How To Be a Consultative Seller: Five Minutes with Mack Hanan

Mack Hanan Consultative Selling

Anthony: I am rereading your book with great interest. One thing that dawns on me is that you originally wrote this book in 1970. Is that correct?

Mack: That is correct.

Anthony: So for 40 years salespeople have been calling themselves consultative sellers and acting in opposition to the standard you set and what you wrote in your book?

Mack: That’s probably true for at least 20% of the people I am aware have come in contact with the strategy.

Anthony: Why do you think that they call themselves consultative sellers when, really, based on the criteria laid out in your book, they are really behaving as vendors?

Mack: They want to be. They see this as an upgrade. They see this as an elitist status symbol. And they realize that it is the only way that they are going to gain access to higher-level decision-makers and escape the buyer-negotiated-margin syndrome.

Now by calling themselves consultants they believe they can gain entrée and many of them can do so without actually performing as consultants. But they see a positive value here. And that has always been the problem I have had with about 20%. People who pledge allegiance to what I am doing, but who don’t act it out when it is time to perform.

Anthony: What do you believe is the major step a salesperson could take to bridge the gap from being a vendor to actually being consultative?

Mack: The single step that must be taken, and this is the one thing that when I train people in person, I make certain that we accomplish, is to bring them into the mindset and the work style of a middle level manager of a customer business as opposed to the work style of the buyer they are used to dealing with as vendors.

That is the single major step. If they don’t take that, they can’t do anything.

Anthony: That’s an interesting answer. One of things I write about here continuously is the need for business acumen. If you don’t have the business acumen to talk to that middle manager in the language of business and the business results in his profit and loss, that’s where I believe the game is won or lost.

Mack: You are absolutely right. And the language of business is not spoken in the vendor sales process. These guys do not comes from a business environment. They have no way to learn it. They have no models in their minds of a who a customer manager actually is; they’ve never seen one.

Most of the time, I introduce them for the first time. Their whole frame of reference is a startled reaction because these are totally different people. Almost like from Mars.

Anthony: Thanks, Mack. I wanted to hear you talk about this gap. I wrote about this a few weeks ago, and I referenced the section early in your book on the differences between a vendor and a consultative seller. Most of us are vendors, but we go out and call ourselves consultative sellers because we think it means that we don’t have to sell, that we don’t have to ask for the business. But ultimately, the bar that you set for consultative selling is far higher than simply not asking for the business.

Mack: Yes, and you know, Anthony, that the key difference is these people who are vendors who want to make the transition with me, to understand the huge difference between someone who is a customer buyer and someone who is a client manager. That is absolutely crucial.

I have to take them by the hand, and we jump across that gap together. They have no idea how wide it is.

Anthony: It is wide, and the big lacking, I think, is business acumen.

Mack: It is.  And you are right. That is the alpine stock. Without it they go right down to the crevice and I’ll never see them again.

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  • Monica Postell | Sales Trainer

    Excellent post. One of the first things I try to impress upon my sales training classes is that they have to try to think like the customer. Think about their problems and pain; not your quota or sales goals. I think it’s especially important when you encounter resistance (and who doesn’t these days) or objections. Here how one of my associates frames what to do to be consultative in the face of resistance.

  • Robert

    I agree 100% that consultative selling is the best way to go. Days of pushy salespeople are long gone. Thanks for the great article.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks for the comment, Robert. As long as we don’t think asking for commitments is pushy.

  • John Greenbury


    I came across your site while looking for contact details for Mack Hanan, and now learning of his passing. My intention was to try and get in touch to discuss a possible association. I enjoyed reading your interview above and would like to make some comments and observations:

    I was a sales management consultant/sales trainer during the 80’s and 90’s in Australia. I learned from Mack Hanan and Don Beveridge how to truly sell my services as a sales management consultant – selling values not products. I endeavored to implement consultative selling concepts in client companies but came unglued many times. Eventually my frustration led to me quitting the game.

    My main observation was the same as yours: “the need for business acumen”. I’ll put it another way – the sales reps knew all about their products but not how the products were applied in the customer’s business, what process they affected etc. In other words they could not think like their customers. Another very big issue was reluctance to give advice. “Who am I to be telling my customers how to run their business?” And an even bigger issue was a lack of adequate buy-in from senior management (probably my fault in a way.)

    Your typical sales rep often comes from a non-business, non-academic background. He/she does not see him or herself as an expert in business processes etc., and the idea of making commitments to delivering business improvement value instead of products just does not sit well.

    You can’t carve a consultant out of a vendor who lacks the confidence to step forward and make commitments. Therefore the challenge is to find people with business process thinking who can be taught to sell the resulting values. I am sure that those who are succeeding with the concept have employed that type. General reps can do it, but the methods and processes must be simpler and not as purist.

    As an aside – it is interesting to note how many businesses today are offering “consultative or solution selling” as a training program, both in the US and Australia where I am. If they were true consultative sellers you would not find the word “training” mentioned on their website, except perhaps in client project case histories. As I said to Dirk Beveridge yesterday – “they don’t walk the talk”.

    John Greenbury

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