The Limits of Needs-based Selling and Consultative Selling

These are popular concepts in today’s sales world:

Consultative Selling Amazon 568 mentions
Consultative Selling Google 270,000 mentions
Needs-based Selling Amazon 158 mentions
Needs-based Selling Google 22,800 mentions.

Both approaches ask questions to define buyer needs, so that the seller can alter or position the product to address those needs, thereby raising the value to the customer and the likelihood of closing the sale.

This may sound stunningly obvious and commonsensical. To that extent, it’s a tribute to the triumph over the old product-focused approach of convincing people they needed whatever it was you had to sell.

(At the same time, sounding obvious doesn’t mean it gets practiced all the time, or even usually. Product-based selling is far from dead).
The mainstream view among sales practitioners is that needs-based selling and consultative selling represent the state of the art, the high road, professionalism in selling.

But it’s just not true.

Reading the consultative or needs-based books, websites or training programs, you’ll find two beliefs—implicit or explicit—that limit the value of these approaches to selling. Those beliefs are:

1. Their primary intent is to close the sale
2. A secondary intent is to qualify prospects.

Those may sound obvious and benign as well, but look at it from the customer’s side.  Together, those two beliefs mean that if you’re paying attention to me as a customer, it’s only for as long as you think this transaction will result in a sale for you.

That means:

a. while you’re definitely in it for you, you’re only in it for me if it bodes well for you, and
b. while you’re willing to talk about my needs, you’re not willing to do so unless you see a sale close at hand.

Either way, it certainly appears you don’t have my interests very much at heart.

There is another way. It’s called Trust-based Selling®. It says focus on buyer needs, so that you can better articulate them and get them met.  Period.

You don’t focus on their needs because it’ll get you the sale—you do it so you can help them better articulate their needs and get them met.  Period.

You don’t focus on buyer needs in order to screen out buyers who don’t need what you have to sell. You do it so you  can help them better articulate those needs and get them met. Period.

The key difference lies in liberating sales from the transaction.  Trust flourishes only when then quid and the quo have some blue sky between them.  Screening at the transaction level screams “I only care about your wallet;” trust-based sales screens at the strategic customer selection level, not the tactical transaction level.

For needs-based or consultative selling to become trust-based, you need to migrate away from the tight leash of the transaction.  Loosen up.  Get free of the “pay me now or I quit doing this consulting” mentality.

Trust-based selling says, if you consistently do the right thing by your customer, then when the customer needs what you’re selling, you’ll get the first call. And you’ll therefore make more money.

The highest profit comes when you make profit a byproduct—not a goal—of a truly customer-centric sales process.

7 replies
  1. Harold Jarche
    Harold Jarche says:

    I guess I’ve been doing trust-based selling; I just didn’t know it had a name.  I think that blogging helps you move toward a trust-based approach because you are constantly giving, and in so doing you also receive,  but indirectly.

  2. Barbara Garabedian
    Barbara Garabedian says:

    Pssst… I loved the cartoon. 

    Exactly the perception many clients have of consultants!

    Isn’t it  amazing that there are so many around that honestly believe they don’t "sell products" but end up being perceived no higher in the food chain than the fella in the alley? " Oh, you say you have turnover problem, just so happens we have an engagement study that can identify the root causes of discontent; oh, you think it’s really more the result of antiquated systems, go figure…we have a technology group that can work that out for you; you say your strategy  seems diffused, this is amazing, our strategy gurus have helped companies just like yours in over 13 different countries to …"

    Charlie, as you say, the consultative approach is really nothing more than a discussion focused completely on the client/ customer. Unfortunately, in the name of consultative selling,  an  off-the-cuff comment turns into an immediate  "need" in the mind of the consultant,  which then turns into visions of $$$$$, which then triggers the Pavolian response  of "opening the raincoat of products & services" to meet the "need".

    Sad to say, I don’t think many that are just starting out in the sales world are ready to "buy into" your approach of trust-based selling.  That’s too long-term, where’s the instant gratification & how would they keep score?

  3. Martin Calle
    Martin Calle says:

    Mentioned in comments on other sales Trust Matters posts, I hire and train likeable people. More often than not, we get new accounts for clients like Staples, Starbucks, UPS, ATT, Verizon and the like simply because decision makers liked my people, realized they were working in the customer’s best interest, were not focusing on price or sales. They became customers in spite of needs or price simply because they liked the sales person.  

    So let’s call this person-to-person-based selling.

  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Harold, I like your parallel to blogging; it emphasizes not only the giving, but the indirectness of the connection, that we all seem to be talking about.

    Martin, there may be some differences between trust-based selling and person-to-person selling, but there certainly are, as you point out, similarities.

  5. Nibor
    Nibor says:

    Demand for your products are short term if they are not based on needs. A customer will not just buy a product because they like your face or you have instilled trust in them. Even those who have money to throw around perceive some need for what they buy. If the need is of a low priority there may be no re-purchase.

  6. Steve Reade
    Steve Reade says:

    Unfortunately, the profession of selling is so tainted by “make your quota or else!” sales management, that few potential customers/clients accept a needs-based sales approach; skepticism rules! Few prospective buyers are willing to invest in multiple meetings to assess the genuineness of any sales person, or develop a worthwhile relationship with a potential vendor. Real needs and budgets are kept very close to the vest.

    Further, few if any, sales organizations can afford to have sales people making – in effect – courtesy calls to “assist” potential customers with open-ended discussions of potential solutions to potential problems that might have a potential pay-off … someday in the future, which is why potential customers spend a great deal of time browsing the Internet.

    The great surprise is that sales organizations (read any sales job posting) expect salespeople do a great deal of “cold-calling” and “networking” … stuff out of the 60’s. Few sales organizations put any significant effort or resource ($$$) into Internet marketing and lead-generation. They all decry – and won’t hire – any salesperson who expects to work from … “leads” … responses to marketing campaign. State-of-the-art products and services with 50 year-old sales tools (none) and culture. Sad!

    • Charles H. Green
      Charles H. Green says:

      Steve, I share your view of both the “make quote or else” approach – and also that clients have no time with open-ended explorations (“what keeps you up at night…”). And I think you’re dead right about the crazy focus on 60s-era cold-calling etc. Totally missing the value of Internet marketing and lead-gen.

      The one thing I’d add is that what you describe as “few if any, sales organizations can afford to have sales people making – in effect – courtesy calls to “assist” potential customers with open-ended discussions of potential solutions to potential problems that might have a potential pay-off…” is not the only alternative to Internet marketing and lead-gen.

      In fact, I find that so much of lead-gen work fails to incorporate even that low level of customer interaction in that old model, poor though it was. So much of it has become indistinguishable from spam. It may be brilliantly targeted – but if the final message comes off as utterly impersonal, then the targeting is worthless.

      The alternative I am most interested is a combination of targeting and a small level of personalization. If you’re a financial planner, say, going to go after, let’s say, >$1M net worth clients in the dental industry, then at the very least you ought to spend a little time customizing those messages.

      How much effort would it take to add to the canned content something like “I hope you got through the recent Nor’Easter storm in Boston without too much harm,” or “not all dentists focus on state-of-the-art orthodontics the way you clearly do,” or “I see you’re already a user of integrated scheduling tools.”

      This kind of information is gleanable from simply looking at the customer’s website. Let’s say you spend 5 minutes on each target to customize. For 100 potential leads, that’s an added investment of 8 hours spent customizing.

      That raises two questions: 1) is it worth the added investment, and 2) what if you think it’s too much time spent?

      The answer to the first question should override the second, by the way; but let’s assume the reaction is, “whoah, we haven’t got that kind of time,” or “wait, we’re talking about a thousand targeted leads, not 100.”

      But that presumes the only variable is customization, not targeting. I think that’s backwards. If you think it’s too much for 1,000 leads, then refine your targeting until you get to 100.

      Basically the focus on lead-gen has been entirely too much on targeting, and not enough on customizing. And if that feels overwhelming, then go back to targeting and make it feasible to customize.

      By the way, what’s at stake here is not just sales, but marketing: if you’re going to target 1000 dentists, you’re leaving an impression of your firm. And if the impression is that you’re generating impersonal spam, then that’s a helluva negative impression to leave. Instead, leave a good impression on 100, and come back to the 900 later with a more customized approach again.

      Just a thought. And thank you for logging in and taking the time to make (very intelligent) comments.


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