ICS Magazine

Help Me Help You

June 13, 2000
A look at "Consultive Selling"

In the world of business, nothing really happens until a sale is made. All the marketing, promotion, advertising, administration, and even production will become moot if no sale takes place. It’s that point when the inquiring prospect becomes the buying client that is critical to a business’s success. Sometimes referred to as closing the sale or asking for the order, this critical transaction is thought of by many as a specific event that occurs when the prospect exhibits certain behaviors and the seller “sets the hook” and begins reeling. While in certain circumstances this may indeed represent the situation, recent conversations with a highly respected industry colleague have led me to realize that many times this sales transaction should be viewed as a process rather than an isolated event. This is particularly true for service businesses where continued success is very dependent upon repeat and referral business. Just the simple differentiation between the common understanding of the terms “customer” and “client” speaks to this issue of single, one time event vs. an on-going relationship.

The sales process begins with the first contact with the prospective client. This may be through advertising, over the telephone, or face-to-face. The first impression must be positive and consistent with the image you have chosen for your company.

Once you have initially engaged the prospective client, you begin to build a relationship where the client looks to you as the obvious choice in servicing their needs. You are the trusted expert, advisor, and specialist in any matters pertaining to cleaning, or restoration of their household furnishings. My colleague used the phrase “consultive selling” to describe this relationship.

Maintaining this continuing consultant-style relationship involves a consistent company image, continuing client contact in some form, and the perception of “preferred customer” service by the client. The value of this relationship is not measured solely through the size of a specific job but through the value of that client’s business over the life of the relationship. This includes work done directly for the client, often repeated over the years, and work from new clients referred as a result of the first relationship.

The role of trusted advisor or consultant not only opens the door to numerous sales opportunities with that client, it effectively closes the door to competitors attempting to lure the business away.

Every member of your service team from the receptionist, to the technician, to the management, must understand this goal of establishing a “can-do” attitude with every client. Every contact with the client needs to be professional and consistent. The goal of every client contact is to engage the client in meaningful dialogue that will result in identification of the client’s needs, desires, and even their “wish list” as it pertains to the company’s services. Asking the client to “help me help you” by identifying their challenges and expectations so that we might meet or exceed them. Become the problem solver by understanding what is perceived as the biggest hurdle or issue from the client’s point of view. Listen closely to what the client is saying and be sure you get past the words and understand their meaning. For example, “how much does it cost” might really be “what is the value” or “how long does it take to dry” might be “when can I use it again”. Through this process of listening, advising, and consulting, you can develop a picture of what is important to this particular client and insure that your service fills those expectations.

It has been my experience that many times the “hot buttons” that cause an inquiring prospect to become a regular buying client are things other than the basic service itself. Let’s use carpet cleaning as an example of the basic service. Many times the issues involved in the purchase decision are not about getting the carpet clean but more around things like convenience, reliability, trustworthiness, or some specific skill.

Granted, the base service itself must be performed with skill and the results should be outstanding, but often the client assumes good results and the actual decision to purchase is dependent on these other factors.

When you have a continuing consultant style relationship, there is opportunity to allow the client to express their specific issues and you can assure them these needs will be met. When the actual time arrives for the service to be performed, there is no need for a special close or for the “hook to be set.” In fact, this client becomes your best salesperson, telling everyone they know about the value of being your client.

The key to this concept is that selling (and closing) is a process rather than an event. The process includes developing and nurturing an advisor or consultant relationship with the client as opposed to filling the role of service provider to a customer. It begins with the client’s first contact and continues through the actual service to follow up, leading to repeat and referral business in the years to come. The art of consultive sales is an idea whose time has come.