I have the fabulous life experience of failing at consultative selling from two angles – rep and manager. As a rep, I suffered from wanting to close everyone, everywhere, with every need. That led me to want to do a lot of the talking to make my case. I told the story, and closed, closed, closed. I was failing but it was hard to tell from the numbers.

I was in fact failing so well that I was promoted into management where I could help others fail also. I espoused the three P’s: Prospect, Present, P.O. My reps were doing extremely well and the map was full of thumbtacks across a formerly green field. But our success was coming from telling the sales story not from forming partnerships. What’s so bad about that, you might ask?

Our product couldn’t live up to our sales story. And really, what product ever can? Ultimately that meant we struggled to renew clients and had some negative word of mouth inertia. It is mostly in failure that we do find success, and I was lucky to get the chance for redemption in the long run, but it required almost a total sales makeover.

Maintaining a client relationship, particularly in a SaaS model, is going to come down to just that, the relationship. And good relationships require you fully understand the landscape your partner works in: their technology, their mandates, their assets, their weaknesses and their values. If you understand all that, you can help them get the most out of whatever product you sell, with whatever flaws and shortcomings it may have. You’ll survive the bad times. If there’s a real dialogue there instead of a sales pitch, they will help you continuously improve. And in our business, if you AREN’T continuously improving your offering you are going backwards.

So how do you form the kind of relationship that builds a truly successful territory? You ask good questions, you listen to the answers, you commit your organization to the client’s success with a solid implementation plan. I have also referred to this through the analogy of home improvement. When you do a home remodel, you are coming at it from one of two perspectives: I’m going to sell this house soon or I’m going to live in this house a long time. See what I mean? To sell as if you’re just the temporary custodian of a relationship is to tell the client what you can do. To sell for a long-term partnership is to listen to what the client needs.

Looking back I realize what made me finally get good at consultative sales, and it might surprise you. I stopped selling. It’s true! When I became a full time manager I still had a sales number but it was one I had to achieve through strategy and the support of a team. I had traded my quantitative prospecting and closing responsibilities for some more qualitative responsibilities such as the product pipeline and reaching service objectives. Totally changes your perspective.

I still got in front of clients but it was as part of ride-alongs with my reps, and in those meetings I started asking much better and deeper questions that would help me meet those qualitative objectives I had. I cared if we closed that prospect, but not nearly as much as I cared about what their educational ecosystem could tell me about what we needed to do with our product, our marketing message and our service resources. I was in it for the bigger picture, the longer term–and the prospect was a great source of information for me to build strategy to achieve that.

A strategic perspective just naturally takes the conversation deeper into the real concerns, pain points and future plans of the district. Reps would sit there stunned, kicking my shins under the table and mouthing – you’re not leaving me time for my demo! Ah, but it worked. We would be handed very specific details that would help us close sales at these meetings, set ourselves up to have RFP’s written around our product, and get referrals to other change-making educators. Home runs.

You don’t have to actually become a manager to be a more consultative and therefore a better sales rep, you can alter your perspective just by looking at some new lines of questioning with your prospects. If you aren’t super confident about getting into the weeds of public policy and education pedagogy, you don’t even need to go there to have a deep conversation. Try this. Before your next meeting, divide a piece of paper into three sections and write these headings:

  • Product
  • Marketing
  • Service

Steer the conversation toward getting a suggestion for each of those from your prospect. You can ask things like, “What kind of automation do your teachers need most right now?” or for someone that uses your product already, “If you were in charge of our software, what would your first design priority be?” Get feedback on your marketing and product positioning by saying, “Is there anything in our market messaging that you think resonates with people in your position?” Think like a CEO and find out, “What is the best relationship you have with a vendor and how does it work?”

You can’t discuss those three topics – self-serving though they may be – without learning what is important to your customer. It will add some minutes to the sales meeting, or look at it as time you can cut from your sales razzle dazzle. If will get your client talking about their deepest challenges and concerns, and you’ll have the key to how to make them a satisfied, long-term customer.

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