The ability to propose a steady stream of investment opportunities or, more correctly, return opportunities to your customer partners is the engine that drives Consultative Selling. Proposals mean business. They make money for you and your customers, keep your learning curve strong by giving you access to new sources of information about customer businesses, and keep your partnerships active, alert, and alive. You should always have a minimum of three proposals in progressive stages of development. The one that you are working on should be on the table, the next one should be heating up in the oven, and the third should be in the freezer awaiting defrosting.
The proposals that are in the oven and the freezer represent your inventory. Until you sell them, they run up opportunity costs for you and your customers. You should turn them over quickly.
A consultative seller is continually diagnosing problems and opportunities and what-ifing solutions. Asking the customers "what if?" invites them to play strategic Ping-Pong with you. Each what-if should provoke either a "how?" or an enhanced what-if from your partner, building on your proposal or coming at it from a different cut. By presenting your proposals as questions, you circumvent most of the defensiveness that causes adversarial rejections and refusals to buy in. Instead, you open your proposal to the customers, asking them in, so they can add their values to it and make it partly their own. Unless it becomes "theirs" in this way, they will not sell it with you. As long as your proposals remain "yours," you will be a vendor.
For example, consultative sellers might ask a supermarket chain: "What if you can acquire the equivalent of a $500,000 order each week without incurring a single dollar for cost of sales? You can, if you can eliminate out-of-stock opportunity cost in a single best-selling brand in your dry cereals sections."
Or they might ask the same supermarket customer:
What if you can offer your customers more advertised specials each week than your competitors can? In addition, what if you can also offer deeper price cuts on each of these specials? How much in new sales and profits can that earn for you each year, considering that every single dollar of new earnings will be net, because all costs of each special will be fully funded by us?
The funds required to support our contribution will come from savings of more than $90,000 per store annually.
On a per-store basis, the operating costs break down like this: For a store with gross weekly sales of $140,000, savings are projected as approximately $7,650 per month.
"What-iffing" is the driver of continuous improvement. No cost-benefit analysis, nor any PIP itself, is ever sacred. Consultative sellers are like Formula One racers. They are compulsive tinkerers, always testing. With the Formula Ones, the brakes are always being tested; so are the tires, the engine, and the steering. The correlates for consultative sellers are the investments and their returns, the net present values and the paybacks.
When your customers ask you how they can add the value you are proposing to their operation, they are opening your consultative sale. This answers the question "How do you open?" You do not. In Consultative Selling, the customer opens.
"How?" is the magic opener. It means, "How can I be empowered?" "How?" comes in several forms. Some are nonverbal: facial expressions such as raised eyebrows, furrowed forehead, pursed lips, or quizzical looks and sometimes nods. Fingers pulling at noses or earlobes, hands going to chins or backs of necks, and body leaning forward are additional nonverbal ways of asking "How?"
Verbally, a "how?" can be asked directly or indirectly as an expression of envy for your other customers whose profits you have improved, a revelation of wishes and wants that would constitute an ideal solution and how your proposed solution compares to it, or a request for added comfort expressed as a "Yes, but" reaction.
A qualified "how?" is often expressed in the form of pseudo-problems that are designed to test and probe your solution, your experience, or your commitment. Customers also may want to know what their competitors are doing—"I wonder how they do this?"—or why their own people have not applied a similar solution long ago.
A sales manager who is a devil's advocate is a valuable PIP partner in the early "what-if?" stage of formulating a proposal.
"You are going to propose that these customers make an investment with us of $1 million of new equipment—Why?" the manager can ask.
"What if it will enlarge their capacity enough to take on one new customer who can generate $1 million in incremental sales? This would give them a contribution margin of $25,000," you can answer. "You understand, I am using one customer just to demonstrate the power of one."
"First of all," the manager can ask, "Does this customer have a prospect who can do that? Second, what proof do you have that the return will fully pay back the incremental cost and yield the margin you propose?"
"If the customers' minimum acceptable return on an incremental investment of $1 million is 20 percent, closing a new customer for a 25 percent marginal return is a good deal. That's what we are really selling them: the income from one new customer they would not otherwise be able to serve."