Common mistakes made in selling professional services
Welcome to the latest blog in my series on building a successful consulting business. In this piece, I will be looking at the most critical of capabilities: selling! It is an extract from Guide 08 (Selling) of the ‘Five-Year Entrepreneur Series’.
This set of articles looks at how fundamental a selling capability is to your firm’s success and, therefore, future value. The series will also leave you with an understanding of what it takes to build a sustainable sales capability that isn’t reliant on specific individuals – as well as provide a host of ‘top tips’ as to how best to handle informal contact, calls, sales meetings with prospective clients and what it takes to write winning proposals.
To succeed in sales, simply talk to lots of people every day.
And here’s what’s exciting – there are lots of people!
It is not long in any conversation with a professional service entrepreneur, before the topic turns to the perennial challenge of selling work. To be successful not only must you be excellent at what you do (my assumption throughout this blog series), you must also be excellent at selling your services. There are so many firms that tick the first box but are woeful at the second; indeed, they almost have an attitude that the world should come to them. Unsurprisingly, it rarely does.
One level back from this desperate state of affairs, is the firm reliant on one, or two, gifted individuals to sell the majority of work with no intent to broaden out the capability more widely. Such businesses very quickly hit their growth plateau and, regardless, will find it difficult to realise full value in the future – due to the clear dependence on such idiosyncratic contribution.
The next level back from here – entering the realm of solvability – is an owner-manager acutely aware of the need to develop a sales capability (beyond the mercurial abilities of any ‘rain makers’) but with limited experience, or knowledge, as to how best to go about this. This blog series is for such a reader.
Indeed, if you have been recommended my guide series but only have time to read one guide, I would steer you here. Nurturing a genuine sales capability is so often the ‘final bastion’ to be overcome in the challenge of building a business of value. Crack this and you really are most of the way there.
I seek to make two fundamental points here. The first I hope you have gleaned already … you will only get to a point of significant realisable value in your business if you traverse the state of affairs from arbitrarily-gifted individuals to one of having a firm-wide sales ‘engine’. Not only does the first (common starting) position suppress your company’s value, it means that you will be (assuming you are one of the sellers) impossible to detach from it.
My second point is that this is an eminently achievable path based on logical steps. It is far more ‘science than art’. I know all this because I traversed such a journey personally as the MD of Moorhouse. For many years we were a firm where virtually all the work was sold by me and my deputy, Paul. We went from this place of (unconscious) individual competence to an acceptance that it was unsustainable, then conscious-competence and the development of a firm-wide capability (culture, process, tools etc). It is this journey I want to give you a sense of, and, head-start on.
Common mistakes made in selling professional services
In a future blog, I am going to introduce you to Lars Tewes (MD of SBR Consulting). Lars was a key external facilitator, and support to me, as I went about building this sales capability at Moorhouse. From our earliest encounter, I remember the mistakes he presented as being commonly made by professional service firms in this area:
Not being advisors to ourselves
Many professional service experts – particularly consultants – are very good at appraising ‘capability gaps’ within their client organisations and formulating plans to resolve them. Like cobblers’ children, however, they are rarely as proficient when it comes to their own fundamental internal issues.
Fail to understand the numbers game
Of course there is some ‘art’ to the selling process; after all, it is fundamentally about human relationships. One of the biggest mistakes, however, is to fail to see that this is primarily still a numbers (or ratio) game. The more people you speak to … the more you are likely to develop relationships with … the more chance you have of selling work. And … the more practice you get at improving the ‘art’. It’s that simple.
Can’t convey the idea of what you do in 30 seconds or less
Professional service experts are prone to over-complication. We revel in the detail and the complexity and can’t wait to take others down to this level of esoteric dialogue. A confused buyer, however, never buys. The selling challenge is in making the complex simple. When someone asks ‘What do you do?’, you need to be able to say ‘Quite simply, we …’ and be able to complete the sentence in less than 20 words.
Talk more than listen
Another cardinal error; especially so in the important first sales meeting. Busting to communicate how great a firm you are, how expert in your field, how many great case studies completed, you arrive at the prospect’s office with the shiniest of PowerPoint presentations ready to talk ‘at them’ all meeting. Stop. You are about to learn that this is the worst of approaches.
Don’t act on what you have learnt
Almost as bad are those dialogues where you simulate listening but then fail to adapt any part of your sales approach to the information received. You just drop back into a default script or service offering. Selling professional services is fundamentally about a conversation and the mutual development of a unique solution … so beware of this false alley also.
Fail to learn from your successes
Clive Woodward made the point in his book Winning! (2005, Hodder Paperbacks) that professional teams (business, sporting, military etc) too often get completely absorbed in debriefing on failure – on what went wrong; how we can avoid this happening again etc. Conversely, he argues, success comes from seeking to understand success. So, don’t get too caught up in micro-analysing why that recent pitch didn’t hit the mark but, instead, pore over that last new client you won … how can you replicate and build on this?
In the next blog in this series, I will look at how you build a high-performing sales capability in your business to address these common mistakes. Please comment below with any specific questions you have and I will aim to address them as I go.
If you are interested in re-charging your business ambition/strategy/plans, Dom runs an annual (three-day) Five-Year Entrepreneur Retreat – see here for previous delegate testimonials and details on future presentations. If you would like to make a reservation (capped to 14 attendees per Retreat) please drop a line via the contact page.
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Excellent article – if I can add one point from my experience. The importance of the right attitude. Certainly, still loads of lawyers with the wrong attitude. As part of attitude, I use the concept of “joining the dots” or moving from simply being an important supplier to a facilitator. The power of seeing an opportunity to connect a colleague to a contact or a client to a useful contact is so often overlooked yet so important now. Whether we call this having the right attitude, approach or mentality, the reality is it’s about offering more, the value of teamwork and an attitude that is not as self serving in the short term as was previously the case.
Thanks James. Spot on. I once had an initial conversation with a lawyer – initially to scope out some commercial legal support I was seeking on a particular project. At the end of the discussion, he suggested that legal support would be overkill for the actual risk in play and recommended that, instead, I just capture the terms myself in a layman’s “memorandum of understanding” (that my brief adequately captured) i.e. he declined the work. I was blown away by his professional integrity (so rare) and his pragmatic sense of legal value to cost/risk. As a result I have used him, and his firm, for many (larger) commissions down the road. The right attitude always pays dividends in the long run!