How to Sell Software as a Consultant, Not an Order Taker

By Geoffrey James

Because they work in such a fast-moving market, software sales reps are accustomed to change. Despite this, many software sales organizations are still flogging a sales model that worked like gangbusters in the 1990s, but now is almost guaranteed to fail in the long run.

Prior to the year 2000, the software industry was a seller’s market. Demand for software greatly outstripped the ability of software organizations to supply, install and support it. The seller’s market created a business environment where, to be successful, software sales reps needed to become efficient order takers. At the same time, sales managers in software firms concentrated on becoming efficient administrators to cope with the flood of orders.

Today, however, we are no longer in a seller’s market because the supply of software greatly exceeds the demand. At the same time, customers’ executives no longer see software technology as a productivity panacea, which means sales reps typically must work with customers as a consultant to close business. Rather than order taking, successful software sales requires the ability to help customers clarify needs and figure out a creative way to meet those needs.

Selling software like a consultant, however, is a different process than selling software as an order taker. Unfortunately, many sales groups, hoping to make the transition, graft a consultative sales method atop a set of values and concepts that encourages order taking. This doesn’t work and here’s why.

There are two ways of thinking about sales: as a set of goals or as a process. Goal-oriented selling focuses on predetermined milestones, starting with the initial introduction to the client and finishing with the closing of the sale. That’s what order-taking sales is all about. Goal-oriented sales reps aggressively push a solution because they haven’t internalized the idea that customers now have more choices and are no longer looking to software to automatically create value.

Consultative sales techniques appear awkward in the hands of goal-obsessed sales reps who would rather just take orders. Suppose, for example, you’ve been trained to ask probing questions to discover customers’ needs. If you’re focused exclusively on the goal of making a sale (order taking), customers will quickly realize that the point of the questioning is simply to manipulate the answers to lead inexorably toward a close.

Selling consultatively is only possible if you focus on the sales process rather than on sales goals. Process-oriented selling doesn’t focus on the day-to-day routine of closings and quotas but on building long-term collaborative customer relationships where customers actively bring up business and opportunities. This kind of relationship can only take place through the building of trust, credibility and rapport, elements that always evolve naturally from the sales process and never from the achievement of short-term sales goals.

Research shows that it is eight times easier to earn new business from existing customers than from new prospects. Goal-obsessed software sales groups frequently find customer loyalty difficult to achieve, however, because the sales team would rather make a sale today than build a relationship for tomorrow. The goal of the sales process is to make your firm the customers’ preferred provider. In today’s environment, order takers simply antagonize customers, quickly moving their firm from preferred to negative status.

The above is based on a conversation with Jeffrey Seeley, president and CEO of Carew International, Inc. He can be reached at 1-800-227-3977 or through