’s pain and how they can help more easily
  • Increase order value by making their solution more relevant
  • Close more business
  • Shorten sales cycles
  • Maintain longer relationships

Example: An account management team using SimilarWeb leveraged the platform in their meetings to spend 50% of their time speaking about market trends, opportunities, and what their clients’ competitors are doing instead of their own products or services. As a result, their meeting rate has doubled as customers come to them to have meetings. The clients are receiving additional value and insights on where potential threats and opportunities are. 

Being consultative is not as complicated as it might seem, as long as you ask the right questions and plenty of them, do your due diligence into markets and companies, pretend you are a consultant, and make sure you’re as much an expert on your customers as you are on your own business. The icing on the cake that Simeon shared is that you’ll actually enjoy your role more. When you get to go into meetings and speak on a peer-to-peer level about more than just your product, those conversations are more powerful, enjoyable, and rewarding.

CONCLUSION: 

A consultative approach to selling is undoubtedly the most effective way to sell, and Simeon Atkins gives us some compelling reasons why. Rooted in behavioural psychology, a consultative approach engages the rational, calculated part of a customer’s brain necessarily to evaluate complex solutions and make long-term commitments. As for how to achieve a consultative approach, it starts with onboarding sales reps with a focus more on their customers than on their solution and continues with asking great questions so they can learn about their prospects’ needs, challenges, and aspirations above all else. Tools like SimilarWeb, in the ecommerce space in particular, can be a great support in consultative selling.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 

How to be consultative in your messaging: The 3 Ways Salespeople Are Getting Messaging Wrong

And how to ask better questions: How Question-Selling Can Triple the Value of Your Service

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