My Business Won’t Survive Without Consultative Selling Ability and Yours Won’t Either

Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way why consultative selling ability is an absolute prerequisite for making our businesses viable. If you don’t have it, you’d better onboard somebody who does, fast. Otherwise our businesses are going to fall apart — or just chug along at sub-par levels while sucking huge amounts of energy away from better things.

Before we get into the details, let’s back up so you can see how I learned at the beginning of my career the perils and pitfalls of prospecting for new business and signing new clients.

My first cold call was a success. This was terrible for my career.

The first company that I worked for sold tangible manufactured products to retailers. It was a simple sale to a buying group.

That scenario doesn’t exist today, for the most part. Because it was common back in the day, most business owners thought the sales job was more about being social than helping people solve difficult business problems. They hired accordingly, and for the most part, did just fine. I was never offered and never attended a sales training course that remotely explored consultative sales concepts. We just talked about product. Those days have been gone for years. Now company owners spend billions of dollars on sales training, but at the end of the day, most of their salespeople still talk about what the company does — not what measurable impact it delivers.

My first cold call was a success.  This was terrible for my career.

You may own or run sales for a company that sells a very complex and hard-to-explain service or software product such as management consulting, marketing agency services, software development, SaaS subscription solutions or website/mobile design and development. Some of our clients sell manufactured offerings that require intensive customer support and a highly skilled sales approach. Their buyers know math and sales cycles are complex.

I moved into selling complex services and disruptive software years ago. Frankly, I’ve never worked for a company that anyone in the prospect pool had ever heard of before I came calling on them. Be suspicious of former big-company sales executives trying to help you put together a new business plan if they can’t show you at least 15 years of hard time prospecting in the small business trenches. One of my clients described this as, “We didn’t realize we were successful because we had Accenture written on our foreheads. The selling part seemed easy, but it’s been six years since we launched our software company and we still don’t have many customers.”

So, Here’s the Deal With That “Successful” Sale

My first company, Kaul Group — it was the family business — had some decent success with small independents, but was certainly not a dominant force anywhere. My first month on the job, I closed a $250,000 contract with a national retail chain with a cold call. I had no idea what I was doing and the lifetime value of this client was $250,000. The next buying season, getting a return call to tell me, “Never again, but thank you,” took at least five weeks. My boss was mystified and luckily blamed the client, not me.

Today, I know exactly what happened and no longer make the same mistakes.

The order cost my client money. It did not make them money.

My client looked bad and blamed me for what was actually her mistake. Today, I know better and agree with her, as I was responsible for helping her to succeed.

The order cost my client money.  It did not make them money.

What happened is that this company wanted to upgrade their product mix, but could only tolerate a 10% price increase. The rest of the market offered a 20% price increase for higher-value products. My company filled that gap nicely and my timing was lucky. That’s why they returned the cold call. She had no idea what I really offered, but was under the gun and taking cold calls from all comers. Here’s what I told her: “My company has a higher-end product, but it won’t cost much more than what you sell today.”

She bought it in bulk based on this one statement. Here’s what I didn’t understand or discuss with her before taking her money.

  1. Do you have data to give you confidence that you will sell through at your margin targets without taking a huge price cut?
  2. Would it make sense to test out the product in your most successful markets before rolling it out across the entire chain?
  3. Do you have the resources in the store to guarantee that the product will be displayed in the right place at the right time?
By the time that I learned all this, it was too late.  They never came back.

The problem is that sales were incredible — in the top 40% of the market at a very high margin — but so bad in the remaining 60% that her management told her never to buy from our company again. The size of the order was great for my commission, but it crushed her margins. Retailers measure performance in terms of margins and markdowns.  

By the time that I learned all this, it was too late. They never came back.

“I Can’t Close to Save My Life.  Larry, Can You Help?”

Almost nobody ever asks me the question in the above subhead, even though most people stink at the consultative sell. Most of the prospective clients who come my way cite lead generation problems or some other symptomatic revenue issue.

It’s never a closing problem. They tell me over and over again: “Just get me in the room and I’ll make it happen.”

But out of the past 20 or so software and service companies who have enlisted our services, I estimate that 40% (tops) have good instincts about how to guide to a close once a prospect has agreed to get on the phone and hear about their solution or service. And even these people aren’t at the top of the game. They lose all kinds of opportunities that would otherwise close.

Top Mistakes in Prospect Conversations

When I listen in on my clients’ conversations with prospects who have expressed an interest, these are the mistakes I see again and again:

  • Not being able to quickly and clearly explain why your company exists, who it serves and what it does. This comes down to having a succinct and clear messaging platform — an exercise I undertake with my clients long before we schedule our first prospect call. (I’ll talk more about the central role that messaging has taken in my company in a later chapter.) The most unsuccessful conversations go sideways when there is internal confusion about the company’s core position. As part of a messaging platform, you need an elevator pitch that will succinctly inform your prospect about what you do, for whom, why you’re the best at it and why they should believe your claim. This discipline will help keep you from defaulting to nervous, irrelevant rambling or speeding to premature tactical conversations.
  • Trying to jump right into proposal specs. This is instinctual for many domain experts. It’s a comfort-level thing: “Give me an assignment.” They want to get right into a project before they have fully ascertained the problem. The emphasis here is on “fully.” Do you truly investigate or just accept a cursory needs analysis before you talk about your approach to designing a solution?
  • They don’t know how to ask the right questions. This and the next issue can be closely tied to the above mistake. Having 20 years’ experience in building incredible software or winning marketing campaigns doesn’t make you a consultative seller. Some have an instinct. But with smaller companies, I find that guiding a conversation toward what the prospect needs, not what they think they want, is more of an acquired skill. There’s a subtle art to this, like getting your dog to take its prescription medicine by hiding it inside a cube of cheese. I’ll talk about that more later in this article.
  • Not listening. This is closely related to our first mistake two bullet points up. Excited to stay in their comfort zone, they gloss over parts of the conversation where better inquiry about business problems could yield real value and, undeterred by what clues their prospect can give them, stubbornly pivot to their known script like a candidate during a presidential debate.

Takeaway: Here’s a Simple Process for Never Screwing Up Prospect Calls Again

Earlier I mentioned the dog medicine inside the cube of cheese. The dog wants the cheese. It needs the medicine. Similarly, you must give your client what looks yummy (symptomatic issues or tactical pain points) and what’s restorative (a conversation about real business drivers behind the pain) at the same time.

Here are some of the conversational techniques I use to guide tactical discussions into deeper waters — and set my clients up to present deeper value:

  • I hear that you have a challenge with X. Can we take a few minutes to make sure I have this right?

Which tees up better questions like:

  • Talk to me about why you took this call. What in our outreach appealed to you?
  • What’s going on in your business right now?
  • How have you been addressing these problems as a team so far? What’s leadership talking about in context of this?
  • Who on the team is talking about this and who is likely to be involved in the decision?

Now that I’ve typed all this, it seems so utterly simple that it’s embarrassing. But almost nobody does it.

Now that I’ve typed all this, it seems so utterly simple that it’s embarrassing.  But almost nobody does it.

One of our clients, a consulting shop specializing in helping companies get the most out of Salesforce, got it right when they used this framework to get to real business drivers. The prospect call started with gripes about not being able to run reports correctly. But this is not a business problem.

By using the conversational cues like those listed above, they were able to discover the real issue: the sales organization was rapidly expanding and the VPs were always pounding on our prospect. This was a launching point for a consultative and strategic sales conversation. The prospect was faced with helping drive bigger growth goals and didn’t know how to get there. Now we had a path to a much more compelling value proposition.

Warning: Your Prospect is an Accomplice in Messing This Up

Your prospects are going to be happy to help you spin your wheels in tactical conversations when you really need to delve deeper. It’s bizarre, but that’s what they’re used to. They’ll happily sit there and listen to you ramble on and on about what you do, then politely request case studies.

They don’t want to talk about everything going on in the company. You have to coax them into working a little bit. This is more true of smaller companies. A CEO of a $1B company will interrupt you right out of the room if you don’t get to the heart of what they care about. Smaller potential clients will indulge you while you both get nowhere.

Taking My Own Medicine…Again

In my last post I talked about the importance of stabilizing some key administrative, content and support functions so I could focus on other areas of the business. This gave me the time to start leading more prospecting calls — both for my company and my clients.

I got extremely concerned about some of the habitual mistakes I was hearing and realized that shoring up our own consultative sales skills across the board was a big priority. After all, if Kaul Sales Partners is dependent on me to close sales, I’m just in a different flavor of the same stupid fix I was in when I launched the company.

As of this writing, I worked myself out of two more jobs: I onboarded two 20+ year vets with deep experience in major key account selling. They not only understand my perspective, they’re better at managing opportunities and closing them than I am. We did an “open kimono” call with new and senior members of the Kaul Sales Partners team; people were very candid about their personal motivations and goals. Being both seasoned vets in their fields and contractors, they told me they wanted to use their talents in smart, discrete ways that give them financial upside and freedom of schedule while still affording a chance for them to make an impact.

They just gave me a road map for every conversation I’ll have with new team members.

Takeaway: Being an expert in your field does not make you an expert seller.

Develop basic consultative selling skills for everyone on your team who faces prospects with revenue on the line. Don’t have time for that? Hire someone who does.

If any of this resonates,  I would love to hear from you!  Reach out for a conversation — and thanks for reading!