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The 6 Elements of a Truly Consultative Sales Process

We know that best-in-class sales organizations use a consultative sales process. But what does that really look like?

A sales process is consultative when the stages and actions align with the customer’s buying experience and are defined in terms of the customer relationship.

It's only successful when sales leadership and the sales force execute with dedication and competence. That's why a true consultative sales framework has both a process component and a human component. Let's dig into each.

Consultative Sales Process

A typical consultative sales process is made up of six stages. Each stage maps out winning behaviors and strategies. Here's an example:

  • Stage 1: Target and Qualify
  • Stage 2: Explore and Assess
  • Stage 3: Access and Develop Solution
  • Stage 4: Present Solution and Follow-up
  • Stage 5: Negotiate and Close
  • Stage 6: Implement, Follow Through, Assess Results, and Expand

The sales process stages should help guide salespeople in qualifying, closing, expanding business, and building relationships.

Each stage should define the objective, best practice activities, tools, models, and customer actions that signal readiness to advance to the next stage (for example, the customer agrees to a meeting in Stage 1, or provides access to the executive buyer in Stage 2).

There should also be a list of sales coaching questions related to each stage. Some examples in Stage 2 would be: What business problem is the customer trying to solve? Have I reached the executive sponsor?

The stages must align with the buyer's journey: The process buyers go through to become aware of, evaluate, and purchase a new product or service.

Here's a typical buying cycle, along with the corresponding salesperson action.

Stage 1: The customer becomes aware of a business problem. Alternatively, the salesperson creates a pre-stage 1 opportunity by introducing an idea or challenge that is not yet on a customer’s agenda, or raises the visibility of an issue the customer has underestimated.

Stage 2: Customers assess how much of a priority the issue is, determine their options, and develop decision criteria and decision process. Salespeople can help their prospects by sending them how-to blog posts, offering to run a consultative call, and sending them relevant content resources.

Stage 3: Customers research, compare solutions, narrow down choices, and refine decision criteria. The salesperson must differentiate, focus on business outcomes, and prove value.

Stage 4: Knowledgeable customers make their selection and negotiate. Skilled salespeople will have already involved Procurement prior to this stage.

Step 5: Customers make the purchase. Salespeople support implementation and follow-up.

Step 6: Customers are in an evaluation mode. In the post-purchase stage, customers implement, measure outcomes, and evaluate performance against the sales promise. They decide on the future of the relationship. Salespeople must discuss results, prove value, and build on the rapport they previously created.

It is at the intersection of sales process and the buying process that sales are made. Marketing must step up to the plate and support the sales force not only with qualified leads but with knowledge sharing, research, and insights into industry and customer priorities, personas, and challenges. At that point, it is up to salespeople to build on that foundation to understand their customers on an individual, granular level to solve their business problems.

It has been my experience in building sales processes that almost all sales organizations have the fundamentals of an effective process within their reach -- but most don’t reach.

Defining a sales process doesn’t take significant blocks of time. To start, pull together a diverse team of sales leaders and top performers, operations, service, and marketing people to map out and capture elements such as key milestones in how customers buy, best practices, tools, customer actions, and models for each stage.

Consultative Salespeople

A consultative sales process is powerful because it clarifies for salespeople what is expected. Additionally, it guides sales managers in what to coach and evaluate.

A sales process, however, is not a silver bullet -- nor is it cast in stone. Instead, it's a map that detours and changes based on conditions. The sales process should also be flexible enough a salesperson can adapt it using their best judgment.

The success of a consultative sales process takes more than even the most clearly defined stages, models, and tools. What you won’t find laid out in the sales process are the salespeople tasked with carrying out the process, the sales managers committed to coaching to it, and sales leadership that fosters an open and supportive culture. These stand equal with process.

Just as customers’ buying patterns have dramatically changed, so too has what it takes to be a consultative salesperson. To execute, salespeople need a number of new skills and resources, including deeper knowledge, a higher level of skill, greater creativity to bring new perspectives and ideas to customers, better sales tools, and most importantly, committed sales leadership and coaching.

A new emphasis has been placed on sales process, but as essential and valuable as a consultative sales process is, success depends on the ability and dedication of sales leadership and the sales force to execute. In his book "The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," Robert Pirsig makes a point worth remembering: The instruction book -- i.e., the process -- is only as good as the driver.

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