What is the difference between consulting and consultative selling?

How do you close a consultative sales conversation?

I asked that question the other day on LinkedIn.com in the small business development category.

I was looking for a sales skills brainstorm. Unexpectedly, I heard several consultants (not sales consultants) say that they would never “close” a consultative conversation. Some seemed offended that I suggested it. For them, “closing” meant proposing that a customer buy a particular brand. The implication was that a consultant stands above brand identification to remain independent.

I 100% agree that a consultant must be independent. This is exactly how I would consult … recommending a particular brand only if you thought it was the best solution, and offering multiple brands if all other things were equal.

So how, then, does someone sell on an advisory basis?

Consultative selling resembles consulting in some respects, but ends up presenting a single brand as the best solution. (This is somewhat different from the original Consultative sale, as coined by Mack Hanan in the early 1970s, in a book worth reading.)

Selling consultatively, like consulting, involves diagnosing the potential customer’s situation to find out what their problems are, what they have already tried to do to solve the problems, what is the root of the problems, what keeps them in place, etc. Skillful and intelligent influence is used to help the potential client see their situation with new eyes. It’s asking the right questions at the right time to advance the thought process toward new insights and inspiration.

Do not sell on an advisory basis

Selling in a consultative manner does not simply mean “educating” or “providing information to the potential customer so that they can make an informed decision”, or “finding out what the potential customer needs so that you can present your solution using their words.” Good advisory sales DO all of these things, but usually much later in the sales conversation than most salespeople think.

Open sale

Think of the sale as an hourglass. While the sand is at the top of the hourglass, be a consultant. Spend enough time exploring your situation so they have fully developed the problem and told you how and why the problem exists. Understand the flow of the conversation so you can ask questions to help them think about your problem from your expert perspective. Notice how this process dissolves concerns and objections. Don’t take opportunities to present a solution. Mentally catalog those opportunities and put them aside for now.

When the time is right, the sand has fallen to the bottom of the hourglass and the potential customer will discover that they want to hear your solution. Now you can come up with a solution that’s exactly tailored to your needs (if you have one), and you’ve developed a long-lasting relationship that you can cultivate for future business.

Don’t educate your potential customer

The approach that captures the consultative sales process and smart influence needed to make it work is called Open Selling, and one of the first principles of Open Selling is this: DO NOT educate your potential customer. As soon as you start talking, you lose control of the conversation. Instead, provide enough information to keep the conversation moving forward, but just ask questions until you’ve decided together that you don’t have a solution or are practically begging you to come forward. Then educate enough to come to an end.

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