Developed in the 1970s, consultative selling really came into its own in the 1980s and is still popular today. In consultative selling, the salesperson acts as an adviser (or consultant) by collecting information on a prospect's needs and then presenting him with a solution. Generally consultative selling is a more “warm and friendly” approach, using little or no hard selling. The idea is that by the time you reach the end of the sales process the close is almost automatic, since you're able to demonstrate how your product meets the prospect's specific needs and requirements.
Consultative selling techniques are not unlike the methods used by professional consultants. Think how a doctor or a lawyer treats a client. They usually start by sitting down and asking a series of questions about the client's history, then a more specific series of questions about the current problem. Then they combine this information with their professional knowledge and come up with a plan to solve the problem.
The first step is to do some advance research. If the prospect didn't have a problem, she wouldn't have bothered to set up an appointment with you, so the trick is learning the specifics – but many prospects will hesitate to answer a long series of questions from you. So finding out as much as possible ahead of time will help you to get started without taking up a lot of the prospect's time. Good sources of information include customer records (for existing customers), and online resources like Google, LinkedIn and Facebook.
Once you've gathered as much data as you can, it's time to meet with the prospect and get some more specific information. The key is to present yourself as a problem-solver from the start. After you introduce yourself at the appointment, say something like, “Mr. Prospect, I consider myself a problem-solver – my job is to determine the best product for your needs. So I'll need to ask you a few basic questions about your current situation. May I take a few minutes of your time to collect this information?” Then the prospect won't be surprised when you start asking him a series of often personal questions.
Building rapport is the second critical part of any consultative selling technique. Prospects need to trust in your expertise, or your advice will be worthless to them. You should develop and maintain a solid base of knowledge about your industry. For example, if you sell server hardware you should know the difference between Linux and Windows server software and the pros and cons of each. If you're a B2B salesperson and sell mainly to customers in one industry, then you should know the basics about that industry as well. Then you can convey your knowledge by the nature of the questions you ask and/or by how you respond to the prospect's answers.
Once you fully understand the prospect's current situation and the problems that he's facing, it's time to present him with the solution. If you've qualified the prospect well then your product will almost always be at least a partial solution to the prospect's problems. All you need to do is show the prospect how that will happen.
Presenting the solution is usually a two-part process. First, state the problem as you understand it. Say something like, “Mr. Prospect, you mentioned that your server crashes on a regular basis and has had frequent problems with denial-of-service attacks. Is this correct?” By asking for confirmation, you can clear up any misunderstandings and also offer the prospect a chance to clarify the problem further. When you both agree on the nature of the problem, step two is showing the prospect how your product is a good solution for this particular problem.
If you've done your homework, asked intelligent questions, stated the problem correctly and shown how your product fits the prospect's needs, there's a good chance that you just closed the sale. If the prospect hesitates at this point, you probably goofed somewhere along the way. You can still recover by asking a few probing questions to determine the prospect's objection, then restarting the selling process at that point.