Consultative Selling & Technology – A Tale of WOE

Consultative selling is a method that came of age in the 1950’s and ‘60’s as an attempt to professionalize selling—and move it beyond its transactional ‘sales pitch’ image.

The Consultative Selling Process

Consultative selling is a five step process that includes: Building Rapport (Trust); Identifying Needs; Demonstrating Solutions; Managing Objections; and Closing the Sale. The innovation of consultative selling was the introduction of ‘needs identification’—the orientation of the sales process around the client’s goals and objectives.

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It redefined the salesperson as an expert advisor who was knowledgeable, objective and could be trusted. It shifted the role of salespeople from pitchmen to consultants who would identify clients’ needs and guide them to a best-fit solution.

The Problem – A Hidden Sales Step

However, when used to sell complex products and services, such as financial planning, consultative selling suffers a fatal flaw because of a hidden step—analysis. Diagnosis, projections, and comparisons are just some of the examples of analysis that are integral to solving complex problems and selling complex products or services.

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The problem is that in the Digital Age, analysis usually involves technology. When it comes to consultative selling analysis and technology were not part of the design, they’re an afterthought. Why? Because when consultative selling was introduced, ‘sales technologies’ weren’t an issue. For all practical purposes, they didn’t exist. So, the consultative sales process didn’t account for them and doesn’t accommodate them.

Consultative selling fails to integrate analysis or technology into the sales (client-advisor) process.

Instead, the advisor performs the analysis:

  • for the client and
  • away from the client

The standard practice is for salespeople to analyze issues in the privacy of their offices, out of client view, with the help of their computers and other resources, and return with a series of printouts or slideshows that are used as part of their sales presentation (for demonstrating solutions).

The Wizard of Oz Effect

We refer to the phenomenon that results as the Wizard of Oz Effect, or WOE, for short. After the client interview meeting, sales advisors disappear from client’s view, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, to consult their computers and prepare printouts and proposals, while their clients must go home, or back to their offices and wait.

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The picture above illustrates the two ‘touches’ involved that result in WOE: (A) the client interacts with the advisor, and (B) the advisor interacts with technology—away from the client.

And woe has greeted many sales advisors who came back to demonstrate their products and services with static graphics and spreadsheets only to discover they hadn’t identified all of their clients’ concerns, or anticipated their ‘what if ’ questions. So, they go back to their computers and perform new analysis, while their client goes home, and waits—again…and again. In fact, almost any new information or changes send the Wizard back behind the curtain to perform additional analysis, delaying decisions, and sales—frustrating both clients and sales advisors.

WOE-ful Consequences

What are the results of WOE?

  • Longer sales cycles
  • Failure to recognize that clients do analysis too!
  • Misunderstanding of customer ‘objections’
  • Decreased trust
  • A poor customer experience

All of which reduce the likelihood of making a sale!!

WOE Results In Longer Sales Cycles

Let’s spend a moment reviewing just how many unnecessary additional steps are caused by WOE.

Taking a page from project management, the Gantt Chart below shows all the Consultative Sales’ steps from beginning to close. Each shaded box represents an event or activity in the sales process.

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Chart #1 illustrates the ‘Ideal’ scenario. In their first meeting (Box 1), the client and salesperson meet to discuss the client’s needs. The next planned meeting between them is the formal presentation (Box 3) that could also be the sales close. Between 1 & 3, there’s our hidden step— when the salesperson must perform the analysis that becomes the basis of the demonstration.

This suggests a minimum 2-meeting, 3-step process.

Chart #2 represents the ‘probable’ or more likely case. If during the presentation, the client has questions that require new analysis (‘What If?’), it’s back to step 1 to get additional information and then the cycle starts all over. When we look at this chart, the implications are clear.

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In sales situations involving complex products or services, where analysis is needed, consultative selling’s process and traditional tools create gaps in time, decreasing the chance of completing a sale.

Each time new information or unanticipated questions are introduced, analysis is required. The sales process stops. The salesperson goes behind the curtain to create more printouts and, hopefully, picks up where they left off.

The more ‘what ifs’ raised …the more meetings…the longer the process…and the more likely the sale will derail entirely.

WOE Fails to Recognize That Clients Also Do Analysis

In the consultative model, analysis is the responsibility of the salesperson.

But do clients do analysis? Of course they do. With all the Digital Age resources at their disposal, it’s likely that their tools are equal to the salesperson’s. Delays give them opportunity and cause to do their own analysis.

Even worse, they are apt to relieve the tedium of waiting by consulting other sales advisors, and resolve the problem without you.

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WOE leads to Misunderstandings of Customer Objections

Salespeople are trained to manage or overcome ‘objections’—client questions or changes that introduce delays in the sales process. This illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the real problem.

‘What if’ questions are a type of ‘objection’ that are a natural part of solving complex problems. In fact, as complexity goes up, so do customer ‘what-ifs’. These questions demonstrate regression—a natural (and desirable) part of the learning cycle. Complex problem resolution and decision-making can’t occur without them. Trying to overcome, control, or manage these questions gets in the way of complex decisionmaking rather than speeding it up. That’s why for some types of customer problems, the consultative sales process is very inefficient and therefore inappropriate.

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As complexity increases, so do ‘what ifs’. The advisor’s skills and tools play a vital role in helping people navigate these issues.

Why not embrace or even encourage objections instead? (Heresy!) There’s a simple answer… salespeople have to ‘overcome’ objections when they don’t have the capability (tools, skills, and methods) that allow them to explore and resolve them.

The client and salesperson each do their own analysis. The wizard’s curtain works both ways, decreasing the likelihood that they can or will see the issue from the same perspective.

WOE Decreases Trust

Let’s say you’ve met with your client, gathered information, and you take your leave to perform analysis and put together projections and presentations.

When you get back together, what’s the first thing that happens? You and the client spend time reviewing and validating the inputs. You’re describing what you did and why you did it. And they’re looking for mistakes!

And unfortunately they’re easy to find, because most software programs don’t perfectly fit the data of your real-life case. When you’re entering data, you must make assumptions, interpretations, and adjustments.

There is no such thing as perfect information! No matter how good of an interviewer you are, new information can (and inevitably will) appear that invalidates your current analysis and threatens the dreaded ‘do-over.’

When working to build trust with a client, mistakes aren’t the problem. Mistakes can demonstrate vulnerability which actually help build trust…as long as you recover from them quickly and effectively.

The real problem is that you have to send people away while you fix your ‘mistakes’. You waste valuable time—both yours and the client’s. If you try and explain away the issues to avoid this situation, you risk losing the appearance of objectivity. This taxes trust, limits your access to valuable customer information, and decreases your odds of gaining a sale.

WOE Results in a Poor Customer Experience

Consultative selling professionalized the process of selling and the image of salespeople. But for most consumers and salespeople, consultative selling is painfully slow. Particularly in the case of complex products and services where more than one meeting is usually ‘required’ because of the analysis and preparation required. When this happens, salespeople disappear from their customers’ sight, like the Wizard of Oz working behind the curtain, to consult handbooks, spreadsheets, and other resources.

When they reappear, illustrations in hand, they hope they’ve hit their mark on the first try. However, if new information is presented or if the customer has questions for which the salesperson did not prepare, they must go back to the drawing board (computer), generate more illustrations, and setup yet another meeting. The more analysis required—the more meetings involved.

As authors Joseph Pine and James Gilmour pointed out in The Experience Economy Digital Age competition is increasingly ‘experience’ and entertainment based. WOE leads to a frustrating string of meetings for both the customer and the salesperson. Given the many avenues that consumers face for their time and attention, sales advisors who are unable or unequipped to make the sales process a better experience for the customer will be replaced by those who can and do. There must be a better way.

The Great Consultative Cover-Up

And as you increase the time involved, and the amount of information you provide, you increase the risk involved in losing a now informed prospect to your competition.

There are a lot of good salespeople who avoid using technology or implementing a true consultative planning approach as a result. Instead, they come in with a couple of suggestions they understand, can support, and can close. What you end up with is a consultative selling ‘veneer’, on a product/service selling core—consultative in image but not in fact.

Companies struggle to reconcile the importance of a consultative sales approach, while realizing and hiding the fact that most of their best salespeople don’t really do it. In turn, this makes it harder to get other people to do it and build a true consultative selling approach into the culture.

According to noted sales-author and researcher George Dudley: “When examined closely, much of the consultative sales training today is actually a cover, not a cure, for the underlying ambivalence, conflictedness, and sometimes unbridled contempt, many salespeople and their organizations actually hold for the sales profession itself (Chonko, Tanner & Dudley, 2003). In other words, it’s meta-selling: a set of convoluted attempts and diversionary tactics to elevate selling by disguising or minimizing the role of the sales effort. So far, research has not been kind to subtext underlying many diversionary selling programs. Something else may be needed.”

This is why we suggest that consultative selling is just a kinder, gentler version of transactional selling, and merely a transitional step in the evolution of professional selling. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s incomplete.

But advances in sales technology and processes are taking place that will help salespeople take the next step in the evolution of selling and establish it as the new paradigm for selling in the Digital Age.

© 2017 ScenarioSelling