Blue Eskimo

The answer to your customers’ L&D problems can’t always be popped into a box

L&D providers are more frequently asking Blue Eskimo to find them salespeople who are skilled at ‘consultative sales’. But what makes a good consultative salesperson?

When it comes to sales, there for sure isn’t ‘one true way’ – some sales jobs need quick-fire hard-hitters (often without much product knowledge), while others need a considerably steadier hand.

L&D companies typically employ a mixture of sales types – some cold-calling, others building relationships. More in demand is the ‘consultative salesperson’. This is an often misunderstood term – so what makes a good consultative salesperson?

Putting the customer before the sale

The big clue is in the word ‘consultative’. A consultative salesperson should always put the customer’s needs first. While many salespeople would claim to do this, what would they do if their customer had a problem for which a competitor’s product was the best solution? A good consultative salesperson would include that product in his or her proposal – no, really, they would! This is because the consultative salesperson is always looking for the best possible way to meet a customer’s needs – not just the best way that his or her company provides.

Hang on, says a potential employer – you’re asking me to hire someone who might sell someone else’s products or services? Well, if that’s what’s best for the customer that’s what a consultative salesperson should be doing. But this is a rare example of a real-world challenge that a consultative salesperson might face – and need to respond to with honesty.

Finding the right solutions for your customers

It’s all based around the notion of finding the right solution. A typical telesales or field salesperson is going to work in a highly targeted way – driven to make the sale as quickly as possible, they get down to business quicker and try to find the simplest solution. The solution, preferably, is something ‘in a box’ – that buyers can easily understand and compare prices of. Some training is not unlike this – many of the courses are similar from training provider to training provider. It makes shopping around easy – and selling on anything other than price difficult. A typical sales approach might be: “I’ve rung to see if we can help with your training.” The resulting answer will be fast – negative or positive.

To a consultative salesperson, the answer can’t be defined so easily, because the right questions haven’t even been asked. A consultative salesperson is bothered about the underlying problems and issues – wants to understand these – so he or she can make a more intelligent recommendation. The recommendation may well be a learning programme – but it’s unlikely to be ‘a course’.

Going beyond selling what’s off the shelf

Let’s take a typical scenario. A company is upgrading to a new system, for which off-the-shelf courses exist. If a typical telesales person hits the company at the right time, he or she may get a sale with the ‘I want to help you with your training’ line. But it’s hit-and-miss. A consultative salesperson will already be in that account and have a relationship of trust, based on offering unbiased advice – which sometimes results in a sale, and sometimes doesn’t. But it’s always the best advice. Because the consultative salesperson has built up knowledge of how his or her customer operates, the marketing the customer uses and so on, he or she is frequently ‘asked for advice’ on L&D issues. Sometimes even on unrelated issues. The good consultative salesperson is able to understand that there is an opportunity (well, consultative he or she may be, but ‘sales’ is clearly part of the role) and set about finding the best answer for the customer. Clearly, the business need is to make a sale as part of providing the solution, but it should be a good sale – in the customer’s best interests. In that way, the customer won’t even feel ‘sold to’ – just that good advice has been given which resulted in a service being provided.

We said that the sale is unlikely to be ‘a course’ – and this is true, but for a different reason. Courses are mass-market products which serve a specific need. They are “all things to all people” – often teaching things you already know. That doesn’t make them bad, but catering for a bigger market is what gets the price down and keeps availability high. A consultative solution is, by its very nature, likely to be bespoke – targeted at a specific need; refined so it does exactly what’s required.

Understanding what it is you sell

And that brings us to another key difference of the consultative salesperson: you can’t wing it without good L&D knowledge and a good understanding of the learning process. Consultants are, more often than not, ex-practitioners – and consultative salespeople frequently have the same type of background. They can certainly maintain a discussion with a trainer on either content or learning theory without breaking into a sweat.

Finally, there’s another key difference between sales approaches. A telesales or fieldsales person might pursue any sale at almost any price. A consultative salesperson is not only looking after his customer, he or she is also looking after his own company – bad business is something to be walked away from, because it will sour a good customer relationship and may not be profitable for the L&D provider.

In our experience, consultative salespeople work best when they’re not highly targeted, because they are far less driven by money (though this isn’t always the case) and also because being less targeted leaves them free to make unbiased recommendations.

A consultative salesperson isn’t just a salesperson with better relationship skills. It’s someone who can work like a consultant – thinking as much about adding value as making the sale.