Consultative Selling: Reality or Local Media Fantasy?

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Having been in the trenches for the past year talking about multiproduct selling and how a consultative or collaborative sales process is a key component for selling multiple media, I keep hearing over and over again “I’ve been training on consultative selling for years so why should we rely on it to take us into the next era of selling?” Having been involved in local media sales for more than 10 years, I’m going to take the unpopular stand and say that the current local media sales process is transactional product selling in consultative selling clothes. In short, many sales organizations have embraced aspects of consultative selling but in large it is being used as a sales tacticto get in the door and keep the advertiser talking in order to sell specific media options.

BNET recently featured Harvard Business School professor Ranjay Gulati, who wrote a new book titled “Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business.” In his book, Gulati points out:

In a marketplace like today, customers have more choices and more information, and services start to look like each other, in what we call a sea of sameness. If you don’t have an ability to transcend beyond the features and functionality of my product versus yours, then you have a problem.”

Gulati points out the fallacy of the notion that media companies are currently consultative and customer focused. Many media sales teams feel if they are asking a few questions about the business and their expected ROI from their marketing efforts that somehow this constitutes consultative selling. Put simply, salespeople are saying “I’ll talk about your needs so long as it leads to you only buying my portfolio of solutions.” Gulati’s point of view is “Most organizations believe they are customer centric when they are asking questions, but they’re communicating with customers through a product lens (with a pre-determined end in mind).” Instead, Gulati says “companies must ask deeper questions such as what problems they are dealing with and what issues are happening in the life of my customers regardless of the solutions the sales person is offering.” The goal in asking probing questions is to help the advertiser better articulate his or her needs so sales can get them met.

Consultative or collaborative selling is about transparency and building solutions that fit the customer’s needs and not necessarily the media company’s balance sheet. If a salesperson is aiming to sell a specific product set, and is willing to un-sell other potential solutions, then this version of consultative selling is merely disguised as the same transactional selling of old — all paths lead to a limited solution. Media consultants recognize there are many media options available to advertisers and that at times their portfolio of media offerings has to co-exist or complement other media and at other times they must fight to win budget from media that may not be as effective or is receiving too large of a share of an advertiser’s budget. Being able to counsel local advertisers on media strengths and weaknesses means salespeople must learn about all types of local media to be effective in selling their own portfolio of media options.

Local advertisers are much smarter about where they spend their marketing dollars because they have access to more information than ever before and have tighter ties to peers through social networks who can offer additional guidance. Salespeople used to be the source of information about what was happening in the local marketplace but now they are one of many sources available. If a salesperson cannot deliver value beyond what an advertiser can access on his or her own, then he or she has very little to offer. True media consultancy is the path where more peer-to-peer relationships are developed. Based on BIA/Kelsey’s Local Commerce Monitor study, 48 percent of SMBs want their media rep to help them understand their media options and make the best choice for their budget among the confusing array of new media choices.

While many media sales organizations are looking at incremental changes to their sales processes, those that are savvy and understand that local advertisers have changed and that the sales role must change are the ones that will thrive. The reality is the market has already changed and it is up to each media company to understand how to recraft its sales strategy and put together a consultative media sales team that understands local media and can be the media guide local advertisers are seeking. It’s time to stop making consultative selling a sales tactic for getting the advertiser to talk and use it as a means for building a relationship, creating value and developing media plans that work for the benefit of the advertiser and leverage their existing marketing activities. If consultative selling fantasy can be turned into reality, media outlets stand to make significant revenue gains and gain a larger, more loyal base of advertisers.

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