The concept of "consultative selling" revolutionized the world of selling back in the 1980s, and held the stage for almost three decades.

Once upon a time, sales people were encouraged to be product experts, capable of answering any detailed question about their wares and cheerfully demonstrating the long list of advantages of their offering over the competition's.

"Consultative selling" turned this idea on its head: Instead of memorized presentations and choreographed demonstrations, a sales person should enter the sales meeting as a consultant–asking questions and letting the customer guide the conversation. By asking questions and probing for customer issues, a sales person could demonstrate attentiveness, service orientation and a tailor-fitted solution to a customer's needs.

Time for a Change?

These are great qualities–and they've served professional salespeople well for the better part of 30 years. But they are no longer enough. The world has changed and buyers now respond to a very different type of salesperson: the Expert.

Buyers have become more demanding in the buying process. Many have less experience in their own position. Recent studies indicate that what they want is a salesperson who knows enough about the prospect's business to be of value. They want a salesperson who can teach them something, interpret the tea leaves of their own market and guide them.

Which kind of salesperson are you? Here are a few important differences to understand.

1. Experts tell; consultants ask. An expert enters a conversation with a prospect knowledgeable about the buyer's industry, marketplace and competitive position. The expert should be able to speak to what the top business pressures are of the buyer based upon that background with specificity. The old approach of asking, "What's your pain?" or "What are the big issues you are facing right now?" has been replaced with "Organizations in your industry with whom we work are facing these top three business pressures ..."

2. Experts lead; consultants follow. An expert can take a prospect through a process of assessment compared against best practices in the market, to let the prospect know where the prospect stands. Instead of saying, "Where do you want to be?" the expert can ask. "Here is where you are in comparison to others and here is where they are going."

3. Experts teach; consultants learn. An expert shows up in the sales call with insights that are valuable to the buyer regardless of purchase outcome. This gives the buyer additional motivation to take the meeting, because of the promise of stand-alone value.

4. Experts are full; consultants are empty. There was a time that showing up with an empty pad of paper to take notes, "learn about you and your business," and ask lots of questions was a sign of respect and openness. Now it looks like a lack of preparation. Buyers expect you to come with answers as well as questions. More than that, they want you to establish value and credentials by leading with the answers.

One Caveat

I have cast this comparison in stark tones to demonstrate the differences–but of course I recognize, as you probably do, that the consultative approach is still an important part of the sales process. It's just no longer enough on its own.

Through questioning, openness and discussion, we can get the important details necessary to craft a solution. If all you bring is knowledge, with little inquiry, you risk being seen as a blowhard–not a trusted advisor.

Let's leave this post with the idea that the world has changed–and that what buyers need now are experts who bring a consultative touch.