Article | 12 min read

4 principles of the consultative sales approach

Convert more leads with these key consultative sales principles.

By Donny Kelwig, Contributing Writer

Published September 5, 2019
Last updated June 27, 2022

Customers don’t like to feel pressured into making a purchase, yet they’ll always savor that feeling of joy that comes from buying a great product. Or, in the wise words of Jeffrey Gitomer: “People don’t like to be sold—but they love to buy.”

This paradox leaves sales reps with a tough challenge. You know your prospective customers will appreciate your product or service, and you want to tell them as much. But a pushy sales rep always appears more concerned with making a commission than helping another human being.

The solution? Consultative selling.

Consultative selling helps you walk the fine line between pushing for sales and missing out on opportunities. The goal of this solution-based, customer-centric sales strategy is to establish positive relationships with buyers by helping them solve their problems.

It sounds simple, but it can be tricky to implement. In this piece, we explain consultative selling and how to apply it to your sales strategy so you can build trust, guide (rather than pressure) your prospects, and ultimately increase your sales success.

What is consultative selling?

Consultative selling (also known as needs-based selling) is a sales approach where reps act more like advisers than salespeople. Instead of pushing a specific product, sales reps recommend various solutions to potential customers based on their needs and pain points.

Of course, the consultative sales approach isn’t always appropriate. It’s best used in situations where your customer has already done basic research on products but isn’t sure which one is right for them.

In cases like these, the first contact with a customer generally occurs in the middle of a traditional sales pipeline, rather than at the beginning. While this may seem like an unlikely scenario, more and more consumers are doing their own research. With product information, reviews, and resources readily available to buyers online, sales reps are having a harder time managing customer conversations with methods like transactional or Challenger sales. As a result, the consultative sales approach is becoming increasingly prevalent as a sales skill.

The consultative sales approach helps sales reps meet customers wherever they are in their journey, ensuring the interaction is both valuable and profitable. However, for this strategy to be effective, reps must first develop a thorough understanding of customers’ pain points by:

  • Actively listening to buyers
  • Asking questions
  • Being objective
  • Focusing on solutions (rather than on products or features)
  • Providing customers with helpful information and resources (without asking for anything in return)

Consultative vs. solution selling

Consultative selling and solution selling are similar in concept. They’re both sales approaches that focus on the prospect’s needs instead of on the product. They also involve walking prospects through solutions that can meet their needs. But these two sales strategies have one significant difference between them.

In solution selling, sales reps will seek out solutions for their prospect, but they’ll often push offerings from their own company to fill the prospect’s needs. This makes solution selling more transactional in nature.

Meanwhile, consultative selling is all about giving prospects the resources they need to understand their problems and find a solution. Sales reps who use the consultative sales approach are frequently seen as more trustworthy. Though it may not result in a direct sale, this relationship-building sales technique helps reps bond with their prospects, which could lead to future sales or referrals.

The 4 principles of consultative selling

If you’re looking to build more trust through consultative sales, here are four sales psychology-based strategies that will help you put a consultative sales process in motion:

  1. Ask (the right) questions

  2. Ask (the right) questions, two people talking

    The main goal of consultative selling is to help your prospects discover a solution to their problems. Asking questions is crucial for guiding them through this process. There are two ways to ensure you’re asking the right sales questions.

    Be curious

    Your potential customers are well aware of their challenges. Your job is to determine whether or not they know what they need to remedy those problems. Knowing how to ask the right questions is key to diagnosing the root cause of your prospects’ pain points and ultimately suggesting the best solution for their business.

    Start your research on a macro level. Visit your prospective customer’s LinkedIn page to learn about their company, their product or service, and their target audience. Then, work down to a micro level and gain a better understanding of the prospect by reviewing their:

    Work history

    Social media accounts

    Personal blog

    Individual mentions in company news

    Specific page visits and time spent on the site

    During initial conversations, find out how much your customer’s budget is for the solution and what resources might be available to them throughout the process of implementation. This information will help ensure you recommend a solution that’s viable and appropriate for your customer’s particular needs.

    Lead the conversation

    Your prospects aren’t always skilled conversationalists, but it’s also not their job to keep a sales conversation going.

    When you’re consultative selling, you need to learn as much information as possible. That means you must keep your prospect talking through targeted, open-ended questions. Make sure every question you ask and every conversation you have leads to brand-new information.

    If they’re giving you the bare minimum in their answers, follow up with new tactics that motivate them to offer more details.

  3. Practice active listening

  4. Practice active listening, phone in hand

    You can’t consult if you don’t know what you’re consulting on. When you meet a prospect, give them your undivided attention and listen carefully to what they’re saying. Not only will you gain a better understanding of the buyer’s needs, but you’ll also show them that you care, which builds trust.

    Let your prospect’s answers guide you

    While sales scripts can be helpful, don’t rely on them too heavily when you’re consultative selling. Strictly sticking to a script or specific questions can cause you to miss critical conversation points and potential pitch openings.

    You must be able to think on your feet when you’re speaking with potential customers. If a prospect mentions an important detail during your conversation, pivot toward it. Ask how that particular problem has affected them, see how they’ve tried to fix it in the past, and apply that information to your next set of questions.

    Consultative sellers need to balance information-gathering and troubleshooting. If you’re just asking questions to figure everything out on your end, your prospects will never have their “aha moment” when they realize the extent of their challenges.

    Customize your consultation

    Every customer’s needs are different. Listen to what the prospective buyer says they want, but also be mindful that those desires may differ from what they truly need. Read between the lines and seek to understand.

    The best way to be an active listener is to apply the 80/20 Rule of Communication: Spend 80 percent of your time listening and 20 percent of your time speaking. Pay attention to verbal and nonverbal cues, too.

    Let’s say you’re a financial subscription business being approached by a potential customer. The prospect says they primarily want a reporting system, but you notice during the conversation that they keep referencing how scattered company receipts are. You determine that organization is the primary need—even if the buyer doesn’t know it yet.

    Being an active listener will help you understand a potential customer’s motives for buying and how you can best assist them.

    Improve your sales process

    A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

  5. Educate your potential customer

  6. Educate your potential customer, person with book in hands

    You have the expertise—use it. You’re teaching prospective customers how to make educated decisions. Assume your prospects have done their research; now your goal is to educate them on how to use what they already know.

    Here are a few ways to leverage your expertise to educate potential customers.

    Do your research

    You can’t offer insights if you’re going into each conversation blind. To provide value for your prospects, you need to deeply understand their business.

    Research their industry, the important decision-makers at the company, and who they’re competing with. See what your prospect is saying on LinkedIn or Twitter, too. You can also look at what solutions you’ve offered previous customers who were in similar situations.

    Any information you can find pre-conversation will help shape your consultations going forward.

    Offer insights as you go

    As a salesperson, you’ve likely interacted with hundreds of customers throughout your career. That means you have access to information that could help your prospective buyer. You also have experience solving problems for others just like them. While you might not be an expert in your prospect’s industry, you can offer a fresh perspective on each of their problems and provide suggestions based on your expertise.

    Pull examples of customers in similar industries and show prospects the solutions that helped those customers succeed. Alternatively, you can create a plan that illustrates what it would take to tackle your prospect’s problems based on past experiences.

    In addition to in-person and phone conversations, you can share this type of information in webinars, videos, and reports. While you don’t want to send every single thing in your arsenal, your goal is to be as helpful as possible. Remember, act as a consultant, not a sales rep.

    Be the authority

    It doesn’t matter how confident you are—in sales, words only go so far. For prospects to trust your suggestions, you need to prove that you’re an authority on the subject.

    Give your prospect examples of how you’ve helped clients in the past, such as testimonials, case studies, and other types of social proof. Any sound evidence that demonstrates your authority will convince consumers to listen to you and increase the likelihood that they’ll respect your advice.

  7. Be authentic

  8. Be authentic, hands holding rainbows

    Consultative sales are only successful when you’re actively seeking out a solution and focusing on helping the prospect. If you suddenly start to push a sale aggressively, your prospects will be taken by surprise and more hesitant to follow your advice.

    Here are two ways to make your customer interactions more authentic.

    Have a genuine conversation

    As you get closer to winning a sale, personalize the prospect’s experience. You don’t want to pressure that potential customer into purchasing your product or service. Instead, naturally suggest how certain features might meet their needs.

    To do this, you’ll need to know how to sell your product or service effectively. Prove to the customer that investing in your company is worth it. Start by answering these types of questions:

    How can I tweak what I’m offering to match the customer’s unique needs?

    Can we provide an additional product/service package?

    Can we offer a certain discount or promotion?

    Highlight the answers to these questions in your conversation, and give the prospect concrete examples of where those solutions worked for others in the past. Focus on what the customer will lose if they don’t take action.

    The guiding principle is to be genuine and authentic with every prospect. Remember, consultative sales isn’t about making a one-sided transaction—it’s about building a positive, mutually beneficial, and long-lasting customer relationship.

    Don’t play defense

    If you’re offering advice to prospects, they’re bound to question you at some point. After all, each suggestion you offer directly affects their company, so their push-backs are legitimate concerns.

    Make sure to embrace their sales objections and adequately address them. Sometimes objections are simply miscommunications, but other times they can indicate a serious problem with your process. Experts won’t always have foolproof advice, so when you work through prospects’ concerns, you’ll build trust and find a better solution together.

    If your prospects have tough questions, don’t feel pressured to provide an answer right away. Research is key to consultative selling, so if you’re stuck on a hard question, tell the prospect you’ll do some digging and get back to them. That way, you can give them sound advice and show them that you’re willing to put effort into answering their questions.

A consultative selling example

Let’s say a business wants to invest in a CRM system to assist with data storage. They see your software online and reach out to you.

The potential customer has read blog posts on the topic, downloaded thought leadership pieces, and participated in online forums. They understand what constitutes an efficient and effective CRM but aren’t exactly sure if incorporating one makes sense for their overall company strategy. That’s where you come in.

You start by asking specific questions to learn more about how they plan to use CRM software. You watch their webinars and read their company blog and news articles to understand everything you can about their business and their needs. Then, you gather details about their existing tech stack.

With all that information in hand, you use your expertise to create a plan and offer suggestions on how to successfully incorporate a CRM. They push back at first, but you’re prepared to show them examples of how a CRM has helped other companies in the past—and they warm up to the idea.

Soon, you and your prospective customer discover that your company’s CRM isn’t the best choice for their business. Now that they fully understand their company’s problems, they begin to seek out more direct solutions and wind up implementing a cloud storage system that helps organize their files.

They don’t buy your company’s software.

And that’s okay.

Remember: Consultative sales is about selling a solution, not a product. At the end of the day, the goal is to provide value and develop a strong relationship with the customer. Achieve this goal, and it’s more likely that buyers will come to you with their future business needs and referrals.

Consultative selling with a strong CRM

Consultative selling requires a lot of research and in-depth knowledge about your prospects. With so much information to track, it can be easy for sales reps to overlook crucial details.

Zendesk Sell can help sales reps keep those important details in order. Thanks to customizable sales dashboards, your reps will have quick access to notes, company details, and statistics that will illustrate their expertise during sales conversations.

Don’t let sales reps get overwhelmed. Request a demo of Zendesk Sell today to experience how a robust CRM can set your team up for success.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Improve your sales process

A good sales process is the foundation of any successful sales organization. Learn how to improve your sales process and close more deals.

Read now