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What is Consultative Selling?

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Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

For years, traditional consultative selling was the approach many sellers used to successfully compete and consistently win sales. Today, it’s no longer enough.

Since Mack Hanan coined the term in 1970, consultative selling has been the most widely accepted—and most pursued—sales approach. However, massive changes in buying technology and the vast amount of information on the internet are significantly changing how buyers buy at an unprecedented pace.

The traditional approach to consultative selling must evolve.

The New Definition of Consultative Selling

We propose the following new definition for consultative selling in our white paper, The Future of 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. This is known as core consultative selling.
  2. Inspiring buyers and driving change with ideas that matter. We call this process advanced consultative selling, or insight selling.

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

Traditional consultative selling still has a place in sales—see the first part of this definition. 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 are the sellers who consistently win doing? We conducted a major sales study to find out.

Top 3 Factors for Advanced Consultative Selling

For our research, we wanted to know what the winners of actual sales opportunities do differently than sellers who come in second place—from the buyer’s perspective. We studied 731 major B2B purchases, and the results underscore the evolution sellers must make.

According to buyers, the top 3 factors that most separate winners from second-place finishers are that winners:

  1. Educate me with new ideas and perspectives
  2. Collaborate with me
  3. Persuade me we will achieve results

Sellers inspire buyers and drive change with ideas that matter by taking these three actions. This is advanced consultative selling, or insight selling.


When sellers educate buyers, they inspire buyers with ideas that matter. It’s rare that a buyer contacts a seller and asks for ideas. But when a seller proactively brings opportunities, research, and insights to buyers, they win deals more often, demonstrate their credibility, and help buyers think outside of the box.


When sellers collaborate with buyers, they redefine need, redefine reality, and drive change. They don’t just present to buyers, but rather encourage conversation, ask questions, and get buyers to picture what their new reality can be. When buyers aren’t part of the solution, they’re less likely to commit to change.


It’s not enough to drive conversation—sellers must also drive action. The best sellers communicate the impact of solutions, outlining how the buyer’s aspirations and afflictions might come to pass (or not) and demonstrating a new reality. The credibility and trust sellers build with buyers help motivate buyers to act and close deals.

Putting the Consulting in Consultative Selling

To refine how we think about the consultative selling process, let’s examine 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:

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 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.

Rigorous analysis and critical thinking lead to “aha” moments that shape decision making.

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

What Makes an Effective Consultative Seller?

Peter Block, author of Flawless Consulting, would call the best 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 don't 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.

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.


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Topics: Insight Selling Consultative Selling