The evolution of the complex B2B sale has all but eliminated "transactional" approaches and is now moving past "consultative" to something like "super-consultative," or "truly-consultative."
The need to be more consultative is the result of decision-makers and shapers needing more help and guidance from salespeople. The primary reason the evolution of the complex B2B sale is moving in this direction is the client's increasing need for a deeper understanding of the complex environment and the implications of the forces at work in their world and how best to address those forces.
Some Working Definitions
Let's start by defining a few terms to explain the different experiences necessary for each type of B2B sale.
Transactional B2B Sales: A transactional sale is one where the buyer doesn't need a great deal of consultation, which normally means they know what they need to know to be able to make a purchase. It also means there isn't a great deal of risk for making a poor decision. It is believed that all of these sales are going to find their way to the internet, something that isn't proving to be true, as there is still a growing number of salespeople who call their clients to ask them for their orders instead of passively waiting and hoping the client buys on their website.
Transactional sales don't require the consultative approach like a complex B2B sale, as the client doesn't need nearly as much help with the decision. The need to know what they buy is a fit for their application, when it can be delivered, and how much it costs.
Consultative B2B Sales: Let's view this version of the consultative sale as the midpoint of this continuum of approaches. What we have called consultative selling has mostly been practiced as "solution selling," an approach built on the idea that the salesperson must find a problem and explain how their "solution" addresses it. For the most part, the salesperson's consultation was mostly limited to their solution, mostly by trying to prove it was a better fit than other solutions.
Because most salespeople have been taught and trained in some version of a "solution sale," they have been well-prepared to help clients with a solution, but offer little or no advice or recommendations outside of the solution (the product or their service). There are still plenty of clients who don't need much more than this approach to be able to buy what they need, especially when they have the experience of buying it in the past.
Truly Consultative Complex B2B Sales: A complex sales is one where the client doesn't have a lot of experience buying what they need and where there is a risk of serious negative consequences for making a poor decision. The complexity creates a lack of certainty that isn't easily addressed by proving your company is a good company and that your "solution" is the right fit for the client. None of the traditional approaches are adequate for complex sales.
A decision-maker who doesn't have a clear understanding of how the external and internal forces impact their business needs help interpreting and understanding the implications to be able to move forward. The consultative B2B sales approach doesn't consider or address the complexity, or the uncertainty of a complex sale.
Because a decision-maker has little experience making a complex decision, they need to better understand how to make the best decision for their company, including the different approaches available to them, the factors they need to consider, and how to weigh those factors. Without an understanding of the decision, many decision-makers do nothing as a way to avoid making a poor decision.
To Be Truly a Consultative Salesperson
For decades, we have been able to sell needing nothing more than a "problem" and a "solution." But as our world has become increasingly complex, this approach doesn't seem to be particularly helpful to decision-makers, especially those who need to get the decision right.
The more complex the buying decision, the more complex the sale. The new approaches that started to evolve at the turn of the century were a response to problems decision-makers were struggling with when addressing the better results they needed—expanding the consultative salesperson's advice and recommendations beyond the problem or the solution. Instead, it solved a number of other problems outside of the problem the "solution seller" would have solved.
What is necessary to be truly consultative is helping your client understand what's going on outside their windows and what it means to them and their results. It's also critical to help educate a client about how best to make a decision that will ensure they produce the better results they need. Your client will also benefit from your advice as to how to conduct their buyer's journey. The broader your counsel, the more you are truly consultative.
Who Changed and Why
I have never thought my approach was consultative until I started to provide clients with advice about what they had to change to improve their results, changes that were something they had to do to improve their results, whether they bought from me or someone else. When the client changed something, I recognized the value I created was something outside of my company or our solution.
Enabling this approach requires more time in sales roles. The broader your counsel, advice, and recommendations, and the more this advice is valuable to your client's results, the more you are moving towards being truly consultative.