Clearly, the term “consultative selling” involves and requires genuinely collaborative, client needs-oriented attitudes and behaviors in all our business dealings. Even so, there are times when we must behave as pure “experts” — essentially dictating recommended client decisions and actions in our product/service area— where he/she simply isn’t qualified to make, or even contribute to the decision. Let’s talk about how “playing the expert card” affects our client dialogs.
Peter Block’s widely-acclaimed book, “Flawless Consulting,” comprehensively defines the often-contrasting characteristics and consequences of our roles as expert and collaborator.
Our challenge is precisely “roping off” that part of our recommendation which is non-negotiable: where we know how to do something, and the client doesn’t; indeed, these are probably the capabilities that caused the client to hire us in the first place. Outside those ropes, we’re true consultants: always collaborative and client-inclusive.
- If we rope off too wide an area, we’re arbitrarily excluding the client from making legitimate, beneficial contributions. If we rope off too narrow an area, we’re allowing the client to override our core capabilities and inadvertently degrade our proposals. A (hopefully-humorous) metaphor: if we’re asked, “What time is it?” even a genuine desire to be “collaborative” doesn’t justify the response, “What time would you like it to be?”
We should always try to draw these lines before making the recommendation; not waiting until the client raises an objection, and then scrambling to decide what’s legitimately negotiable, and what isn’t. Under pressure, emotions and professional egos could cause us to exaggerate what we “own” or, conversely, to abandon some of our expertise while trying to maximize collaboration and make the sale.
As we’ve so often said, the downside risk in doing anything to which the client doesn’t directly contribute is that her/his lack of authorship/ownership could reduce the feeling of shared commitment to the plan. When we must rightly wear the expert’s hat, it’s a price worth paying: first and foremost, we need the program to be as effective as possible.
A caveat: saying “trust me” (because I’m the expert) to a deeply skeptical client asks him/her to make a huge leap of faith; if we’re not proven right virtually every time, the client’s confidence in our expertise is probably permanently damaged. Make an extra effort to persuade that dubious client!
We should never forget that even in situations where, as experts, we rightly dictate client decisions and actions, it’s always the client who judges the success (or failure) of the outcome. Our own opinion about the results will never outweigh the client’s opinion. That means we should collaboratively seek client/sales team agreement, up front, on the criteria for measuring the program’s success.
In a nutshell: the consultative salesperson must walk a tightrope, carefully balancing the expert’s necessary dictates with a collaborative, client needs-driven mindset. We need to map out those boundaries precisely— before team selling goes to work.
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