Alan Duncan
Business Training Consultant
Houston, TX

Ed. Note: In this issue, Alan Duncan continues with his discussion of expanding the scope of your services through consultative selling.

A consultative approach involves several key communication skills.  One must earn the right to engage in a consultative process.  Useful questions must be asked.  Relevant information only should be presented, and the consultant therefore will not be reluctant to ask for client commitments.  Need satisfiers and trusted advisors welcome client expressions of objection or concern, since this allows them to address any issues, such as doubt, misunderstandings and dislikes to the client’s satisfaction.

Let’s consider two of the most important consulting skills – the use of purpose statements and asking questions.

Purpose Statements


You want the client to understand how following your agenda will benefit them

You want to ask in-depth questions

You want to earn the right to move forward


State what you want to do (agenda)

Suggest why this would be of benefit (value)

For example:

To earn the right to ask in-depth questions, say something like:

“With your permission, I would like to ask you some questions about the scope of the project and about any concerns that you may have about its execution. (What)  This way, we can proceed with a clear understanding of the results you are looking for and avoid any potential pitfalls along the way.” (Why)

Purpose statements can be used to open a meeting, start a phone call, or earn you the right to proceed in any appropriate direction.

Plan to consciously use a purpose statement to begin your next client meeting or when a client calls. Earn the right to ask questions about your client’s situation and be alert for needs and challenges that the client may not have initially volunteered.

Asking Questions


You want to gain a clear understanding of the client’s situation and needs


Start with open questions

Build a clear understanding of what is wanted, and why

Check your understanding

Open questions encourage a free response

For example:

Whom are you working with?

How happy are you with the service you’re receiving?

What improvements would you like to see?

Employ key words like what, why, who, where, when, how, explain, and tell me more.

Closed questions limit response to:

Yes or no

A choice

A single fact

For example:

Do you want to meet next Tuesday?

Would you prefer morning or afternoon?

How many of your people will attend the meeting?

Key words to employ are do, did, does, is, are, can, could, will, which, would, have, has.

You use open questions to clarify your understanding and closed questions to confirm your understanding.  “Qualifying” is also a term used in consultative selling, and your questions can qualify the client’s situation and needs in the areas of potential, authority and resources.  Plan your questions in these three areas in order to gain a clear, comprehensive understanding and identify opportunities to expand the scope.  Listen carefully for situations that may become problematic for the client, as well as problems that you can solve.  Empathize with the client’s situation and needs in order to demonstrate that you’re listening and that you care.

Plan a questioning strategy which allows the client to explain fully what they are looking for.  You may choose to employ purpose statements in order for the client to buy into your line of questions.  The client will recognize that you are focused on understanding and satisfying their needs and not just waiting for your turn to talk.  You will engender a level of comfort with the client when they recognize this, and they will therefore become more willing to expand the conversation into other current and future areas of activity.

Once you have a clear understanding of the project, expand your questioning strategy in the areas of potential, authority and resources.


Current situation

Current service providers







Decision roles

Job responsibilities

Decision making or buying process








Develop questions in these three categories which will gain you an expanded understanding.  Check your lists for open and closed questions.  Notice how conditioned you might be to ask a preponderance of closed questions.  Reword some of your closed questions to encourage the client to respond freely –not as if they were in an interrogation.

Published in the Harvard Business Review in August 2006 (reprint FO607C, were the results of recent research.  They surveyed 138 clients responsible for making business-to-business purchases for large North American companies in diverse industries, and asked them to share their perceptions of people in a selling role.  The chief complaint was the sales person’s failure to understand and follow the client’s buying process!

Salespeople’s biggest mistakes as expressed as a percentage of client complaints:

26% Don’t follow my companies buying process

18% Don’t listen to my needs

17% Don’t follow up

12% Are pushy, aggressive or disrespectful

10% Don’t explain solutions adequately

6%   Make exaggerated or inaccurate claims

4%   Don’t understand my business

3%   Act too familiar

2%   Don’t know or respect their competition

2%   Other (such as charge high prices)

Consider how earning the right to do so and asking well planned questions can help you avoid the pitfalls of operating merely in a transactional mode (with the objective of selling something) and help you build your client’s perception of your value as a consultant.

Alan Duncan is a native of Scotland, and lives in Houston, Texas.  He travels throughout North America and Europe, helping his clients improve results in the areas of sales, service, management and personal effectiveness.  He has extensive experience in training accountants and bankers in the art and science of sales and service.

Alan Duncan
Alan Duncan