Friday, June 15, 2012

The Unfortunate Truth About Consultive Selling

Consultive selling, about which shelves full of books have been written and decades’ worth of seminars presented, is based on the principle that you need to understand the prospect’s needs before you can make a sale. Nothing wrong with that. But some practitioners of the approach believe the first step is to set up a meeting to ask the prospective customer a series of questions, the ever-popular “needs analysis” call. By answering those questions, the theory goes, the customer will tell you what they need or want to buy. Then you can come back with a proposal on the next call. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the intentions of that approach, but in my experience it seldom works out quite so neatly.

For one thing, few prospects will give you the time to answer your questions unless they’re already interested in your product, which sounds good until you realize that making presentations only to those people means you’ve eliminated a large group of prospects who won’t give you the first appointment. I’ll grant that pre-qualifying prospects this way may be a good time management method, but I can’t help but believe that the “not interested” prospects could be a very valuable source of new business.

And that number grows every day because the “needs analysis” approach is hugely over-worked as more and more prospects refuse to invest their time in it. Business operators are bombarded with offers to study their financial needs, manufacturing systems, advertising plans, and insurance programs. “It’s a valuable study without any obligation to buy” is an offer they’ve heard so many times that they’ve become immune to the pitch.

What can be even more discouraging is that, in many industries, the same prospect has undergone the consultive needs analysis multiple times with the same company because the vendor has such high turnover in its sales force. And they’ve gotten nothing in return except another proposal to buy which looks suspiciously like the last proposal they got from that company’s previous salesperson. In other words, fewer and fewer prospects are falling for the “needs analysis” gambit.

But what about those who do let you in the door to answer your questions? While generalizations can be dangerous, I don’t believe that they’re going to give you the best, most accurate information on which to base your proposal. They wouldn’t be seeing you unless they already had some pre-conceived notion of what they would like to buy from you. This, in turn, will tend to color the answers they give to your needs analysis questions. Not that the prospect would lie to you, it’s just that when someone already knows the answer, they tend to interpret the question to fit it. And their interpretation of your question may not be the same as yours, with some possible confusion over the answer as a result.

And that’s assuming they’re fully cooperative to start with. What are the things you want to learn when you conduct the needs analysis? Most of the questionnaires I’ve seen can be boiled down to two questions: 1) How can the prospect best use my product and 2) How much money can they spend on it? The variations on the first question will get some fairly accurate answers, but the second will often generate purposefully wrong answers because most people are pretty sensitive about giving out financial information to perfect strangers.

And that’s what you are, after all—a stranger. Since this is the first call on the prospect, by definition you don’t know them and, even more importantly, they don’t know you. All the prospect knows is that you’re there to get something from him (information and time) and he’ll get something in return (a proposal) sometime in the future. You should look on every sales call as a transaction in which items of value change hands. Even if a sale doesn’t occur, information changes hands—and that’s an item of value. In a solid transaction, items of equal perceived value are exchanged in a two-way process. On the consultive sell first call, though, the prospect gets nothing of value in return for his or her time and cooperation.

Dave Donelson distills the experiences of hundreds of entrepreneurs into practical advice for small business owners and managers in the Dynamic Manager's Guides, a series of how-to books about marketing and advertising, sales techniques, motivating personnel, financial management, and business strategy.

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