In last month’s column I talked about how educated consumers are bringing about the extinction of the hard-driving salesperson at the same time that businesses are facing unprecedented competitive challenges.
It makes perfect sense for businesses who are trying to stay profitable in this new environment to set the goal of having every employee contribute to the revenue stream. It’s the lifeblood of the organization. But forcing an aggressive sales model onto people who aren’t ready for it is counterproductive. Trying to get “non-sales” people to sell in a way that is not comfortable for them, and is no longer effective anyway, just isn’t going to work.
It leads to the loss of people who have built invaluable relationships with their customers over time, and it overlooks qualities that make them ideally suited for building new relationships that will assure long-lasting revenue streams.
Instead of a sales pitch, a consultative sales partner engages in dialogue with a customer. Together they work out a solution to the customer’s problem that adds value to the outcome that the customer may not anticipated.
In my consulting work in the banking industry I have witnessed first-hand the tug-of-war that results from management’s push to make employees sell in the old way, and the pull against it by people who do not think of themselves as salespeople.
I’ve also had the opportunity to see how everyone can benefit from the kinder, gentler consultative sales approach.
Last year I was contracted by a well-established privately owned bank to teach their customer service representatives and tellers how to sell. The bank had come to realize that the frontline, the place where the customer meets the organization “face-to-face”, was of critical importance. In a business where product differentiation is limited, customer relationships are everything.
Service is the name of the game, and the people I was hired to train were highly skilled at servicing customers, but now they were being told that excellence in customer service was not enough—they also needed to sell. Naturally they resisted the idea. They didn’t want to be “pushy”, like some car salesperson.
On my first day with them, we talked a lot about the people who had aggressively tried to sell them cars, vacuum cleaners, appliances, insurance policies, etc. All their bad experiences with salespeople who would neither listen to them nor respect their needs came out.
Then we talked about their responsibility to their customers, and I encouraged them to think of it from the point of view of the highest level of need.
They were accustomed to thinking at the transactional level—cashing a check, making a deposit, moving money from one account to another, etc.
I asked them to think of the benefits they offered their customers as meeting a hierarchy of needs where the transaction lies at the bottom.
Why, I asked, do customers come to you with their transactions? The answer is, to get help from someone they trust in managing their money, the next level up in the hierarchy of needs.
And why do customers seek their help in managing their money? To ensure their financial well-being, the highest level in the hierarchy of needs.
Once they could see that their real work was not cashing checks but helping people make decisions related to their financial well-being, they were ready to become consultative sales partners, resources for providing the education and information their customers needed to take full advantage of the bank’s products and services.
Instead of a sales pitch, a consultative sales partner engages in dialogue with a customer. Together they work out a solution to the customer’s problem that adds value to the outcome that the customer may not anticipated. To do this, consultative sales partners:
- Listen first, talk later. Don’t present products or services until they know what the customer needs
- Only present what is relevant. Focus on the features and benefits which match the customer’s expressed needs and skip things that have no bearing
- Protect the customer’s best interests. Ask about other issues or concerns related to the sale without being afraid to bring up things that may affect the customer’s overall satisfaction with the results
- Respect resistance. View a customer’s questioning or indecision as an opportunity for understanding and patience, not as an obstacle to be overcome
- Think long-term. Look at each encounter with a customer as one more step in building a lasting relationship
- Think of themselves a resource. Become the customer’s ally in the decision-making process
By making the choice to train their staff in an approach that is compatible with the driving force of the new economy, the empowerment of the individual, rather than a model which tries to imposes a solution on the customer, the bank was able both to retain its valuable frontline staff and meet its goals.
Six months after adopting the consultative sales approach, the same customer service staff that had dug in their heels at the idea of having to sell had dramatically exceeded their monthly quota. They had become comfortable with their new identity as consultative sales partners.
But they had also done more than accomplish their employer’s objective. They had added to their professional skill set one of the most important attributes a frontline employee can have, the ability to partner effectively with a customer.