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Have You Earned The Right To Engage In Consultative Selling?

by David Brock on July 29th, 2009

Twice over the past week, I have been involved in some interesting conversations revolving on engaging customers in talking about their business problems and solutions we might provide. 

The first was a conversation between David Bonnette, Group VP of Oracle, Robin Carey of the Customer Collective, and Brent Leary.  We were talking about some of the challenges in Oracle’s Provocative Selling initiatives.  Netting it out in my words, “you have to be very careful about how you go into a customer and tell them they could be running their business much more effectively, you don’t know how they will react to it.

The second was yesterday, someone commented on my post over at the Customer Collective, The Future Of Solution Selling….  The commenter mentioned something I hear often:  “I try to ask my customer probing questions about their business and they won’t tell me.  No matter what I do, they build a wall and won’t share the information I need to really understand their problem and presenting a value based solution.”

The issue underlying both of these discussions is:  Have you earned the right to ask the customer challenging questions about their business? 

Think about it yourself, how would you feel if someone started asking you a lot of very detailed questions about your business?  How would you feel if some of those questions focused on your problems and issues where you were not performing well?  Would you immediately open up to someone who is telling you that you are being outperformed by others in your market?

I know my reaction would be to “clam up.”  I’d put a very high wall between myself and the person asking me these questions.  I’d likely be very suspicious, particularly if that person’s business card said “salesperson, account manager, business development manager.”

You already know that I evangelize consultative, customer focused, and value based approaches to facilitating the customer’s buying decision.  You know that I believe you have to ask tons of question, probing the customers’ needs, aspirations, strategies, and goals.  But how do you do this, how do you earn the right to ask the customer these challenging and perhaps threatening questions?

There’s no single method or process, but here are some ideas:

  • Earning the right starts with establishing your credibility–demonstrating to your customer that you have knowledge or capabilities that are relevant to them–and fit their current priorities.  If the customer doesn’t know, immediately, that you can contribute to what they are doing, they will be reluctant to engage in any kind of discussion with you.
  • Developing a level of trust–appropriate for where you are in building the relationship or for where you are in the customer’s buying process.  Trust is built over time, clearly the level of trust required for the customer to commit to implementing your solution is different than the level of trust required for early in their buying cycle.
  • Authenticity–this word is tossed around casually.  To it means, demonstrating that you really care about the customer, both the organization and individual.  Whether it is sensitivity to their time, the issues they face at this moment, or what they are trying to achieve.  If you don’t really care about them, why should they care about you?
  • Creating the value in the interchange–does the customer get something out of every meeting?  Do they learn something new?  Are you using their time well?
  • Are you and the customer “in sync?”  Sometimes the customer doesn’t understand why you are asking the questions you are asking.  Sometimes the questions you ask are inappropriate for where you are in the buying process.  Sometimes they don’t know how you will be using the information.  I find explaining what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it contributes to what the customer is trying to achieve helps the customer to open up, providing the information you need.  If they have that look in their eyes, “Why is he asking me this,” you know you are both out of sync and you probably don’t have the level of trust necessary.
  • Demonstrate your humanity or vulnerability.  I used to have a problem (sometimes, I still do), unwittingly and unintentionally, I have a tendency to intimidate people.  It’s something about how I present myself  (maybe I shouldn’t wear the brass knuckles on the first call.)  People were a little bit afraid of me.  Learning this, I have taken conscious steps to make myself real and a “normal” person.  Sometimes it’s how I use humor to lighten up a situation, sometimes it’s reducing my intensity.  Revealing your vulnerabilities, being human, helps build the relationship and trust.

Earning the right is critical in building a relationship and engaging the customer in giving you the information you need.  It is critical in presenting a solution and asking them to select you as their partner.  You begin earning the right in the very first call and build on it through the relationship.

What do you do to “earn the right” with your customers?

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  1. Larry Mandell permalink

    You bring up a great point. We have been drilled on the consultative side that we must ask questions in order to deliver value with our products/services. The good sales rep is looking to be an advisor and therefore asks questions.

    The great sales rep is the one that knows that they have to sell their core competency to make the recommendation.

    In my experience as a manager many sales reps are unwilling to spend the time to do the up front research and then interpret it in terms of what it means from our perspective, present validation that gives them the right to ask in depth questions, and then ask the questions that are appropriate to the client.

    • Great points Larry! Thanks for contributing. The upfront preparation–linking what we do into a context that is meaningful and impactful to customers is critical–it’s what enables us to connect with the customer’s priorities and to differentiate ourselves. If we don’t do it, we not only aren’t being customer focused, but we are reducing our liklihood of winning and lengthening our sales cycle.

  2. Bill O'Neill permalink

    Anytime I have mentored sales reps, I have taught them that you can’t start off, as a consultative sales rep, you have to earn that right. You have to be a successful solution sales rep, with that customer, and then you can become a consultative sales rep. When the customer stops asking you what something will cost, and asks how we can solve a problem, you’re there.

    • Great comment Bill. It’s a magical moment when you become part of the customer’s problem solving team!

  3. Dave, I started composing a comment and then realized I have enough to say on this matter that I have enough material for a blog post of my own, so thanks for giving me a good idea for Monday morning! The short version is this: don’t assume from the lack of an answer that your questions have failed. Besides gathering information, questions are also useful to establish your credibility and to get the customer to think. In fact, sometimes the lack of a response may mean that the question has really hit home.

    • Jack, thanks for the comment. Great minds must think alike. I’ve written a post (scheduled for Monday) on just this. Effective questioning is not just about getting the information and data we need to respond to the customer. It’s most powerful in getting the customer to think about what they want to do.

      Looking forward to your post. Regards, Dave

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