Big Picture: From Consultant to Consigliere


When I worked on the marketing research staff of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis, I had a large budget to spend with third-party firms to design and execute research. And because I had lots of money to spend on such projects, I had many salespeople try to convince me that I should spend it with their companies. I was constantly amazed by how frequently these people would launch into exuberant soliloquies extolling the virtues of their services but never ask me, the buyer, what kept my brand team awake at night. You see, I worked on a cholesterol reducer that doctors didn’t believe to be effective. What a headache for us! That major brand challenge should have been the starting point for every discussion, but too often it was not.

I now realize that dental products and marketing research services are two very different animals. In fact, often dentists want to go directly into a discussion of product features. However, getting some context on the challenges faced by dentists in their practices will likely help you hone in on what product features to emphasize during your discussions. This approach is called consultative selling.

Some sales gurus believe that consultative selling, while effective, is outdated — and these critics make a good point. In the age of hyper-informed consumers, many are able to do their own research and find the best solutions. The main point these critics make is that salespeople no longer hold the sole key capable of unlocking the door to a mystical store of priceless knowledge.

While consultative selling may have lost some luster, I’m not quick to dismiss it. I have strong memories of being a customer in situations that cried for some consultative selling, making this approach appropriate depending on what you’re selling and to whom you’re selling it. If your customer is a small- to mid-sized independent practice and you’re selling a product in a crowded category with an abundance of information available, product choice has significant clinical and/or financial implications. In this case, consultative selling is appropriate. However, for many customers, the challenge is not lack of information — it’s information overload. Wise salespeople can serve as trusted guides that help customers navigate the oceans of data to arrive at the best solutions for their practices.

To be clear, criticizers of consultative selling aren’t saying that salespeople should abandon their search for customer solutions. Rather, these critics note that some situations don’t call for it. And when consultative selling is called for, it can no longer stand on its own. Recognizing this updated methodical approach is sales training and consulting firm RAIN Group, who states that salesmen need to practice insight selling, described as follows:

  • Think about someone you seek out when you’re working through a challenge.
  • This person helps you think things through and sees what’s important. He or she asks the right questions, listens, and doesn’t give you answers — this person helps you come up with them.
  • On the other hand, this person is not afraid to tell you what he or she thinks; shares his or her ideas; and takes a stand when he or she feels strongly about something.
  • People like this make us better. That’s why we seek them out — again and again.

Returning to my conundrum at Novartis, a good marketing research agency account rep might have asked the proverbial question, “What keeps you up at night?” and proposed a study to better understand the factors underlying physicians’ poor perceptions of the product’s efficacy. An exceptional account person, though, might have taken this one step further and challenged me with, “I’ve seen a similar situation with another brand. For products that have been on the market for several years, perceptions are extremely difficult to move. We can still work on that, but let me propose another option. Let’s study situations where your product is being used successfully and see if we can apply that knowledge to stimulate use in similar situations where your drug’s not being used.”

In the case of the exceptional sales rep, he challenged what we, as a company, had accepted as gospel. And, even if I had decided not to follow his advice, his thought-provoking conversation would lead me to seek him out for guidance in the future. That’s because he did not hesitate to steer me in the right direction, and will continue to do so.

So, rather than think of yourself as a consultant, think of yourself as a consigliere or a Godfather to dental practices. This means, don’t be a yes man. When your customer formulates and shares a business plan, challenge that plan’s weaknesses until it’s infallible. Be your customers’ consigliere, and you’ll truly be making them an offer they can’t refuse.

From MENTOR. July 2017;8(7):10-11.

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