What’s Changed About Consultative Selling?

Shutterstock | denis kalinichenko

As a tribute to how slowly human and organizational behaviors change, I’m fond of reminding people that Mack Hanan first published his landmark book on consultative selling in 1970.

Today, I still hear C-suite and senior sales leaders say, “We need to get our sales force selling more consultatively.”

Much has changed since 1970. Technological advancements like the Internet, Wi-Fi, and smartphones have radically changed our world. These technological changes have shifted the way B2B buyers research and explore solutions, by seeking out information before engaging a sales rep.

Studies are showing a growing desire to avoid sellers or minimize contact, especially among Millennial buyers. They like to research online. Trust in sellers, and even in the information published by companies and marketing departments, is low, compared to peer advice or online rating systems.

Despite all that, very few organizations have truly developed their selling approach to the client-focused, value-oriented methods that Hanan originally endorsed and taught. To be clear, I’m not saying that there isn’t room for consultative selling to evolve. However, the primary challenge in the market today isn’t the need for the consultative approach to change, it’s the need to commit to implementing the change and make it happen.

Consultative Clarity

If you’re going to commit to something and bank your future on it, it’s a good idea to have clarity about what being consultative really means, related to selling and sales methodology.

Most dictionaries and other online sources cite consultative as providing professional advice, counsel, or recommendations. That’s very limited, though. In a 1982 Harvard Business Review article titled, Consulting is More Than Giving Advice, author and professor of organization behavior, Arthur Turner, delineated a hierarchy that I still find clear and helpful. Keep in mind that Turner is writing about management consulting to improve organization effectiveness, but the parallels to selling are striking.

Studies are showing a growing desire to avoid sellers or minimize contact, especially among Millennial buyers.

His hierarchy:

  1. Providing information to a client
  2. Solving a client’s problems
  3. Making a diagnosis, which may necessitate a redefinition of the problem
  4. Making recommendations based on the diagnosis.
  5. Assisting with implementation of recommended solutions.
  6. Building a consensus and commitment around corrective action.
  7. Facilitating client learning—that is, teaching clients how to resolve similar problems in the future.
  8. Permanently improving organizational effectiveness.

This translates very well with some companies and solutions, but sellers work within a limited universe of the problems that their solutions solve, or the opportunities they enable. Not everyone is selling a wide range of management consulting services. We’re moving in the right direction, though.

The Elements of Consultative Selling

Let’s look at consultative selling through the lens of consultative behavior, with a buyer-centric mindset and a focus on creating value and delivering outcomes.

You will notice some natural overlap here between elements. In selling, as with organizational performance improvement work and systems thinking, things are rarely 100 percent compartmentalized. It’s making the dot connections that matters most.


  • Uncover and clearly define the current state and desired future state through research and dialogue.
  • Advise and recommend the best solutions from the above diagnostics and analyses.
  • Conduct Gap and Impact Analyses to develop a compelling business case and ensure ROI.
  • Offer insights, perspective, and expertise to help buyers/clients reach their desired future state.


  • Recognize that they will achieve personal goals by helping customers achieve their goals.

  • Operate in their buyers’ and customers’ best interests.

  • Ensure they have “Need And Solution Alignment” (NASA), before introducing solutions.

  • Apply the concepts of servant leadership when selling.


  • Work to understand people’s value drivers (how they perceive value) and what matters most to the individuals with whom they’re working).
  • Work with buyers and customers to create or co-create solutions that will deliver value from their perspective(s).
  • Communicate value clearly, personalized for the value drivers and what matters most to whom they’re speaking.


  • Work during the situation assessment to understand the outcomes that matter to influencers and decision makers.
  • Conduct the above-mentioned Gap and Impact Analyses to ensure a compelling business case exists.
  • Work during solution design and help buyers and customers implement to achieve the desired outcomes.

A Necessary Shift in How Sales Forces Proceed

Make the dot connections among the elements of being consultative, buyer-centric, value-focused, and outcome-oriented. If you truly want to evolve your methodology and sales force’s behavior to be consultative, this is the best-in-class model to get you there.

This is a true shift in the way that many sales forces go to market and sell. It’s certainly possible to accomplish, and depending on your current state, changes in buying behavior, and your industry and target market, it may be a mandatory shift soon to assure you not only survive but thrive.

Also, note that there are other shifts in methodology that have occurred, more recently, but haven’t achieved widespread adoption, such as:

Insight selling:

The effective use of data, insights, expertise, and experience, to help buyers and customers see around corners, recognize problems and opportunities they may not have fully realized yet, or reduce risks, and then act accordingly to improve their outcomes.

Adaptive selling:

Selecting the right sales methodology approach based on the buyer’s current situation, their place in the customer lifecycle or buyer’s journey, and their mindset. Adaptive selling is a chameleon-like, agile approach that requires extraordinary situational fluency to select and use the best method, in the moment.

Digital selling:

A fully integrated omnichannel sales approach that socially surrounds your buyers and customers. This kind of selling effortlessly moves between various digital selling channels and incorporates the principles of effective virtual or remote selling. In digital and remote selling you use the same sales behaviors and methodology, but maximize how those methods are executed through the virtual tools, both during and after virtual meetings.

Lay a Foundation of Consultative Selling

Here’s a critical note that can mean the difference between success or failure with these methods. In each of these cases, the success of the methodology is entirely dependent on having a firm foundation in place. Insight selling and adaptive selling, for example, offer incredible potential, but they are also incredibly difficult to scale across a sales force with meaningful adoption. The foundation you need in place, first, is the consultative selling methodology we’ve just detailed.

Learn the framework for consultative selling with Modern Sales Foundations. Transform your sales forces selling skills into value-based solutions buyers now need.

Modern Sales Foundations

Use a buyer-centric approach to improve sales results.

What it takes for salespeople to deliver value has changed significantly as the modern buying process has evolved. Modern Sales Foundations™ (MSF) is an end-to-end sales training program that teaches sellers the buyer-centric strategies and approaches needed to excel in today’s marketplace.

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