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What Is Consultative Sales? Principles and Best Practices

Woman shaking hands during a consultative sales session
To succeed at consultative sales, you need to focus on discovering your prospect's needs before offering a solution. [Adobe]

Learn how to convert more leads — and create loyal customers — with the consultative sales approach.

Here’s the number one thing I ask sales reps who are having trouble closing a deal: “Have you asked the right questions?”

If you’re having trouble getting to the finish line on a sale, consider this: Asking the right questions helps you understand what matters to your buyer, and that’s how you can deliver value. This is sometimes called consultative sales. If you’re wondering where to begin, don’t worry. I’ll go over the basics of consultative sales so you can perfect your approach and help your customers succeed.

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What is consultative sales?

Consultative selling is a sales approach that focuses on understanding your customer’s challenges and recommending products or services to resolve them. Your role as a consultative sales professional is to empathize, advise, and advocate, not push a product. Customers should feel like you’re genuinely in their corner, treating their problems like your own.

Consultative sales vs. solution sales

Both of these concepts are similar – they focus on the customer’s needs first, instead of on the product. However, there are key differences to keep in mind. 

Consultative selling is about building trust and creating a plan to solve customer problems. Sales reps who use this approach try to understand the root cause of customer problems and find a solution. Even though it might not result in an immediate sale, this relationship-building technique helps reps earn the trust of prospects.

In contrast, reps who use solution selling are looking to resolve customer issues with their company’s product(s). They focus their conversations and questions on uncovering problems that can be alleviated by what they are selling. 

Put another way: The mindset of a rep taking the solution-selling approach is, “I need to sell a solution.” But a consultative seller puts the customer’s goals first. Ahead of a sales call, they think about how they can help the customer achieve their goals.

5 principles of consultative sales

The foundation of consultative selling is to gain a holistic understanding of your customer’s needs, objectives, and desired outcomes. To do this, you have to ask probing questions, listen, and learn so that you can advise them to your best ability on how they can achieve their goals. Here are five principles to keep in mind:

1. Be curious about their industry

Actively seek information about your customer’s industry to learn about trends, developments, and challenges they’re facing. Remember, consultative selling is about understanding customer needs, then finding a way to remedy them. That means you need to immerse yourself in their world. Here are some ways to get started:

  • AI-powered insights: If your CRM has AI integration, use it to mine sales communications for relevant information, like recurring pain points or industry challenges.
  • Customer research: Read industry newsletters, read job postings, and watch webinars. All of these can give you a look at what your customers care about.
  • Social media: Follow industry-specific influencers on social media and listen to their perspectives. You can find influencers with a quick Google search (e.g. “sales influencers”), then see who they follow and start building your network.

2. Practice active listening

Active listening is when you really hear and absorb what your buyer says, reading between the lines and preparing to ask follow-up questions. You’re not just passively hearing them speak, you’re engaged. Give them enough time to share their thoughts, but be ready to jump in, follow up, and learn more. As a consultative seller, you’ll need to be able to think on your feet, so don’t rely too heavily on a script. Your goal is to paint a picture of their problem to find a solution that works.

This skill is essential for consultative sellers. When done well, you validate your customers’ feelings and uncover the deeper issues. In my experience, I’ve found that people tend to buy based on emotions. I ask open-ended questions that let the customer’s emotions naturally come into the conversation. For example, if they talk about a challenge they’re facing with frustration, ask about their experience to find out why they’re feeling stuck. What’s the roadblock? How is it impacting their business? What would they like to see improve? When you dig deep, you might uncover the real root of their problem. Then, you can work together on a solution that fits.

Navigating these conversations can be tricky. Here are some emotional cues to look for:

  • Nonverbal behavior: Body language and facial expressions can reveal feelings like excitement, fear, frustration, or confusion, which you can address on the spot.
  • Speaking cadence: People tend to talk faster when they’re passionate about something and slower if they’re uncertain or hesitant. Look for cadence cues like these to guide your responses.
  • Language: Do the words you are hearing have a positive or negative connotation?  For example, if someone uses the word “cheap” versus “economical,” they probably don’t feel too positive about the thing they’re describing.

3. Research your prospects

Doing your research makes you more credible and can build trust with a buyer. It shows that you’re serious and dedicated to helping them and their business. To get started, explore your company’s buyer personas to familiarize yourself with the type of person you’ll likely be dealing with. While this detail is high-level, it will give you a sense of your prospect’s challenges and wants ahead of time.

Next, read up on your prospect’s industry and company. I recommend using Reddit for user insights and Glassdoor for nuggets about a company’s culture and challenges. These are typically more honest sources than a company website, social media, or news article that’s been polished or editorialized.

4. Understand what’s valuable to your buyer

Once you’ve done your research and discovery, you should be able to see what your customer values. Then, you can find a way to deliver it. The buyer’s perception of value often drives their buying decision. 

Maybe your customer gets a promotion if they onboard your CRM platform, which would help increase their company’s year-over-year revenue. The value realized in this case is a salary increase and upgraded status at their company. Or maybe your AI-based product helped your customer save time by automating tasks and increasing their productivity. The value here is in the form of reduced cost and increased operational efficiency, allowing them to invest in areas that have been neglected due to lack of time and funding.

Asking buyers about their business goals is table stakes. You need that detail to make your recommendation. But top performers go above and beyond to understand the buyer’s more personal goals. They want to learn what happens to the buyer if the issue is not addressed. What is the impact on them, professionally or personally? If you can uncover that value, you can add it to your pitch.

5. Ask high-impact questions

By now, you may have noticed a trend with these principles — consultative sales is about asking powerful questions. My advice is to avoid “yes” or “no” questions, as you want the customer to expand with their thoughts and opinions. The power of wide-open questions is that they allow emotions to seep into the conversation. I like to call these high-impact questions.

So instead of asking, “Who does your team report to?” try, “Can you help me understand your org structure?” This could spark a larger conversation about cross-departmental needs, organizational dynamics, and more personal challenges that will enable you to differentiate yourself. High-impact questions like this also typically result in greater opportunity to cross-sell and upsell. 

Consultative sales process

The stages of the consultative selling process are similar to the standard sales cycle with a key distinction: While the standard sales cycle tends to be transactional and accelerate toward closing a deal, the consultative sales process is more relational. It’s based on the notion that you have to slow down to understand the buyer’s context, and that’s what ultimately accelerates the deal in the end. Consultative selling is founded on trust. So this sales process is about earning that trust, not just inking your next deal.

Let’s say you work for Calls R Us selling call center software. You have a lead for a buyer, Max, who is the CIO at Awesome Outfits, an apparel retailer. After a recent acquisition, Awesome Outfits is thinking about modernizing its call center technology to handle its newly-increased call volume. Here’s a look at this process from a consultative sales perspective:

Step 1: Create a plan for your discovery call

You’ve booked a discovery sales call with Max and have researched him and his company. In preparation, you write up a call plan that clearly states your goal for the call and what is required to achieve it. Your plan might look something like this:

  • List your desired outcome. In this case, you want to gain access to Max’s manager who makes all purchasing decisions for the company. For this to happen, Max must feel confident making the introduction.
  • Ask high-impact questions. During the call with Max, you focus on open-ended questions. You gently probe, “Your company has been in acquisition mode. Tell me about the impact it’s had on you as a leader.”
  • Actively listen and ask follow-up questions for more information. The answers Max gives might reveal some of the challenges he’s facing. Now you can tailor your guidance to address those pain points.
  • Confirm next steps. Hearing about how your solution could help alleviate some of his pain points and support him as a leader, Max is excited to get the ball rolling. He feels comfortable making the introduction to his manager. You end the call by scheduling a demo with Max and his manager.

Step 2: Ask, listen, and learn

Have your next meeting with Max. Continue to follow up with him. Once you’ve built trust, ask for introductions to other members of his team. Through all of your interactions with Max, stick with the consultative sales tenets of asking high-impact questions, then stopping to listen actively to the answers. This way, you can uncover key pain points and find out what they value before you propose a solution.

Step 3: Create a tailored proposal

Write a personalized proposal for Awesome Outfits that uses the information you gathered to show differentiated value. It should include thoughtful recommendations that address the points Max made, and clearly illustrate how your services address his stated objectives. You can tailor the proposal by repeating ideas you’ve heard from Max and his teammates For example, if Max refers to his outdated call center as “using 1980s tech,” find a way to utilize those words in the proposal. This will make the proposal more relatable and show you’ve been listening carefully.

Step 4: Overcome the buyer’s objections

It’s likely Max is not the only person at Awesome Outfits considering call center technology. Find out who the other stakeholders are and how you can get them on board with your offering. Ask questions and provide information to help Max navigate the internal objections he will likely encounter when you are not with him during internal conversations. 

Pricing is often an objection during the standard sales process. In a transactional sales process, there is limited focus on creating unique value. I don’t see objections to pricing as often in consultative sales, because the seller tailors their recommendation to what the buyer sees as valuable. In my experience, companies find the money for a product or service they see as valuable. However, if they do raise pricing concerns, go back to your meeting notes and talk through key points of value that the buyer shared. 

Step 5: Make a conscientious handoff after the sale

If you close the sale to Awesome Outfits, your next step is to pass it along to your internal team to execute on it. Usually, an implementation or customer success team will handle onboarding a new customer. Don’t drop the ball during this critical part of the game! You’ve built a trusted relationship with your client up to this point, and they chose to buy from you because of it. So, you want to ensure the handoff to the post-sale resources goes smoothly. Pass along detailed notes and advice to your internal team so they have everything they need to ensure the transition is as seamless as possible. Help your buyer understand how helpful and effective the implementation team is. Position them to succeed by building confidence in them and their role. 

Ask the right questions and deliver value to your customers

You won’t always wind up with a sale when using the consultative sales approach, and that’s okay. When you focus on understanding the buyer’s perception of value and give thoughtful advice, you can create a trust-based relationship for the long term. Sometimes, that results in a purchase down the road or sending referrals your way. Consultative selling is not about any single transaction. It is ultimately about a seller helping a buyer succeed. When you can do that, you’ll create customers for life instead of just a single deal. 

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Anita Nielsen headshot
Anita Nielsen President - LDK Advisory Services

Anita Nielsen is the President of LDK Advisory Services. She offers customized sales coaching that creates sustainable success for her clients. Anita is also a sales performance coach for the Forbes Coaches Council and advisory board member for the National Association of Women in Sales. She holds an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology.

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