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Consultative selling doesn’t work anymore. I realize that’s a provocative statement, but I think it’s a fair one.

Consultative selling doesn’t work anymore largely due to seller misunderstandings, misapplications, flat-out mistakes, misdirections, misperceptions, and just missing the mark entirely.

We’ll have to flash back to when consultative selling was fresh and new to see how we’ve gotten so far off course and to understand what’s changed.

Consultative Selling: Where We Went Wrong

The word “consult” has three different meanings, and all of them have been used in some fashion when it comes to consultative selling.

1. Consult, as in, “to seek advice or information from or to ask guidance from.”

But here’s the thing: Buyers today — modern buyers – aren’t seeking advice and guidance from sellers like they used to. Today, sellers have to earn the right to be able to guide their buyers. They have to bring guidance to the buyer and generate demand for the advice they can offer before buyers are willing to take their guidance.

However, guidance certainly is a part of modern selling. In fact, buyers want leadership. The origin of the word “lead” (from “leden”) means “to guide.” We need to reframe the way that we’re entering into the relationship so buyers will see the value of allowing us to give guidance to them.

2. Consult, as in, “to have regard for a person’s interests in making plans.”

This is an interesting one because leaders work with others to create a shared vision, and buyers want sellers to create that shared vision. But, first they want to be sure that sellers have their best interests at heart – the buyer’s interests before the seller’s own interests.

Too often, sellers go off and try to create vision without keeping the buyer’s interests at heart or without involving the buyer. When that’s going on, it doesn’t seem that they have true regard for the buyer’s interests or that they’re involving the buyers in making those plans.

3. Consult, as in, “to give professional or expert advice as a consultant would.”

This is the most common definition that we use when we talk about consultative selling. Although this is the most commonly used application, it’s not the most effective way to sell. Buyers resist our expert advice until we first dignify their experience and until we show respect for their input. We have to earn their trust before we can challenge them, and we don’t want to come across as being disrespectful by offering advice that is ill-informed, premature, or groundless.

Interestingly enough, the origin of the word “consult” comes from middle French. It originally meant “to deliberate.” Deliberating is a slow, steady consideration of information; a deep study where options are cautiously weighed and eventually — in a leisurely fashion — there’s some sort of movement toward a conclusion. That’s not the best approach to selling. If we truly have something to offer that will help someone, we ought to be acting with more urgency.

What Consulting Is and Isn’t

Some misinterpretations of consulting have taken us off track, too. Consulting is not a license to be arrogant. Certainly, you should be confident that you can help. You need to be able to show quickly and to demonstrate clearly that you have something of value to offer. But none of that suggests that you should be unwilling to acknowledge what buyers already know and that buyers can contribute. We have to be willing to come alongside buyers in a collaborative manner.

Something else that consulting does not mean: It doesn’t mean something you do instead of selling. It’s seen this way far too often. Asking endless questions, commiserating, and offering advice on tangential issues is not appropriate. That’s not consultative selling.

For example, I was observing a sales call recently where the seller turned the demo into something entirely different. The seller spent a lot of time offering tips on how to apply for a next-level job. The buyer was seeking an internal promotion, so the seller offered to review the resume and made just one grammatical correction. Then the seller offered some “rah rah, go you” type of encouragement. It was all very bland and generic. Next, the seller talked about his roommate’s job search and told secondhand stories that his roommate had shared. This amounted to more than 30 wasted minutes. It was not successful rapport building. It wasn’t consulting. It wasn’t advancing the sale. In fact, it wasn’t even professional. This was all about being in the friend zone. None of this exhibited the seller’s true area of expertise. The advice the seller offered wasn’t even all that good. It was a non-productive activity, basic selling reluctance that I was observing instead of consultative selling.

All these derivatives and misunderstandings of what consultative selling is diminishing the effectiveness of sellers who get caught in this trap. What sellers really need to be doing is leading their buyers. That’s what buyers want. That’s what moves sales forward. That’s what creates meaningful connections that cause buyers to see sellers in a positively differentiated way.

Step Up to Your Selling — and Leading — Potential

Consultative selling really doesn’t work anymore. If you’re choosing to operate in this way, you’re going to be left behind by sellers who are stepping into their full potential as leaders. If you’d like to be a seller who steps into the role of a leader… if you’d like to stop selling and start leading… be sure to check out Stop Selling & Start Leading. It will take you where consultative selling has not.

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About the Author Deb Calvert

President, People First Productivity Solutions. Author: Stop Selling & Start Leading® and DISCOVER Questions® Get You Connected (“Top 20 Most Highly-Rated Sales Books of All Time”). Named one of the "65 Most Influential Women in Business" and Top 50 Sales Influencer. UC-Berkeley Instructor. Certified Coach, Sales & Leadership Speaker, Trainer.

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