Consultative Selling: Salesperson or Trusted Advisor?

Consolidation, e-commerce, mergers, acquisitions and a continually changing array of unpredicted disruptive forces — welcome to today’s foodservice world. As a result, operators continue to evolve into much more elusive players, facing more financial pressures and with increasingly sophisticated needs. Product knowledge is simply no longer enough for the supply chain to serve today’s operator. To meet the demands of these operators, each of us in the foodservice supply chain must shift to a needs-based, consultative selling approach.

Karen Malody, Owner, Culinary Options Karen Malody, Owner, Culinary Options This is not to suggest that all of us in the foodservice industry need to refer to ourselves as consultants, yet thinking in those terms — like trusted advisors — becomes part of the mental shift that allows for consultative selling. What, then, is consultative selling for those who are typically in straight sales roles — especially when bonuses, promotions and continued employment lie in the realm of high or increased sales?

True consultative selling requires a paradigm shift in thinking and behavior from the top down. The top must acknowledge, encourage and reward consultative behaviors that truly help the customers. Right now, salespeople mostly get rewarded for only selling goods. Why is that? A good one-time-only sale will never make up for a continually evolving relationship built between a consulting dealer and an operator for whom each day is a new challenge.

As Jakub Kliszczak asserts, in his Crazy Call blog, “It doesn’t matter who you serve or sell to when it comes to customer service. More than 50 percent of your audience wants to go straight to the source and call a company directly when they have an issue. And that doesn’t change, no matter if you have clients or customers.”

In another article entitled “What Is the Difference Between a Customer Vs. a Client?” from the Houston Chronicle’s business section, Christian Fisher explains, “Where products or services need a lot of personalization and customization, patrons are often thought of as clients. Closer professional relationships are built with clients over time. [Though] customers historically buy on price and value, clients buy on experience and trust. In many ways, companies of all types can establish closer relationships with patrons, effectively turning customers into clients. Standing out from, and ahead of, the competition can hinge on how well your company secures greater customer loyalty.”

Professional foodservice consultants like me cannot possibly reach all operators who need various forms of guidance, support and knowledge. This positions dealers to assume the role of trusted advisor and industry consultant to some foodservice operators. Just like consultants, dealers have the opportunity to establish trusted relationships with patrons of their services where purchases are based on experience and trust. This is a definitive shift from a customer feeling like their “salesperson” is dropping in to see them.

In order to compete effectively in this new world of consolidation and operator pressures, dealers, and consultants, for that matter, will need to have a laser focus on understanding their customers’ needs and finding innovative, differentiated ways to serve those needs. Gaps, rivalries or dissension amongst the various stakeholders in a project, some of whom call the key beneficiary “clients,” while others consider them “customers,” is unproductive in achieving stellar results.

Choppy Waters

To navigate these choppy waters, a new consultative approach becomes necessary — one that takes exceptional product and operational knowledge and pairs it with enhanced marketplace insight. This approach allows dealers to guide operators through the conception, menu, inventory, labor and service setup, all of which remain essential decisions to make before more spot-on decisions regarding equipment can occur. In other words: hold back on the “selling” until one listens and understands.

This expanded collaborative consultative sales approach fosters a service partnership with the buyer based on an increase in perceived value being brought to the transaction. The bonus is that this approach greatly reduces the risk of blowback, the stage at which the customer realizes after some time the purchased equipment or items do not exactly meet current or future needs as originally thought. This then forces the dealer to work from a negative position that is going to cost both sides money and goodwill. It will also undoubtedly impact future dealings. This dynamic alone is what makes consultative selling not just trendy but essential to survival. And it starts with the menu.

Now, you may ask: What could menus possibly have to do with dealers and consultative selling? In short: everything.

If today’s dealers are to meaningfully engage the customer, they will increasingly benefit from understanding fundamental elements driving operations, equipment selection, design, labor management and profitability. In two words: concept and menu. No matter the circumstance — new opening, new operator, remodel, concept alteration — a menu-driven analysis serves as a critical tool when dissecting an operator’s needs and shapes the development of value-added solutions.

When any customer calls asking for quotes on a particular piece of equipment, before responding too quickly, the dealer must ask: What is the menu this equipment will serve? As the operator responds, it becomes important to read between the lines. Consider:

  • What are the cooking methods implied in all the menu items?
  • What storage is implied?
  • What type of concept is this? Fast casual? Quick serve? Family dining? Fine dining?
  • What does the service style imply about the cookline, various other stations and labor deployment?
  • What is the sales volume?
  • What is the labor budget?

In the case of an existing operation, observe a shift if necessary. Probe any challenges facing the operator. Often, a potential solution to labor, timing or bottom-line challenges lies in suggesting new, smart equipment. Or you might suggest getting rid of certain older equipment — say, if an item is dropped from the menu — thus creating space for a more efficient layout or fewer shifts. In the end, dealers can become trusted advisors, not just salespeople.

Our roles must become those of trusted advisors who view each client interaction as a unique opportunity to provide long-term value and enduring relationships.

8 Ways to Shift to Consultative Selling

To effectively develop a more consultative selling approach, the following behaviors should be in place at the top levels of an organization:

1.    Ensure the senior leadership team buys into the shift in thinking.
2.    Lead by example — mentor in the field.
3.     Place an emphasis on creating relationships versus a sales call mentality.
4.    Build a greater purpose for your team beyond selling: Elevate the mission to become trusted advisors.
5.    Discuss ways to meaningfully engage with customers.
6.    Encourage consultative behaviors.
7.    Develop broader knowledge of industry issues among those who interact with clients.
8.     Reward consultative behaviors in addition to rewarding product orders.