The Future Of Consultative Selling: 7 Shifts That Make Sales Success Inevitable

This is a guest post by Ago Cluytens, Practice Director at RAIN Group.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about the so-called demise of consultative selling. Anyone from CEB to Harvard Business review has predicted “the end of solution sales” as we’ve come to know it.

Our own research at RAIN Group points to something else entirely – not only is consultative selling far from dead, it’s undergoing an exciting, thorough transformation. Where its basic tenets remain true, there are seven key ways in which consultative selling will transform in the near future.

In short, we’re about to witness the future of consultative selling.

In this post, I’m going to break down the seven key ways in which consultative selling will transform:

  1. From Understanding Needs To Redefining Reality
  2. From Functional Experts to Deep Generalists
  3. From Defining to Redefining Needs
  4. From Tunnel Vision To Unexpected Impact
  5. From Red Ocean To Blue Ocean
  6. From Product Value To Seller Value
  7. From Analog To Digital

Let’s dive into each!

1) From Understanding Needs To Redefining Reality

One of the key underlying principles of consultative selling is its overriding focus on understanding a buyer’s needs, and position your offering as a solution against those needs.

In fact, its very definition points is as follows:

“Consultative Selling is a selling method in which the salesperson spends time with the customer to understand the problem the customer is trying to solve, and then recommends a solution that will specifically address that problem. It’s different from a traditional sale in that it involves suggesting a solution to a problem, rather than a focus on selling a product” (Study.com)

Where we continue to believe that understanding needs will always be a core component of sales, we also believe something more is needed in today’s reality. Consultative selling should focus not only on understanding a buyer’s needs, but on redefining how a buyer sees those needs, and opening their minds to the exciting possibilities that exist for solving them.

The objective is not only to help buyers gain a deeper understanding of their needs and how your product or service might help solve those. It is to inspire them to take action, thereby driving change in the process.

2) From Functional Experts to Deep Generalists

As we’ve seen, in traditional consultative selling, there is a strong focus on building a deep understanding of a specific buyer’s needs. To do that well often requires strong technical expertise and/or a level of knowledge and skill that requires extensive product knowledge, education and insight.

When we continue to believe that in the future, sellers need to be experts, we have a different opinion on what they need to be experts at. More and more, buyers are expecting sellers to have a broad business background, be able to think long-term, adopt a strategic mindset and be able to connect with a broad variety of stakeholders on the client side.

In other words, sellers will need to evolve from being (simply) functional experts to deep generalists. For many, this will prove to be a substantial challenge, requiring extensive (re)training and the building of a set of skills and attributes that lie well outside of their comfort zones.

3) From Defining to Redefining Needs

In consultative selling, there is a strong emphasis on discovering and defining needs - the seller’s main role is therefore to help the buyer clarify their needs, and to do so in a way that positions their product or service as the ultimate solution.

But what if our role as sellers is no longer to merely help define the need? Research from Rain Group (Insight Selling) as well as the Corporate Executive Board (Challenger Sale) has clearly shown that what buyers are looking for today is not merely defining their needs, but educating them with new ideas and perspectives.

Those new ideas and perspectives revolve not only around how to solve the problem, but very often provide a new take on how to define the problem in the first place.

4) From Tunnel Vision To Unexpected Impact

At its purest, and because of its strong focus on defining the problem, consultative selling tends to be a reductionist approach. In other words, it limits its own impact by the very nature of its approach. If a buyer tells you what he/she needs, and they’ve done their homework, you should simply spell out how you product or service can help them. Job done.

We believe that, as sellers focus more on redefining needs in collaboration with buyers, the many forms of impact they deliver will be much broader in nature, and often much more unexpected and ad-hoc. In truth, when starting the sales process, neither buyer nor seller is likely to know the many ways in which a collaboration could mutually benefit them.

The future of consultative selling lies not only in redefining the need, but also redefining the impact of the solution.

 

5) From Red Ocean To Blue Ocean

Due to the very nature of its approach, consultative selling almost invariably leads to a situation where a number of competitors are offering more or less similar approaches to solving the same problem. After all, if the problem is clearly defined, there’s usually not a thousand different ways to solve it.

Buyers, of course, love this, as it makes their lives a little easier. It allows them to compare (seemingly, one-on-one) different vendors against each other, thereby encouraging price competition and nice-looking, logical and rational comparison charts.

Sellers, on the other hand, often complain about the fact that buyers don’t understand how differentiated (meaning: better) their products really are (and how hard it is to help them see how they are truly, but that’s an altogether different story).

In the future, we expect sellers who thrive to do so in part because they sell with insights, thereby helping buyers redefine the problem, and demonstrating new ways in which their products and services will deliver impact.

The end result will be that vendors will be seen as categorically distinctive. Rather than vendors competing with each other, it’s “views of the world” that will compete.

 

6) From Product Value To Seller Value

An approach that focuses on defining a problem in the positioning a product or service against that problem almost invariably leads to a situation where the true value is seen as distinctive to the product itself. After all, if something does a better job at curing/helping/addressing the problem, then it must be a better product.

In traditional consultative selling, the product is the value.

But in an approach that is mostly focused on ideas, generating new insights and perspectives and reframing a buyers mindset and points of view, the value essentially originates from the conversations that are being had between buyers and sellers.

In this approach, it is the seller who becomes the value.

 

7) From Analog To Digital

Where this is perhaps more due to the rise of the Internet and social media than changes in the sales approach and methodology, we’re sure to see a continued move from analog to digital and/or hybrid models of communication.

Already, buyers are turning increasingly to the power of the Internet and social media to conduct research, help define the problem, and develop a deeper understanding of their needs, as well as “vet” potential vendors.

In the future, we expect that trend to continue and strengthen.

Those sellers who act as deep generalists, redefine their buyers realities, deliver value through their interactions on a day-to-day basis and uncover new forms of unexpected impact are increasingly likely to do so to a variety of communication channels, from live meetings to conference calls to online chat.

Since Mack Hanan coined the term in 1970, consultative selling has been the most widely accepted—and most pursued—sales approach. For the ensuing forty years, advice for how to sell had mostly been a variation on the consultative selling theme.

In the past handful of years, however, selling has changed more than it had in the previous forty. It’s changed so much that variations on the consultative selling theme have been replaced by numerous calls to blow it all up and do something completely different.

At RAIN Group, we see the future a little differently - we continue to be strong believers in the fact that the basic tenets of consultative selling will remain valid for a long time to come, whilst the model and approach continues to reinvent itself.

This topic is so dear to us that we’re joining forces with the team at PersistIQ and presenting a webinar on “The Future of Consultative Selling.”

On this webinar, we’ll cover:

  • How consultative selling has changed, and needs to be redefined for a new era
  • How advanced consultative selling is redefining its role in the buying process
  • 5 ways in which sales is changing
  • Why the concept of "cognitive reframing" is key to your success in sales
  • The net effect: selling in the Blue Ocean

Watch the webinar reply here!

About the Author: Ago Cluytens

Ago is widely recognized as a thought leader on understanding the buyer’s perspective in sales – and topics like Insight Selling and selling to the C-suite. You can learn more about Ago, read his blog, and watch him in action at agocluytens.com and youtube.com/agocluytens. Or connect with Ago on TwitterLinkedin and Google+. For more on RAIN Group, please visit rainsalestraining.com.

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May 04, 2016 · sales management ·