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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.

This traditional approach to consultative selling is no longer enough by itself for sellers to compete and consistently win.

Consultative selling itself must evolve.

The New Definition of Consultative Selling

We propose the following new definition for consultative selling:

Consultative selling is an approach to sales whereby sellers redefine reality and maximize buyer value through:

  1. A mix of understanding, shaping, and redefining need, crafting compelling solutions to address the need, and communicating maximum impact for the buyer (core consultative selling)

  2. Inspiring buyers and driving change with ideas that matter (advanced consultative/insight selling)

As a result of these actions, consultative sellers build relationships, build trust with buyers, and maximize sales wins.

Some of the first part of this definition is similar to traditional consultative selling. Sellers are still required to understand need and craft compelling solutions, but this is now just the price of entry. We know buying has changed, and that the sellers who stop here don’t win nearly as often as others.

But what exactly are the sellers who consistently win doing? We conducted a major sales study to find out.

We wanted to know: What are the winners of actual sales opportunities doing differently than the sellers who come in second place, from the buyer’s perspective? We studied 731 major B2B purchases. The top 3 factors that most separate winners from second-place finishers are that the winning sellers:

  1. Educated me with new ideas and perspectives
  2. Collaborated with me
  3. Persuaded me we would achieve results

This research data underscores the evolution sellers must make. They have to educate (inspire buyers, ideas that matter), they have to collaborate (redefine need, redefine reality, drive change), and persuade buyers they will achieve results (compelling solutions, communicate impact, build trust).

Our new definition of consultative selling incorporates what today's sales winners do.

Putting the Consulting in Consultative Selling

Think for a minute about the consulting industry. Strategy firms like Bain, McKinsey, Roland Berger, Boston Consulting Group, and Booz Allen help their clients make the best decisions to drive their success.

In fact, these strategy consulting firms redefine reality for their clients using two common strategies. They:

  1. Give advice. Sometimes they do it evangelically, such as sharing with clients the direction an industry is going or how a new technology is emerging, and then providing ideas for how to take advantage. Sometimes they do it after collaborative analysis: they study and interact with clients to dig deep into their situations and needs, and then provide guidance for what to do. In any case, they give advice that inspires their clients and drives them to new heights.

  2. Question the status quo. Strategy consultants push back. They don’t accept current thinking and paradigms. Always leery of the dangers in the comfort zone, these consultants challenge everything about the status quo. The end result is rigorous analysis and critical thinking leading to “aha” moments that shape decision making.

Both traits of strategy consultants lead to the same outcome for their clients: they redefine reality.

Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, would call these consultants "collaborators." Collaborators, he says, don't just create and implement solutions; they give clients fresh perspectives, clients benefit from their diversity of experience, and clients work with them to define the problem before solving anything.

Another type of consultant is one Block would call a "pair of hands." Their job is to understand the need as presented by the client, position their offerings to solve the need, and execute.

"Pair of hands" consultants do not redefine reality. They may execute effectively (no small feat), and perhaps have their own novel ways of doing so, but the client's reality stays the same.

Exploring the dynamics of consulting itself is instructive because it’s an almost exact parallel to what’s happening with consultative selling.

Consultative selling has been defined for half a century like "pair of hands" consulting: understand need as defined by the buyer, present offerings as solutions, solve problem.

Our new definition of consultative selling includes strategy consulting: anticipate need, anticipate eventualities, provide and inspire with new ideas, challenge the status quo, drive change, drive decision making, and redefine reality.

After almost 50 years of consultative selling focusing on implementation of the buyer's vision, the concept breaks new ground to include strategy consulting, in which the seller takes an active role in setting—or later altering and improving—the agenda itself. Consultative sellers would do well to think about themselves less as consultative sellers and more like actual strategy consultants.

If you want to find yourself in the winner's circle more often, it's time to evolve and embrace the new definition of consultative selling.

Additional Reading
A New Way to Collaborate with Buyers

The more sophisticated and advanced sellers become, the more they make selling about conversations and collaboration, not presentations and pitching. Even their presentations become interactive collaborations when done right.

Cognitive Reframing: How to Get Buyers Off Auto-Pilot

The classic selling model has taught sellers to uncover needs and craft compelling solutions. It goes something like this: the buyer needs something and asks for it. You provide it. It's straightforward, but buyers are operating in their comfort zone.

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