Advisory Selling

Selling on a consulting basis. Not a foot in the door but the heart in the right place

I am a bad salesman and my business is going well. The more I ‘sell’ in a conversation, the weaker I am. Then it goes wrong. I mainly sell myself to people and companies who know me. There is sufficient trust and knowledge. This is the result of a process.   Especially a process with the customer, and I have helped that customer, consciously and unconsciously. And when I look at such a process of the customer, I recognise the methodology of advisory selling. An approach that I learned years ago. And which I see still works. An important misconception about selling is the idea that the sales person must above all say the right things and have the right knowledge. Trainings in this area are often about ‘smart’ communication: for every disadvantage (e.g. the price), mention one or two advantages (efficiency, faster result). And: ask smart questions, such as: ‘Do you want to gain a competitive advantage at a reasonable price?’ Who wouldn’t want that… In essence, these training sessions are about ‘outsmarting’ the customer where the sales rep tries to get the customer to where he wants him to be. Under the table, there is a struggle and thus a win or lose situation. And even when both parties think they have won, the question is whether there is continuity in the relationship. Fighting costs energy, winning is relative and temporary: tomorrow the next fight between customer and supplier will be at the door. The essence of consultative selling is as follows: the salesman helps the customer to determine what his problem is and helps him to determine what solution he wants. Since the salesman is sitting at the table, there is a good chance that the customer will do business with him.

All kinds of mechanisms at the customer’s end lie behind this:

• The customer chooses, not the seller. The customer has doubts, wishes and convictions
• The customer knows best what he wants, but has questions about feasibility and consequences (how will I get there, what will it cost me?)
• The salesman has a lot of knowledge and therefore asks the right questions
This also determines the role of the sales person: he facilitates the customer in his process. And facilitating means listening, giving space, stimulating, setting boundaries, being curious, and confronting. What it does not (yet) mean is providing solutions. The salesperson must first help the customer to get clear what his problem is. If a customer says that there is an excessive outflow of staff, it seems that that is the problem. Recruiting could then be the solution. However, if the discussion about the high outflow continues, another definition of the problem may emerge. For example, a lack of opportunities for advancement, outdated management, unfavourable working conditions, a negative work culture in the team, and so on. Only when there is a clear problem definition is there room for thinking of solutions, of which not necessarily one is the best. Perhaps the customer knows a solution that the sales person does not. Only when a number of alternatives are on the table can the customer choose and proceed to purchase. When I regularly hear organisations proclaim that ‘the customer is central’, I often have the feeling that they do not know what they are talking about. Putting the customer first really requires a helpful attitude and the right set of skills, as in the methodology of advisory selling. Challenging and sometimes demanding, but ultimately fruitful for the relationship with the customer and for business.