Consultative Selling: What, Why Not, and Why Now?

Categories: Distribution, Sales & Marketing

By Leah Waldrop | March 8, 2018 << Back to Articles

Over the past few years, distributors and salespeople in the professional cleaning industry have heard the term ‘consultative selling’ used more frequently. Consultative selling is a process in which the salesperson or jansan distributor evolves from the traditional supplier role to become the customer’s trusted advisor. This type of selling requires and allows for considerable trust to develop between the distributor and client. Further, it allows the distributor to focus more specifically on identifying and then satisfying the customer’s unique cleaning and maintenance needs and wants, providing a win for all parties involved.

Consultative selling, also known over the years as value-added selling, need-satisfaction selling, and professional selling, is commonly used by more skilled, higher performing salespeople. However, the concept certainly is not new, having been introduced in the early 1970s. And, while many salespeople praise its virtues, consultative selling still has not become standard practice in the jansan industry and many others.

This fact was supported in a survey of sales organizations conducted in 1986. The sales professionals surveyed, many of whom indicated they did not practice consultative selling, believed it was the next frontier in professional selling. About 20 years later, a similar study was conducted and interestingly, once again the salespeople surveyed indicated that while they may not practice the concept, they did believe consultative selling was the future of professional sales.*

If so many salespeople believed consultative selling was the next stage in selling and is a more effective and professional way to sell, why is the practice so rarely employed today? Here are three key reasons:

  1. Understanding the process. Consultative selling transcends many sales standards and more common sales formats. It requires more time and training for sales associates to understand and implement. For many organizations, finding and taking this extra time has been difficult.
  2. Changing sales cycles. In consultative selling, customer interactions revolve around the customer’s needs. This can take more time and is in marked contrast to “product pushing,” which is much faster and still a dominant practice. When the economy was strong in the 1990s, many salespeople and their clients believed the added time consultative selling could take was simply unnecessary. Customers were in a buying mode at that time and looked for distributors that had satisfactory product knowledge and offered fast and easy order processing.
  3. Knowledge challenges. A key component of consultative selling is the ability of the salesperson to act as a consultant. This often requires having a very broad range of product knowledge. While a salesperson or jansan distributor may be well versed on a few products and their features, they may not know or have access to a wide range of products and information necessary to address the many cleaning challenges, business goals, and needs of clients. In fact, without advances in new technology, achieving these objectives would almost be impossible.

Why Things are Different Today

So, why are we hearing more about consultative selling now? One reason is the robust economy of the 1990s is no longer and the recent financial downturn has made purchasing agents far more careful, if not skeptical, about everything they order for their facilities. This problem has been amplified because instead of a few people making purchasing decisions, in many cases just one or two are in charge now. As a result, a buyer will take his time to make sure the products and equipment have proven value, meet performance standards, and are the right solutions for the facility’s specific cleaning needs. This creates a perfect environment for consultative selling.

A second reason focuses on technology―or lack thereof―in the past. In the 1970s, 1980s, and even into the 1990s, fast and easy access to product databases that provide information such as features, benefits, and options, was simply not available for clients. In recent years, this has been addressed with Web-based analytical tools and systems. These systems store large amounts of data on a variety of conventional and green cleaning products. Today, distributors and their clients know what products are available as well as the features, benefits, and costs that will best meet a facility’s needs. This helps the distributor serve in a more consultative role and allows the client to make more insightful purchasing decisions.

Adding Value

Ultimately, the real benefit of consultative selling and why it is making a resurgence today is its focus on value. Being able to demonstrate and articulate product solutions in terms of quantitative business benefits has become increasingly important, especially for large purchasers. For distributors, the challenge is to help their customers understand where this value comes from, and this can often be addressed through the use of effective consultative selling strategies.

*Source for the survey and related information: Anne E.P. Smith with the AchieveGlobal’s Research Group, a leadership training organization; “What It Means to Be Professional: Consultative Selling Today”; The Catalyst; January 2007.

About the Author.

Leah Waldrop is marketing manager for Afflink’s eLev8® system. Afflink provides an array of comprehensive sales and marketing solutions to more than 300 distributors and 200 supplier organizations of jansan, packaging, safety, and office products. Waldrop can be contacted via Afflink’s Web site at