My business is changing dramatically because we found the right way to focus our process on consultative selling. You may find something valuable in our trial and error…

We talked about poor sales practices quite a bit in an earlier article, “My Dead End Sales Win.” Don’t ask a great prospector who isn’t a top-flight consultative seller to lead your calls or manage your pipeline. And forget about taking point on your own unless you’ve got at least 20 years under your belt in consultative sales.

I’m going to give you some vivid examples to illustrate my point, but first, a confession: At one point, the viability of my business depended on getting this right and getting it right fast. I lost a good number of clients when my focus on lead generation took too much importance in relation to opportunity creation, pipeline management or closing business. Now that I’ve solved the problem, my business outlook and relationship to our clients has changed dramatically.

Now that I’ve solved the problem, my business outlook and relationship to our clients has changed dramatically.

Back to the examples. Here’s a big mistake we made in Kaul Sales Partners’ infancy: We had a terrific client with a proven track record as a performance branding company for a very specific vertical. They had a deep and engaging portfolio of creative campaigns designed and executed for prestige clients across the US.

Once we figured out the messaging and started rolling out regional US campaigns, lead generation took off like a rocket. We popped the bubbly and spent the next 12 months celebrating our ability to get access to and have great conversations with executive leadership at qualified companies. Our business development director sourced tons of leads and we struggled to keep up with email responses and scheduling challenges. It was a great success… or was it?

Despite having closed a few decent projects in the first year, the client began grumbling as we entered year two, “Why are we getting all these meetings and not many new clients?”

Despite having closed a few decent projects in the first year, the client began grumbling as we entered year two: “Why are we getting all these meetings and not many new clients?” Good question. It became urgent to figure it out because I started hearing this from other clients.

I was also hearing a lot of, “Get me in the room, I can close.” It turned out they could not. And neither could we.

One of our other clients owned a deeply specialized marketing, research and branding agency with complex, successful and specialized CPG projects under its belt. He told us he was the only person in his company that could sell his company. I sat in on a few calls and the reality was terrifying. He not only didn’t hear what prospects were trying to tell him, but insisted we follow up extensively with those who weren’t qualified and had no intention of buying. False optimism allowed him to create opportunities in his mind that didn’t really exist.

We tried sales training–that just irritated him. Our business development director tried to step up and assist. That didn’t work, either. He had no idea how to close, despite his considerable success sourcing and scheduling solid meetings. The truth is the client needed us to take care of this and, deep down, knew it was not his thing.  We let him down.

The business developers were great at getting people on the phone, but had no idea how to engage a prospect through a long sales cycle.

Our biggest misstep? The business developers were great at getting people on the phone, but had no idea how to engage a prospect through a long sales cycle. I knew how to do it, but didn’t have the bandwidth to be constantly involved.

What I learned is that we couldn’t train our clients in sales and we couldn’t ask our business development directors to work outside their area of expertise. We had to get  someone in the mix who knew how to create an opportunity and manage it through a long cycle to close (This is part of the lead generation sales trap, which I discussed in this article).

The other problem with focusing an organization too much on lead generation functions and vendors is that many are good at the volume part, but have no ability to qualify a lead. This is about closing and not sourcing leads. Once I realized we were also guilty of this, it was time to make some big changes in our sales organization.

We hired a seasoned closer as our VP of Sales; he now works closely with our business development directors to design and execute a rigorous qualification methodology, customized for each client. We upgraded our sales software platform to allow us to record all sales calls. With everybody working from the same data source, core message platform, sales campaign messaging, qualification template and recorded call review, it’s become virtually impossible for us to waste anybody’s time on a worthless prospect call.

Our no-show rate has dramatically declined and our clients are a lot happier as well.

It’s become virtually impossible for us to waste anybody’s time on a worthless prospect call. Our no-show rate has dramatically declined and our clients are a lot happier as well.

To stay ahead, everyone in your company must understand consultative selling and fully integrate this strategy under the direction of a true expert who can take the reins on all sales calls.

What Do I Mean by Consultative Selling?

There are a ton of books on this topic. Each book has a few key takeaways, but I’ve never been able to follow sales industry complex processes and best practices.

Master a few basic concepts and you will be in the top 90% in your competitive set.

  1. Take a firm leadership position in your industry and develop a strong point of view.
  2. Know what’s going on with your industry and the impact of change on your clients.
  3. Interview prospects when it’s time to get specific and don’t offer a demo or proposal until you fully understand what they are really buying.
  4. Know how buying decisions are made, how company politics work and how much money is likely to be available early in the selling process.

Step one requires some explanation.

I was recently on a sales call we had sourced from a cold call for our client. The prospect was the CEO of a company right in our client’s sweet spot. My client felt he had extensive sales experience and believed I was sitting in simply to get smarter about his business. His closing rate was, according to him, 80%. This wasn’t true, as he measured it from written proposal to close (a yardstick that helps people feel good about themselves while revealing nothing about actual success).

It took me some time to shift his thinking and behavior. Luckily, we got there and were able to close the deal for him. But on this particular call, he asked the wrong question to break the ice: “What keeps you up at night?” It was his favorite–but not the best–way to open a call (Harvard Business Review contributors outline a better approach here, which has remained a guidepost for me ever since it was published).

The problem with his opener was that trust had not been established. The best way to open a conversation is to share ideas and, in return, figure out the prospect’s perspective on the topic at hand. This prepares you for the next call and allows you to come up with ideas and solutions that track against the prospect’s needs and wants. All of this must be carefully thought out ahead of time and adjusted as market feedback and the unique personality of each prospect differs.

Takeaway: How to Never Screw Up a Prospect Call Again

Here are some of the conversational techniques I use to guide tactical discussions into deeper waters — and set our 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 almost embarrassing. But almost nobody does it (not even us, initially).

Give it a try and see if your results change.