What’s the Difference Between Consulting and Consultative Selling?

I asked a question the other day on LinkedIn.com under the category of small business development. The question was…“How do you close a consultative sales conversation?”

I was looking for an exchange of ideas about sales skills. Unexpectedly, I heard from a number of consultants (not sales consultants) saying they would never “close” in a consultative conversation at all. Some sounded offended that I would suggest it. To them, “closing” meant proposing that a client purchase a particular brand. The implication was that a consultant stays above brand identification in order to stay independent.

I agree 100% that a consultant should stay independent. That’s exactly how I would consult…recommending a particular brand only if I thought it was the best solution, and offering multiple brands if all other things were equal.

So how, then, does someone sell consultatively?

Selling consultatively resembles consulting in some regards, but ends with presenting a single brand as the best solution. (This is somewhat different from the original Consultative Selling, as coined in the early 1970′s by Mack Hanan–in a book well worth reading.)

Selling consultatively, like consulting, involves diagnosing the prospect’s situation to discover what his problems are, what he’s already tried to do to solve the problems, what is at the root of the problems, what is holding the problems in place, etc. It’s using skilled and intelligent influence to help the prospect view his situation through new eyes. It’s asking the right questions at the right time to move the thought process forward to new insights and inspiration.

It is not merely “educating” or “giving the prospect information so the prospect can make an informed decision,” or “finding out what the prospect needs so you can pitch your solution using their words.” Good consultative sales DOES all these things, but usually much later in the sales conversation than most salespeople think.

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

When the time is right, the sand has dropped to the bottom of the hourglass, and the prospect will discover that he/she wants to hear your solution. You can now present a solution that exactly fits his/her needs (if you have one), and you will have developed a lasting relationship that you can nurture for future business.

I’ve captured this process and the skills of intelligent influence needed to make it work, in an approach called Openhanded Selling. One of the first principles of Openhanded Selling is this: DON’T educate your prospect. As soon as you start talking, you lose control of the conversation. Instead, deliver just enough information to keep the conversation moving forward, but confine yourself to asking questions until they’re practically begging you to present.

Find out more about Openhanded Selling here.

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