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Consultative selling vs. Solution Selling: What’s the difference

I’ve talked frequently about the need to sell solutions, not products. Customers come to you for a solution to their problem, not to buy a product. When you go for a close too soon without uncovering a problem (and getting your prospect to acknowledge they have it), you are going to hear ‘no’ a lot more often than you want.

But selling solutions is not the same as something called solution selling. Solution selling has its place, but I generally prefer to sell solutions through the process of consultative selling.

Consultative selling vs. solution selling

The key difference between consultative selling and solution selling is in the approach.

For example, let’s take the example of a family with a child in the midst of the college admissions process. A test prep company and an admissions consultant sell similar services (a better shot at getting into your choice school), but their approach will be different.

A college admissions consultant may use consultative selling. They will ask discovery questions to determine your student’s and family needs. They will ask questions about all aspects of their academic career and their goals for the future. After that, they will determine how they can best serve the family– either through test prep, essay counseling, scholarship hunting, or some combination of services.

A test prep company may use a solution selling approach. They will want to know what their current scores are and what their goal scores are. Their sole focus will be on selling the family something to increase their test scores.

Let’s take a closer look at consultative selling vs. solution selling.

Consultative selling

In consultative selling, reps use more of a soft sell approach. The relationship between the rep and the buyer is more of an equal one that could span a longer timeframe. Both parties work together as partners to figure out the best way forward for the customer.

When you take on the role of a consultant, you will use more of a soft sell approach. Here are the steps in the soft sell.

  1. Ask discovery questions to get to know their history, goals, concerns, fears, desires, roadblocks… learn as much as you can about the prospect
  2. In collaboration with the prospect, outline their needs and the specific outcomes they are hoping for in seeking your services
  3. Make a recommendation for products or services that will address their needs

After that, you may or may not continue a relationship with the client, but that would depend on what is customary in your field. In our example of the college admissions adviser, you could keep in contact to find out if they got into their reach school or what topic they chose for their essay. If you’ve built a good working relationship with the client, this would be a welcome gesture.

In our example, consultative selling works best for college admissions because it’s a long, complicated process on which people need a lot of guidance. When you become a trusted consultant to a family that needs a lot of guidance, you are more likely to get referrals and repeat business.

It’s not without risk to practice consultative selling. You could invest a lot of time on a prospect’s needs only for them to go in a different direction or choose a different solution to their problems. That’s frustrating and could cost you time and money.

Solution selling

Solution selling relies heavily on the rep seeking out clients who they know need their specific solution. They target prospects who need their exact product or service.

In the process of solution selling, the rep has more of an instructor role than an adviser role. They are teaching the prospect about how their product or service can solve an existing problem.

As you might expect, this is more of a hard sell. There is less time spent on discovery because the rep has already targeted prospects whom they know need the solution they are selling.

  1. Determine their need
  2. Make a connection between their need and your product/service
  3. Go for the close quickly

Solution selling has a shorter sales process, but it can also be risky. When you don’t build a relationship with prospects, you definitely don’t win their trust and possible repeat business or referrals. You also run the risk of coming off as “sales-y” which we know no one likes. And let’s not forget the possibility that they’ll smell your commission breath the second you make contact.

Which is better?

Even though solution selling has its shortcomings, it still has a place. If a person is going to buy a car, they don’t expect the salesperson to spend weeks counseling them on the type of car that best fits their needs. Solution selling may work best in this case. How many people are you driving around? What kind of driving do you do? What’s your budget? Here’s the car I recommend. It works for our example situation as well. If you sell test prep tutoring or software, the prospect isn’t there to talk about essays or FAFSA forms. They are there to find someone who can boost a test score.

There are instances though where a prospect will benefit from a consultative approach. If you’re selling SaaS or medical devices for example, these are complicated systems that have multiple applications. You have to meet with multiple decision makers and gatekeepers before anyone is ready to commit. You really do need to consult with your client to learn what they really need and how you can best serve them. Likewise, if you are an admissions consultant, the family is going to expect that you will be invested in the process along with them and hold their hand through the more challenging aspects of the process, such as writing an essay or filling out a FAFSA form.

Whatever situation you find yourself in as a sales professional, we can help. Reach out to my team and we’ll get you set up with coaching that will help you meet your goals this year.

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