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How Consultative Sales Methods Need to Change

Call it what you like: solution sales, consultative sales, consultative selling—at the core of each of these concepts is diagnosing and connecting the "pain" of the buyer with the products, services, and overall capabilities of the seller as "solutions."

Pain + Diagnosis + Offerings as "Solution" = WIN!

While this concept is still alive and necessary today, it has changed in 3 very important ways.
 

3 Ways Consultative Sales Methods Need to Change

  1. Understanding vs. Diagnosing Needs

    In consultative sales, there’s typically a heavy emphasis on the seller “diagnosing” the needs of the buyer. The need for diagnosis implies that the buyer doesn’t have a thorough understanding of why they find themselves in their current, undesirable situation or what to do differently. Through diagnosis, the seller figures this out like a doctor might with a patient who feels unwell, but who doesn’t know what they have or what to do to get better.

    These days, diagnosing needs isn’t nearly as important as simply demonstrating understanding of needs.

    In a study of over 700 B2B purchases, we looked at what the winners of actual sales opportunities do differently than second-place finishers. Of the 42 factors we studied, “deepened my understanding of my needs” was 40th on the list of what winners do. Winners barely did it compared to the rest of the factors, yet they still won the sale.

    Second-place finishers actually focused more on diagnosis than the winners, yet they still lost.

    Depending on the situation, diagnosis can be important. If the buyer wants to make improvements, but doesn’t know what their issues are, diagnosis is necessary. But at a macro level, it’s not nearly as important as it used to be.

    While sellers may not have to diagnose as often or as deeply anymore, they do have to demonstrate understanding of need. This is critical. The terms may seem similar, but throwing the "understanding" baby out with the "diagnosing" bath water is not a good idea.

    Looking at the differences between winners and second-place finishers, "understood my needs" was the fifth largest gap. In fact, winners demonstrated they understood buyers’ needs 2.5 times more often than second-place finishers. On top of that, of the 42 factors, buyers said “understood my needs” was the fifth most important factor that second-place finishers should change in order to win their business.

    This isn’t to say that buyers have it all figured out all the time. But with the Internet and other sources of information, buyers are further along than they used to be when engaging sellers.

    It’s much like when a person doesn’t feel well these days. They often turn first to WebMD, Wikipedia, and Google to investigate. If need be, they find themselves at a doctor’s office, but people are often much further along in their understanding of what might be going on than in years past.

    Fundamentally, sellers need to shift from diagnosing needs to demonstrating an understanding of needs.

  2. Focusing on Pain and Aspirations

    Another needed change in the consultative selling concept is a shift away from the prevalent use of the words "problem" and "pain." These are the two most common terms associated with discovering buyer needs. These words all too often drive sellers to employ find-out-what’s-wrong-and-fix-it thinking.

    Let’s say the buyer doesn’t perceive anything—or anything important enough to act on—to be wrong. Soothe-the-pain sellers find themselves at a dead end. No problems to fix. Nothing to sell.

    The sales winners, however, don’t just focus on the negative, they focus on the positive. Along with having much richer sales conversations, focusing on the positive opens the door to significant opportunity to increase sales: driving their own demand versus reacting to demand that comes directly from buyers.

    The sellers who are most successful at creating opportunities focus much more on the positives—goals, aspirations, and possibilities achievable by the buyer, even if the buyer doesn’t know it yet.

    Sellers who focus on aspirations as well as afflictions are able to directly influence the buyer’s agenda by inspiring them with possibilities they hadn’t been considering, but should be.

  3. Necessary, but not Sufficient to Win the Sale

    While a consultative sales approach used to be enough to win the sale, it’s now only the price of entry.

    Imagine for a minute that someone is selling to you and you perceive the seller doesn’t understand your needs and doesn’t craft a compelling solution. Their chances of winning business from you are probably pretty slim.

    Now consider that the seller demonstrates a strong understanding of your needs and crafts a compelling solution, but you perceive that they aren’t listening to you and you haven’t made any kind of personal connection with them. As long as any other seller meets the minimum criteria, you’re not likely to buy from the unlikeable seller who isn’t listening.

    The point is: Sellers who do a good job, even with these changes to the traditional consultative sales approach, haven’t yet won the game, but they’re in it.
     

Changes to the Basic Premise of Consultative Selling

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Additional Reading
6 Ways Selling is Changing

Selling like it's 1987 (or even 2007) doesn't work like it used to. The way buyers and sellers interact—and will interact—is changing significantly.

What is Consultative Selling?

Since Mack Hanan coined the term in 1970, consultative selling has been the most widely accepted—and most pursued—sales approach. The approach is characterized as understanding buyer needs and positioning offerings as solutions to problems.

While this has been the go-to approach for many sellers, massive changes in buying technology and the vast amount of information on the internet is significantly changing how buyers buy at an unprecedented pace.

Advanced Consultative Selling: Selling in the Blue Ocean

For the last 50 or so years, consultative selling has been the go-to approach for most sellers.

In traditional consultative selling, the buyer states a need and the seller positions their offerings as solutions to problems. This used to be enough to win the sale. But today’s buyers often perceive sellers and their capabilities to be somewhat interchangeable.1 This leaves sellers stuck in a capabilities battle, fighting price pressure.

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