What does “being consultative” mean?
Many consultants still look at sales as a self-centered activity, rushing to list credentials and pitch their services to prospects. This approach is outdated and ineffective today. I want you to go through an exercise with me now so you can explore and better understand a different way to sell consulting.
Here's the context.
You have a meeting with a prospect. The company is one of your dream clients, and you have reached out to them - not the opposite. You have a successful track record of selling and serving other companies in the same industry or niche.
To agree to meet with you, however, your dream client gave you a list of rules. If you violate any rule from the list, the prospect will end the meeting and refuse to meet you again.
Here are the rules you need to follow:
You have 20-30 minutes for the call, and when that time is over the prospect will decide whether he will schedule another appointment with you or not. The only criteria he'll use to make this decision is how valuable they found the conversation.
Now here are two questions for you:
Take some time to think about those.
Some of you may already follow a few of these rules on your first calls. The vast majority of partners, however, will find this exercise extremely challenging. The more difficult it is, the more likely you are to use a self-oriented and outdated approach to selling.
There are many ways to pass the test and get to the next meeting. Here I'm sharing the answers given by Anthony Iannarino, the creator of this thought exercise, but slightly adapted to our consulting world.
How Will You Open The Call?
You need to start the conversation without saying anything about your company or the clients you have helped in the past. This can pose a double challenge for many consultants, since:
Here's how you can start the conversation:
"Thank you for meeting with me. Would it be okay if I started by sharing with you a short briefing on some of the trends we believe will have the greatest impact on your industry over the next twelve to eighteen months?"
At the end of the briefing, you could mention how these trends could pose risks, both to your prospect and their company. This is a relevant and certainly valuable conversation for your prospect.
There's a big difference between explaining to your prospect why they have - or soon will have - challenges and asking them what their challenges are so you can pitch your solution. The latter is what every generic salesperson does.
How To Gain Information While Helping The Prospect
You can't ask about your prospect's current pain points, but that doesn't mean you are not allowed to ask any questions.
An opening question might be:
"What are your thoughts on how these trends might impact your results, and which one do you believe presents the biggest challenge for your company?"
A good follow-up question might be something like:
"What initiatives have you already put in place to address these challenges, and what initiatives are you considering to make sure you won't have problems in the next year or two?"
You need to ask questions to find out whether the prospect is a good fit or not. There's no other way around it. The problem is most questions don't create a lot of value for your prospect, since they are only asked to share what they already know.
What the proposed questions do is stimulate the prospect to explore and learn.
The first question is designed to start a conversation around change. Remember that you were the one that reached out to the prospect, so they don't have any urgent problems to solve. Change is hard and costly, so if they don't recognize a potential source of risk they will always default to inaction.
The second question is one that every consultant should pose. When a prospect states a problem and you ask them what they've done in the past to address it, they are forced to justify choices and face their own limitations. Their answer to it will give you a map to continue exploring in future conversations.
This is what you want from your consultative conversations - explore relevant ideas with your prospects by presenting questions and insights, help them identify which ones are likely a priority, and ultimately get them to commit to change.
Your standing changes based on an observation that you've made or a question that you've asked, like an insight. Often, that insight or that question is something that gets the client to rethink the various assumptions about what the problem is, or what the solutions might be that they had going into the conversation. (...) Most clients come to you in the sale self-diagnosed and self-prescribed. They already have an idea of what the problem is, and the solution that they want to buy from you and there might be some room to move on the solution, but in their minds, it's like, "No, we need to go hire a firm like this one to deliver X for us.(...)
A client comes to you that way, and through the intelligence of your questions and the depth of your experience, you're able to ask the questions, offer the insights that get them to think, "Oh, my God, maybe that's not the problem at all," or maybe the solution that I've been thinking about isn't the right solution. That is a fundamental change, that the whole book, the challenger sale, is rooted in this idea to challenge the client's assumptions of what the problem is, what the solutions might be, and therefore add value in the sale itself by getting the client to rethink their underlying assumptions.
Many clients realize they're not able to understand problems and identify solutions by themselves. 71% of them wish that consultancies contacted them earlier in the problem journey.
Earlier contact is a win-win. The client doesn't waster time and money working on the wrong things. And consultants win client preference and avoid procurement hell.
Are you waiting for prospects to raise their hands to start conversations?
The fastest way to sell something is to offer people what they already want.
There's no need to educate or diagnose problems. Prospects are already convinced that a change must be made, and there's urgency in the process. Things move fast.
Of course, as the quote from Blair Enns and the study numbers illustrate, there's a significant chance the solution your prospects think they want is not the one they really need to solve the problem. This is not surprising. They don't have the expertise to evaluate it.
But even if that wasn't the case, focusing all your business development initiatives on existing demand has two other important disadvantages:
The alternative is to learn how to proactively create interest for you and your offerings. Show your ideal clients what they don't know yet. Being consultative is key to taking control of your growth initiatives.