Consultative Selling

There is an approach to selling called “consultative selling.” While there are various misuses of the term, its originator, Mack Hanan, defines it roughly as not being a “vendor” trying to sell what you do, but acting like a consultant when you sell.

There is an approach to selling called “consultative selling.” While there are various misuses of the term, its originator, Mack Hanan, defines it roughly as not being a “vendor” trying to sell what you do, but acting like a consultant when you sell.

I’ve been lecturing and writing about this approach for 20 years, defining it briefly as “acting like a consultant.” However, just recently I realized that not everyone makes the same assumptions about what selling like a consultant means. It means you don’t do “presentations” about what you offer. You don’t overcome “objections.” You don’t “close” the sale. (These are standard steps of traditional sales training.)

What you do is act like you’re being paid to define people’s problems and help them solve them. That means you ask questions. You do needs analyses. And you make referrals to other experts if they can solve the problem better than you! If done in depth, some of the steps above deserve to be paid for. Defining a problem can take research and time. Likewise a needs analysis, or even the right referrals.

Some consultants charge for their needs analysis even though they are one of the possible solution providers at the end. This is a good approach if you can do it. It means you get paid to do a thorough assessment of the situation which benefits both the client and you. A good goal would be to make your needs assessment worth charging for. Then if you give it away free, the client should trust you more. (A related approach would be to charge for a needs assessment and then rebate that cost as a credit if they hire you.)

I’m going to wander a bit, but it’s all part of the general point of how the consultative selling approach is very different from what you’ve though of as sales. As discussed elsewhere, [link to Q&A about people pumping you] some consultants worry about being taken advantage of by prospects pumping them for information and solutions. (Prospects are potential clients; click here for a fuller definition: see the end of this file) And some prospects do try to get help for free. But here we’re looking at things from the clients’ perspective. And we’re looking at it from the view of the academic who thinks “selling” is pushy and sleazy. If that’s your view, you can’t think you’re sleazy when you’re giving information away free! (Interesting how perspectives can change from worrying about hard-selling to worrying about being taken advantage of by people you might work with!)

Anyway, prospects may want information from you to test your expertise. Or they extend the conversation to get to know you better. Or they may want input so they can do it themselves. The point from the prospects’ point of view is that they need to trust you, and believe that the solution is worth the effort and expense. Many problems can be put off or ignored altogether. If prospects don’t know you already, or have a strong referral from someone they trust, they will often avoid hiring you, even if they think you can help them. The due diligence and uncertainty of hiring someone they don’t know make the risk/benefit ration tilt against solving the problem. (One way to deal with this problem is to offer “samples” – small consulting packages with a fixed cost that can get clients comfortable working with you.)

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