I recently had a conversation with someone who owns his own small sporting goods business. He told me he wasn’t interested in sales. “I just don’t like cramming something down somebody’s throat that they don’t want.” He told me.
That doesn’t sound very desirable. But then again, that is not what good selling is about. Consulting is a form of professional services. Consultants serve professionals to help them become more successful. It follows logically that consultants must deliver value. If a consulting firm’s sales team crams a project or service down the client’s throat that they don’t want, there is no value involved.
This is why so many consulting firms involve delivery people in sales. Sales people have their place in the sales cycle to help close a deal. But delivery people are better equipped to ensure that what is being delivered has value to the client.
One of the key aspects of selling consulting services is doing the necessary homework on the client. I’ve seen many sales-focused consulting organizations who meet a client for an initial introduction. The majority of the meeting is focused on the consulting firm. They go into great detail about their history, what they do and why they have been so successful. They have solutions and they’re not afraid to use them, regardless of whether they help the client. Their primary goal is to sell.
Customer focused firms do their homework to understand the client’s business, they make the initial conversation about the client’s business issues and try to determine where they need help the most. Instead of trying to fit the firm’s solutions to the client’s problems, they try to learn about the problems to see if they can provide a solution.
Trust and Credibility
The standard joke about sales people is that their favorite sentence is, “We can do that.” Sales people never want to turn away a sale. Our delivery people will figure out a way to make it work.
Michael Porter, Harvard’s strategy guru, says that the essence of strategy is defining what you don’t do. Consulting firms should define what it is that they do based on their strengths. They should also define what is outside of their expertise. I was once with a firm who had a client ask us to propose on a business intelligence project. We had no experience with BI. We could have contracted with some independent BI consultants and proposed, using their experience as ours.
Instead, we declined to propose. Additionally, we gave the client the names of two of our competing firms that actually focus on BI. We told them, “We can deliver the appropriate value that you need. But here are the names of some firms that are very good at it. You should talk to them.”
At first the client was frustrated. They wanted to know why we were turning down business with them. They wanted to work with us. When they realized that we were adding value by not selling, we developed trust and credibility with them.
Thinking about selling invokes images of a transactional relationship. When you go to the local department store and purchase a shirt, that seems like a transaction, plain and simple. You bought the shirt. They sold it to you. End of transaction. But if you get home and find a flaw in that shirt, you will probably want to go back to the store and get either a refund or a replacement.
How would you feel if you went back to that store and they refused to make good on the damaged shirt? If they said “buyer beware,” you might tell them you’ll never come back to their store.
Some stores do have strict policies to reduce fraud. But they need to be aware that they might lose good customers. And they want customers for long-term relationships. If they provide excellent customer service, they might become the customer’s favorite store. Customers go there regardless of competitor advertising and they don’t have to compete on price.
The same principles apply to consulting. If the client is ever dissatisfied with their service, most consulting firms will do whatever it takes to satisfy them. They know that it’s harder and more expensive to find a new client than to keep an existing one. Making sure they give excellent client service and exceed the client’s expectations will result in better value delivered and greater sales.
Great salespeople have strong networks. A large volume of contacts is nice, but it has limited value if those contacts aren’t strong. If you meet someone at a professional conference and connect with them on LinkedIn, that’s a nice start. But if you never interact with that person again, it’s a very weak connection. Imagine that three years down the road, if you identify a potential client who is connected to that person. You could send a message to that connection asking for an introduction. That person may be reluctant to introduce their friend to someone they don’t know very well. They may not even remember you or the circumstances around how you met.
It’s great to connect with people who work in the same or similar industries. But it should not end at the connection. Once you connect, review their profile. Identify areas in which they are interested. Seek out articles and blogs that are related and that they might be interested in.
Reach out to them occasionally to see how they are. If they change jobs or anything on their profile, send a congratulatory greeting. All of this will help them remember who you are and make you stick out. They will know more about what you do and be more interested in introducing you to other people they trust.
Clients that establish long term relationships with consultants do so because they want an expert. They know that nobody is an expert in every area, but they want your expertise in your area. Chances are the client is a leader in his or her business area. They are looking for a leader in consulting.
Consultants have to develop and demonstrate leadership with their clients in order to become their trusted advisor. Simply being a loyal servant to the client is not the leadership they are looking for. If they are considering a decision that the consultant disagrees with, a good consultant offers a diplomatic dissenting opinion. Provide evidence and data that might help them change their mind.
The client may not agree, but will appreciate your sincere effort to help them make the best decision for their business.
When we think of sales, we often think of the slick salesperson or the person who goes door to door using high pressure and fast talk to fool you. These techniques may work if you only want one sale from each customer and you will never deal with them again. It is the definition of fly-by-night.
Using those techniques to sell consulting services will fail. Consulting is not transactional. It is a long term relationship based on trust. In consulting sales, helping is selling and selling is helping.
How do you approach sales for consulting services?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com
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