Insultative vs. Consultative Sales (Issue 452)

In which we are reminded that “consultative selling” involves the application of judgment. 7:00 am. Breakfast. Lloyd's Diner, Natick, Massachusetts. [Don’t ask why. I’m sure I had a good reason.]

Me: “I’d like a Heavy Duty Breakfast with orange juice, please.”

Waitress: <Smiles and scribbles on pad.> “Would you like coffee with that?

Me: “No, thanks.”

Waitress: “Great. It’ll be out in about ten minutes.”

Consulting or order taking? OK, that’s pretty obvious. Order taking. (And, breakfast was G R E A T !!)

Salespeople frequently voice concerns about asking too many questions of prospective customers. The resistance points include “not wanting to insult a buyer who knows what s/he needs” and a misunderstanding of the differences between “order taking,” consulting, and insulting.

How about this? (We’ll use an investment product here. With a little imagination, this conversation could apply to other significant purchase decisions, from lines of credit to computers to cars).

Buyer: “I’d like to invest in a single premium variable annuity.”

Seller: < Scribbles on pad.> ” Great, how much do you want to invest?”

Buyer: “$50,000.”

Seller: ” In how many years would you like it to begin paying you?”

Buyer: “10 years. I’ll be 65 years old.”

Seller: “And, to whom will the payments be made?”

Buyer: “To my wife, or to our children, if my wife is deceased.”

Seller: <<continues to ask questions about beneficiaries, pay out time frames, etc.>>

What do you think? Order taking or consultative selling?

If you chose order taking, you’re……………. RIGHT!

Why? While the seller asked questions, the questions were designed to ensure a good product fit, based on the buyers request for the product.

Is that consultative? Close, but no prize. The seller is assuming the customer is right. That’s order taking. The seller has not applied independent judgment or counsel in this conversation.

Applying independent judgment is the essence of selling consultatively. In order to do this well, the seller must understand the buyer’s goals, strategies, and thought process to reach the conclusion that showed up as an “I need” statement. In other words, the consultant (delicately) challenges the buyer’s conclusion first, to understand it, and second, to apply independent judgment about whether the buyer’s conclusion is the best one.

QUESTION: Don’t we run the risk of insulting the buyer when we do this? By asking the questions to understand, aren’t we’re telling the buyer, “Hey, I think you’re a moron, so I’m going to test your judgment?”

ANSWER: Your positioning of the questions and tone of voice will help you avoid this. If you say something like, “Great, I’d be delighted to help you, and it would help me to understand your thinking, before we begin,” you’re not likely to insult anyone.

QUESTION: If buyers show up and say, “I need X,” haven’t they already identified their needs?

ANSWER: For small purchases, like a breakfast in a diner, yes, the need is clear. We’d think it inappropriate for a waitress in a diner to sell consultatively. Can you see it? “I’d be happy to help you with breakfast, sir, and it would help me to understand your blood chemistry and family medical history before we begin.” […. Although, I’ll grant you, at Lloyds, this MIGHT have been a good thing…]

However, for more complex and significant purchases, investments, or decisions, it’s perfectly appropriate to assume (as a seller) that the buyer may not understand his or her own situation and alternative solutions well enough to make the best decision.

QUESTION: And what if we come to the conclusion that the buyer is asking for the wrong solution?

ANSWER: You say something like, “You know, I wonder whether you’d be willing to play with another way of thinking about this, just for a moment.” Then, ask some questions… or share your experience and ask the buyer whether s/he sees a different possibility, based on what you’ve said.

With this type of approach, you’re providing independent judgment and experience. You’re adding value through your conversation. You’re consulting without insulting.

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