Consultative sales skills: How to set the context before asking questions

Consultative selling, bear in mind, is selling by asking the questions that prompt the prospect to recognize needs for what you offer.

Another key point to bear in mind:  In using a consultative sales approach, ask questions, but shape the

meeting as a conversation, not an interrogation. Good consultative sales skills means projecting that you want to learn all you can about the situation, so you can help, NOT that you are there to cross-examine . . . and DEFINITELY NOT that you are seeking to learn their sensitive proprietary information.

When using a consultative sales approach, you may sense that your questions are beginning to touch upon areas that the prospect may feel get into sensitive, confidential issues.

For example, so that you can determine which of the various models or sizes to propose, you may need to have a sense of whether their needs are for your low, medium or high-volume product. Therefore, before asking those questions, explain why you are asking, and  why your need to know that information fits in with the overall purpose of your sales call.

The prospect may be concerned that your questions are getting too close to proprietary information that he doesn’t want known outside the company. (These sensitive areas might include work-procedures, how sales have been going lately, how heavily they are staffed in certain areas, production costs, potential profitability, and the like.)

Be alert to the kind of signals that might tell you that you are probing sensitive areas. The ability to pick up and interpret those signals — essential elements in your repertoire of consultative sales skills — may include unconscious nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, sudden reluctance to make eye contact, physical closing up or drawing away from you.

It's better to ask these "sensitive" questions than to guess at the answers.

In the ideal situation, you would ask just one or a few consultative sales questions to signal direction, then let the prospect tell the story in her own words. (Granted, it’s rarely that neat, but that is an ideal to work toward: minimum questions, maximum listening.)

Keep in mind just why you're asking questions: to "bring the prospect with you" through the process of determining what needs exist for the product or service that you offer. Thus if you just guess as these answers, then the prospect may not understand why you make the recommendations you do, or why your product is ideally suited for the prospect's needs.

Consultative sales skills tip: If you encounter this kind of reluctance, suggest something like this:

"I sense that we have moved into an area in which some confidential information is involved, and I respect that. Would it be reasonable, for purposes of illustrating the cost-saving potential of my product, to suggest that a typical hourly cost might be $_____? If so, then we can use that, and you can plug in your own actual figures at your convenience. Otherwise, would you like to suggest a hypothetical figure to use?”