Consultative Selling: Truth or Cliche?

Edition: September 2003 - Vol 11 Number 09
Article#: 1647
Author: John Hutton

The word consultant has become very popular within sales organizations. Many reps refer to themselves as sales consultants, rather than sales representatives. As is often the case with popular terminology, it often becomes overused and ultimately misused. Has that happened to the term “consultative selling”?

When does a sales rep become a consultant? The dictionary defines a consultant as “one who gives professional advice or services as an expert – having, involving or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience.”

Listening Is Half the Battle

Most discussions on “consultative selling” tend to center on selling skills – listening, in particular. However, listening skills are only part of the equation. These skills must be combined with knowledge. Together, listening and knowledge add up to understanding. Once there’s understanding, communication and sharing of knowledge can occur. Over time, a degree of expertise will follow.

Time is a precious resource for many of our customers, and they must make the best possible use of it. This means spending time in the company of those who bring the greatest value. Good consultative sales reps bring good value.

The question remains: How do you become a consultant to your customers, so that they receive great value from time spent with you? How do you become a trusted expert and apply that expertise to bring value to your customers?

End Game

Beginning with the end in mind, what do true sales consultants look like? You’ve probably seen some. They’re usually the ones with phenomenal account control. They’re an integral part of their customers’ businesses. In fact, customers will invest quite a bit of time seeking counsel and advice from these reps. And customers will actively follow advice from such reps. Oftentimes, they won’t act without it.

This degree of account control is not easily gained, but it can be built over time. Here are the key characteristics of consultative sales reps who possess account control:

• Humility. Consultative reps show customers the respect they’re due. If at some point these reps possess a greater degree of knowledge in one specific area than the customer, they do not flaunt it. Instead, they find ways of using it to their customers’ best interest. And they continue to learn. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of the knowledge you’ve attained. But be careful: Pride can be perceived as arrogance, and arrogance does not help you earn trust.

• Inquisitiveness. Consultative reps are always learning and always curious. Sales calls are a true two-way interaction. Customers have a lot to teach you if you’re inquisitive and open to learning from them.

• Attentiveness. On sales calls, these reps devote their full attention to their customers. They stay with their customers in conversations, rather than trying to remain several steps ahead. Consultative reps really strive to understand every point or statement their customers make. They focus on the underlying motivation and point of view their customers are expressing, so they can fill those needs.

• Knowledge and expertise. Beyond good pricing or high levels of service, consultative reps bring something else to the table: knowledge and expertise. They can solve problems for their customers and are trusted to do so. A high degree of relevant knowledge and expertise, along with the ability to share it, is the true “value-add.” This allows customers to remain focused on their role as healthcare providers. Many customers consider this a valuable luxury, one they’re not likely to part with easily. These reps bring great value to their customers and manufacturing partners alike. In turn, this great value builds great loyalty and lasting relationships.

• The ability to achieve personal objectives while staying on the customer’s agenda. The consultative sales rep certainly has objectives, both long- and short-term. But the true consultant is able to arrive at these objectives with their customers, not ahead of them or worse, without them.

From Sales Rep to Sales Consultant

Consultative selling is speaking a language. To be fluent in a language, one must have a command of both grammar and vocabulary. To be fluent in consultative selling, one must have the skills (analogous to the grammar) as well as a detailed knowledge the “vocabulary”) of the products, including their application and relevant medical background information. Eventually, this develops into expertise.

There are no simple tricks or “canned” methods. A rep wishing to become a sales consultant must work on a number of things.

First, you must know what you need to know. In order to be of greatest value to your customers, you must achieve:

• A conversational-level knowledge and understanding of the relevant medical/ clinical aspects of your area of interest. While it’s unlikely that your level of knowledge will ever exceed that of your customers, it’s crucial that you understand what your customer is saying and how your products apply.

• A high degree of knowledge of any technology (your product lines as well as those of others) that is pertinent to your area of interest.

• A high degree of understanding of your customers’ economic considerations, including costs as well as revenue/ reimbursement information.

• A well-informed perspective on any external market aspects – regulatory or legislative developments, for example.

• A sound working knowledge of competitive products and services.

Second, you must specialize. Start in an area that interests you. Achieve a level of expertise there. And don’t wait for the learning to find you. Rather, try it the old-fashioned way: Ask questions, read up on your subject and spend extra time with your manufacturer representatives. Become an expert one product at a time and one subject at a time.

Third, you must choose a mentor. A mentor could be a fellow rep who’s considered to be an expert by his or her customers, or a customer who’s a recognized expert. Open yourself to that expert’s knowledge. He or she spent years developing it and could save you a lot of time and mistakes.

The Consultative Sales Call

So what does this all look like in action? What is a great consultative sales call? It’s a conversation, an exchange of questions, information, needs, motivation and ideas. Most healthcare professionals have spent years in school and training, and many more practicing their art. They have dedicated their lives to it. They’re generally willing to share. Your interaction here will demonstrate your interest.

• Remain in the moment. Don’t play mental chess with your customers. You’re not competing to win against your customer. Don’t try to stay several moves ahead. Reps who are constantly thinking ahead frequently miss what’s right in front of them.

• Prepare one good question and know where you want to go. Does a consultative sales call have preconceived objectives? You bet it does. But, as stated earlier, the true consultant is able to arrive at these with his or her customers. Listen to your customer’s answers and wait for mention of topics that relate to your objectives. Explore these further. Subsequent questions will come from the customer’s previous question. When the sales rep prepares a lengthy list of questions, the sales call often becomes an interrogation. The focus of such a call becomes the line of questioning rather than the customer.

• Don’t avoid an area of conversation simply because it may be unfamiliar. If you don’t understand something – a word, a phrase, a statement, a topic – stop. Don’t let it go by. Ask and learn.

• Let your customers be your trainers. Your best teachers aren’t always your trainers or managers. They’re an integral part of your training, but your best training will come from your customers themselves.


Time is considered by most people to be their most valuable resource. For this reason they tend to pay attention to how and with whom they spend it. A strong consultative sales rep brings great value to all of his or her professional relationships and associations. Being a valuable resource is a sound method for finding your way onto busy agendas and inaccessible calendars. This value can only be proven through consistency over time. And time spent with your customers and manufacturing partners equals money.

In summary, competent consultative selling will bring benefit to you in three areas:

1. The ability to differentiate yourself by bringing greater value to your customers. Most distributor reps have access to similar portfolios of products at similar pricing. Where reps may distinguish themselves is either in the area of service or expertise. Of these, the only aspect over which the rep has total and exclusive control is his or her level of useful knowledge and expertise.

2. The ability to bring greater value to your manufacturing partners. Manufacturers reps are wonderful resources. However, they are often scarce. Most manufacturers reps cover many more distributor reps than they have time to fully support. Naturally, these manufacturers reps will spend the majority of their time with those distributor reps who are most productive. In most cases, truly consultative distributor reps are the most productive. These manufacturers reps will in turn, drive sales of their product lines in these territories.

3. Business growth. The third payoff is a natural consequence of the first two. The inevitable result of your consultative selling efforts is business growth. Productive quality time spent in the company of your manufacturing partners and your mutual customer base means more sales and more GP dollars for both you and your company.

A few closing words of advice to those who would travel this path. Get your job done. Pursuing a level of expertise worthy of the title “consultant” should be accomplished as part of your job – in support of your job, not instead of it. Make it part of the way you do your job.

John Hutton is managing partner of the Bethesda Consulting Group, an Orange Park, Fla.-based firm specializing in sales and marketing consultation for healthcare industry distributors and manufacturers. He began his healthcare career as a sales rep for Abbott Laboratories Diagnostic Division. Eleven years later, in 1998, he became director of sales and marketing for Schiapparelli Biosystems (now Alfa Wassermann Diagnostics). In 2001, he joined Physician Sales and Service as vice president of diagnostic products, and later, joined Bethesda. He can be reached via e-mail at