Building the Foundation for the NextGeneration Benefits Firm
By Nelson L. Griswold
While working for a benefits communication & enrollment firm, I managed to get a coveted appointment with the SVP for voluntary benefits at a major regional brokerage. He started the meeting with an invitation to pitch: “We already work with several enrollment firms. Why should we work with you?”
Instead of a lengthy presentation about our capabilities and history, I responded with just a three-sentence value proposition and then stated, “But that’s not what I’m here to talk with you about.” That got his attention. “What, then?” he asked.
I asked him about his firm’s cross-selling efforts. After some hedging, he acknowledged difficulty getting their producers to actually cross-sell voluntary. Several questions later, he confirmed they were missing their voluntary sales targets.
I then said, “What if I work with your producers to overcome their objections and train them how to cross-sell voluntary? I’ll even go on calls with them to help close the case. Once they’re writing voluntary business, I’ll enroll the cases for you. Are you interested?”
He immediately responded, “When can you come in and do some lunch-and-learns?”
My point? My prospect didn’t need my enrollment services. He needed increased top-line revenue and bottom-line profit from more sales of voluntary benefits. Once I stopped trying to sell my enrollment services and started using consultative selling to show agencies how I could help them solve a problem – sell more voluntary benefits and produce more profit – I became top producer at my firm.
This story illustrates the secret to – and the power of – consultative selling.
Surviving the shake out
Last month, writing about the major shake out that’s underway for benefits agencies, I identified Selling as one of four critical areas for agency transformation necessary for an agency to survive the shake out and emerge to dominate its market. The other areas are Portfolio, Marketing, and Management.
The person asking the questions is in control of the sale.
In our industry bestseller, DO or DIE: Reinventing Your Benefits Agency for Post-Reform Success (a survival manual for agency leaders & producers), consultative selling is described as the foundation of the NextGeneration Benefits Firm. These long-term winners will be agencies that transition from transactional selling to a consultative selling style.
Sell profit not product
So what exactly is “consultative selling?”
Here’s my second most valuable piece of information for you. While it’s sometimes called “solution selling,” consultative selling is actually about selling the outcome, the result of buying your solution. According to Mack Hanan, who forty years ago wrote the seminal book, Consultative Selling, that outcome you are selling should be more profit for the client, an enhanced bottom line.
In other words, in consultative selling you don’t show the prospect how they can help you make more money, you show them how you can help them make more money.
You work backwards, drawing a direct line from their profit to your product or service solution that will help them realize that profit. As an adviser, you apply tools and techniques to resolve process problems to improve your prospect’s profits.
Four steps to consultative selling
You know you need to become more consultative in your selling. Actually doing it is another thing entirely. So I’m going to share with you the four actual steps in Advisory Selling®, our proprietary system of consultative selling we provide our clients:
- Identify a pain point you can solve;
- Agitate the prospect’s pain;
- Get conceptual agreement; and
- Offer your solution.
We’ll look at each of these in a moment but first let me make an important observation. You accomplish each of these steps using questions. Brokers often ask us why questions are so essential to the consultative selling process.
The power of questions
Here’s the most compelling reason you should be selling with questions:
The person asking the questions is in control of the sale.
In any conversation, someone is in charge. In a sales discussion, that person better be you…if you want to close the sale. But here’s where it gets somewhat counter-intuitive:
If you’re doing all the talking, you’re NOT in control of the sale.
Most of us in sales are good talkers… and that can be our undoing. The Greek philosopher Epicetus wrote, “We have two ears and one mouth so we may listen more and talk the less.” I recommend at least that two-to-one ratio.
Here’s why that’s so essential to selling well, which gets us to another important reason to ask questions: People buy from people they like.
But this raises another seeming contradiction: We want our prospects to like us but if a prospect likes me it is NOT because of who I am or what I know or what I’ve done or how much I have in common with the prospect. Prospects like us most… when we are interested in them.
The emotional pain you are stirring up is a powerful ally in moving your prospect to take action and buy.
Prospects don’t want to know anything about us – not at first, anyway – except that we are interested in them.
Making a sale is not about you, it’s about the prospect. So get to know your prospect.
The most effective way to do that is to ask questions about his or her business. (I know you’ll already have done your research on their industry and company.) Questions are how you get the prospect both to talk and to tell you what you need to know.
Plan out strategic questions to develop greater rapport with your prospects and to better understand them, their goals, and their challenges.
So let’s turn to the four steps of Advisory Selling®.
Identify a pain point you can solve
Pretty straight forward. If you’re going to provide a solution to increase profits, you have to know the prospect’s pain point – a problem that is costing profit and keeps your prospect awake at night – that you can solve.
In employee benefits, we pretty much know what is costing the prospect’s bottom line along with related HR issues that impact ROI on the benefit spend (e.g., open enrollment, benefit communication, employee appreciation of benefits, overutilization, turnover).
Using your questions along with your industry knowledge and prospect research, probe and dig until you identify a pain point that you can solve.
Once you identify the right pain point, now you put the prospect in a state of mind to demand your solution.
Agitate the pain to create desire for a solution
This is the critical step, where you create the demand for the solution you are going to bring the prospect. You’ve found a real pain point but, let’s face it, no one keeps painful memories handy; we bury them away in the dark recesses of our brain. It’s your duty to help the prospect face the ugly truth of their situation.
Use questions to drill down into that problem and agitate the prospect’s pain around it. Your job is to help the prospect recall just how much they hate the painful status quo. Help dredge up all the unpleasant memories around, let’s say, open enrollment or a high renewal. (This is also where you get the prospect to quantify the problem’s financial cost or lost profit opportunity.)
If you do your job properly with these questions – asked with persistence but also with empathy and understanding – your prospect almost will be squirming recalling their misery. This isn’t sadism. Your goal is to help your prospect remember just how badly he or she needs a solution, making the prospect eager for your solution.
Plus, studies show that people buy out of emotion, not logic. The emotional pain you are stirring up is a powerful ally in moving your prospect to take action and buy.
Once the prospect is squirming, you take them to the very edge of the buying decision.
Get conceptual agreement
Simply restate the pain point and confirm that the prospect would find tremendous value in a solution to eliminate her pain. Would solving the problem allow her to sleep better at night or improve the bottom line? If you’ve done the first two steps correctly, the prospect can answer only in the affirmative. The prospect has now agreed that there would be real value in solving this problem.
This is one of the most powerful techniques you can employ in your consultative selling. It’s a step too many sales professionals leave out. Don’t overlook this key step before you serve up your solution.
Offer your solution
It doesn’t get any easier than this. By now, the prospect is desperate for a solution to end their pain and has agreed that solving this problem would be highly beneficial.
Offer your solution. Now, however, you can present your product or service as a spot-on solution. Your presentation is laser focused on exactly how your solution will solve their problem, eliminate their pain, and increase their profits. The close becomes so much easier.
Having given their conceptual agreement, quite often the prospect will close herself.
No time for a learning curve
Here’s the most valuable tip I have for you this month. Agency principals are telling us that, with the future of their agency on the line, there’s no time for a learning curve on becoming more consultative.
So how are progressive agencies getting more consultative in a hurry? Some are using step-by-step training and coaching like our Advisory Selling® program. There also is another shortcut an agency can take.
You can greatly increase your speed to market by implementing a proven consultative process in your agency or practice. Specific examples are benefits strategic planning or a voluntary benefits cross-selling program such as our Cross-Sell Solutions® system. These self-contained processes are inherently consultative and will have producers using – and mastering – consultative selling techniques almost immediately.
The industry shake continues with a vengeance. Whether you implement a training program or a consultative process, now is the time to create a consultative practice so you and your firm can emerge a winner.
A version of this article previously was published in Employee Benefit Adviser magazine.