Consultative Sale – Stages of Getting from Hello to Close

It’s easy to be impressed by a sales candidate’s track record–and think that you can hire them and just have them do their thing (sell). But be careful not to let a great resume replace an actual sales methodology–replete with product training, a list of standards, an accountability system, and (lots of) practice. Also, consider how you’ll scale this salesperson–when he/she has mastered the new role. Are they a tier 1 sales lead that you’ll train to close (tier 2)? Will they scale their clientele–expanding to bigger businesses? As you grow and scale your sales team, how will you keep them aligned? Each new rep will likely have a different personality and approach–but you need to present a united front.

First, Why Does Your Company Need This?

Creating a skeleton methodology allows salespeople to flex, rather than locking them into rigid systems, but it still lets you speak a shared language with your sales team. When it comes time to look for ways to improve, coach performance, convey your own experience, or give feedback, the skeleton will keep your conversation objective, even though you’re referring to subjective things. Constructive critique will feel less personal, and you can actually assign values to and measure sales behavior. That’s important because, if all you focus on is bottom line KPIs (“how much did you close?”), your turnover rate goes up, and that hits the company hard; you can’t effectively coach people into higher performance unless there are measurable components of actual sales behavior.

Consultative vs. Transactional Sales: What kind of sales your company is doing is less about product vs. services, and more about transaction vs. consultative. Transactional selling is fine for when customers typically buy once, rather than repeatedly or on a subscription basis, or sales occur in a single interaction. An example is switching over phone service; once the salesperson closes the deal, he never talks with the customer again. If they have problems, they go through support. If they don’t buy in the first conversation, it’s often an entirely different salesperson who tries again another day. In consultative sales (also called relationship based selling), the client is likely to continue to buy from the vendor, there may be an account management aspect to the salesperson’s role, and deals might take multiple conversations to close. Either approach requires a particular methodology. This guide is specifically about Consultative Selling.

Method vs. Skillset: One other reason to have a method appropriate to the type of selling you’re doing, is you’re not dependent on one of the perpetual myths of sales – that sales is a skillset that only a few people have, rather than a method that can be learned by most people, and improved in all people, with varying degrees of effectiveness. As long as we surround selling with mystery, we can’t create a performance culture that depends on continual improvement rather than continual burnout and turnover. So regardless of what you’ve believed in the past about who can and can’t sell, act as if anyone can sell (to some degree) and anyone can sell better (with continual focus on improving core structural elements of their selling method).

There’s no right skeleton: The are a gazillion methodologies for doing consultative selling, but only one method. Some systems have five stages, some eight, and some use proprietary acronyms, but they all do essentially the same thing. Examples:

  • ADAPT: Assessment, Discovery, Activation, Projection, Transition
  • SPIN: Questions about Situation, Problem, Implication, Need-Payoff
  • GREAT: Greet, Relate, Explore, Advise, Tie Down (from the Sales Alliance)
  • ARC: Ask, Recommend, Close and Cross-sell

Here comes the music: The point is not which one you use, but 1) that you have something solid as a repository of the core things a salesperson needs to do to bring in business, and 2) that you put some quality effort into training and development (coaching) around the structure you use. The structure is merely symbolic. So, because I’m happily watching Mozart in the Jungle right now, we’ll express the skeleton as the notes in a musical scale. It’s as good a meme as any – easily remembered if you’re musical – good to memorize if you’re not.

C – Center on Something

Before you even touch the rest of the sales process, on any given day, suck in something that makes your company tick. Touch the stone. Never start cold. Have a conversation with a stakeholder about the company’s vision, go learn how some aspect of the business works that you don’t yet understand, or read the company blog or internal newsletter – get inspired by something within the company culture. Eradicate another perpetual myth about sales: It’s not true that the best salespeople can sell anything; the best salespeople, and the best people, can sell anything they believe in strongly enough. You’ve got to drink deeply and repeatedly of that belief, somehow, before you engage in any further aspect of selling.

D – Do the Research

Your credibility depends, in any conversation, on knowing who you’re talking to. Sure, confident people can speak to anyone, but confident smart people learn about the members of their circles before having crucial conversations. Dig specifically into company background, size, services or products, target audience, what the media says, and key stakeholders. No matter how thick a profile someone hands you, pull up LinkedIn and get the most recent data points on the actual person. If you were doing a podcast talk show, you’d already have some questions, before the guest came on, about the gaps and the subtext. “So, you were there when the company started. Are you a founder, or did you work in other startups with the founder?” etc.

E- Establish the Tone

They may realize it’s a sales call, but you still need to set the tone for what kind of interaction it is. After all, once they realize you want to sell them something, they may stereotype your role or start to put up barriers based on their preconceived notions of how the call will go. If your company isn’t just selling things off the shelf, but depends utterly on building a relationship with clients, then talk to prospects as if that’s so. If the conversation is exploratory, don’t convey desperation; say it’s exploratory. Sometimes it helps to outright state the purpose of the call: “Jim, I’m reaching out today because I want to have a conversation around your company’s business objectives with its marketing services.” Jim gets that it’s a sales call, but you just said the focus of the call is strategic, not a high-pressure and self-serving drive to a close. That’s incredibly helpful.

F – Find the Bond

That brings up a critical aspect of consultative (or relationship based) selling. There are two people involved, and both are human. As the sales consultant or consultative salesperson, you’re host to the other party. It falls to you to take the lead in courtesy; be the most giving, the most generous in the conversation. That means the other person’s personality sets the relationship tone, and you’re the one looking for the place to bond. Whenever one of you needs to shift toward the personality of the other, it’s you who does the shifting. If anyone’s interests take precedence, it’s theirs. Building rapport can’t be cheesy. Don’t pretend you’re interested in his days playing soccer if you don’t know the first thing. Or, if you’re genuinely curious, then say you don’t know the first thing but you always wanted to know. The key is that sales – including B2B sales – occur between people, not companies per se. The original companies were companies of soldiers, and later companies or guilds – for instance a company of players in Shakespeare’s day. The business entity is part legal formality, and part brand. Don’t dismiss the brand part (see D above), but don’t ever forget that a company is a company of persons. If you want to ‘partner’ with one, you have to find a legitimate, and uncontrived bond with its members.

A Note on Bonding: It occurs throughout the entire conversation. You might be able to identify a point when you ‘started’ to bond, but if the rapport is organic, it will continue to be built throughout the conversation. In fact, it’s the bond of rapport that supplies the momentum for the conversation’s progress, rather than the artificial momentum of sales pressure or the even this skeleton of consultative method which, if one had a perfect 1:1 bond with another person, wouldn’t actually be necessary. What a consultative methodology acknowledges is that the bond won’t always be either immediate or perfect. So even if you’re a ‘people person’ who forms bonds with most people naturally, don’t let that dissuade you from applying a methodology to what you do, if you want to be more effective at sales. The numbers will speak for themselves.

G – Gather the Data

Up until now, you haven’t suggested any direction, or overcome any objection. You haven’t offered any products or services. Before you make any recommendations, or push back on any concerns, get all the information you need to make a full proposal. Start with the high level stuff: what are their objectives and goals. Drill down to how they’re currently meeting those objectives, and what the results have been. You can ask about pain points, but resist the temptation to ‘set up’ the sale by asking A:B questions like “has your current vendor been on time with all their orders?”. That’s transactional selling. Powerful consultants don’t have to do that. Fill in informational gaps: get any details that might affect how you would advise them to proceed. Resist any temptation to rebut, if they raise objections to the common pitches coming from your industry; you’re not pitching, you’re learning – building a profile, and those objections are part of it. Hear what they’re saying, and be put it in your notes, but don’t respond yet. Get everything first, as if you only get a single shot at proposing a course of action. Afterward, if you hear “yeah, but that won’t work, because…” and it’s some detail you could have asked about, then you need to get better at this portion of the conversation, so your proposals are more on point, and they know you’ve truly got their best interests at heart.

A – Advise to Achieve

You are now going to be their trusted advisor, and your focus is utterly on them achieving their goals. They didn’t expressly ask you for recommendations, but you established the tone of the call, and they accepted it. That’s what a consultative sales call is – it’s a process of building a relationship, learning all you can, and then offering very powerful recommendations that set you apart from the competition precisely by how keen and on-point they are. What you recommend is based on ALL of the insights you’ve drawn from the research you did before the conversation, the bond you have with them now, and the data you’ve gathered from a high level and drilling down to details. If you’ve done your job well until now, your advice will be as genuine as if you didn’t need their money. It would be the advice you’d give them either way. When you’ve given your recommendations, check for feedback, handle concerns and questions (experienced salespeople have some idea how), but don’t switch gears and become defensive or turn on the pressure. Handle every question they have like their coach – as someone who wants to help them be effective in achieving their goals. If you can mean it, and not patronize them, you’ll earn the right to go forward. It’s at this stage that the integrity of the salesperson is the most active factor. This is where your company may honestly not be a fit for them, and smart companies will say that, if it really turns out to be so. They will not force a hollow, straw-filled attempt at closing. The stronger your adherence to the process, the more you can be sure when it is and isn’t a fit. When it is right, your integrity will lend itself to your close, making it the strongest possible, without the need for artificial pressure.

A Note About the Close: When they are amenable to your recommendations, say you’d like to outline the steps for going forward. This is the close. It’s not emphasized here, because it’s a ‘soft close’. Transactional salespeople and organizations put a heavy emphasis on the hard close. They take it from Glengarry Glen Ross, “ABC – Always be closing!” Transactional sales has to push the close that hard, because they haven’t built an advisory relationship with the prospect that takes into account their key objectives. Transactional sales needs to churn through numbers, not develop an account that will continue to buy. If you’ve done your work as a consultative salesperson, you can smile and shrug at all the bravado and the posturing transactional have to do to stay motivated. Your soft closes will bring in revenue they only dream of. This is your kung-fu; it’s not the hand that hits the hardest, but the open hand that directs your counterpart’s energy. And for you, it’s mutual advantage you’re aiming for – a true partnership, not a wham bam, gotcha ma’am; call our warranty office if your vacuum cleaner breaks.

B – Bring it Home

This step – bringing it home – is when you get them into the next steps that make them a client. Your company will have a standard process for most new clients. It might be sending them the proposal, they sign and provide card information, you run their card, you then schedule an intake, and assign them an account manager who touches base and sends them a questionnaire. Whatever your process is, walk them in a lean but not too brisk way through the steps – past the point of money changing hands. At this point, you’re not going to re-close them; you’ve made the sale, so you want their minds focused on the steps that go beyond any initial payment, rather than stopping at that point, as though it *were* the point. In consultative selling, the money is not end game; the ongoing relationship is what they’re buying, and you don’t stop focusing on that as you wind down the conversation. You get out of the conversation the way you got into it, focusing on achieving their objectives. Do that, and they won’t second-guess their decision and leave you re-selling them later. If you find you’re losing a lot of them between your conversation and the money, this may be the area you need to improve.

Can you hear the music? There’s another reason the notes make an excellent metaphor for the consultative method; both form a natural progression that, once learned, is a joy to continually improve upon. Beware the person who says, “Oh, I know how to do that. I did that for years.” Continual improvement is the soul of the salesperson, if for no other reason than the company needs to continually increase its sales goals. These best practices need to be revisited again and again, with the goal of always finding ways to become better at them. If all you ever did was work on your upper body, you’d have a huge chest and bony legs. Having a skeleton lets you focus on any given part for improvement until, for balance, you feel like focusing on a different one.

What if You Need More Guidance, or Help Building a Sales Program?

A sales methodology is just part of a successful sales program. There’s an infrastructure behind it, a need for ongoing development (if only because you’ll need your salespeople to go past their initial ceiling of possibilities, and they’ll need to know they have a resource to help them grow). Salespeople are like performers or entrepreneurs; they want to get better, and they’ll seek out people who can help them do that. MadPipe can provide sales leadership in the form of an external Sales Director who can be precisely that resource for you AND for them. Use the contact button to reach out, and let’s have a powerful conversation around your own business objectives.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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