For many consultants the idea that they might sell their skills is anathema. They prefer to delegate such activities to sales staff, who, supposedly, aren’t offended by the grubby world of money – of price, of fee rates, of raising invoices, handling disputes and getting paid.
Consulting, they like to believe, is about ideas, about working in a collegiate, almost academic, atmosphere, with clients who are almost friends. And when do friends ever need to talk about money?
Your idea of a salesman?
Such consultants (and I have been one of them) will work extra hours without payment, and are motivated by their fascination with the work they do, rather than by the material rewards that follow. Their clients love them, and their work is often, but not always, profitable.
But the idealistic approach is ultimately dangerous. Your client may love you, but you’ve still got to pay the rent. If there are consultants of this kind, doing far too much for their clients, willing always to accommodate additional demands, to extend the scope of a project without commercial discussions, I can only think that this must reflect some kind of insecurity, as if they are uncertain of the value of the analysis and advice they are delivering. It certainly isn’t the basis for a healthy relationship between consultant and client.
And if a consultant thinks of sales activities as in some ways contemptible, this merely reflects a misunderstanding of sales staff and what they do.
My own experience as a manager and entrepreneur is that the best sales staff are those who have formerly been consultants, though I shared some of these ‘uncommercial’ views when I was a young consultant. Like consultants, sales staff must listen more than they speak, ask penetrating questions and demonstrate knowledge, wisdom and pragmatism. The good ones don’t sell the impossible, don’t promise more than their consulting team can deliver. They know what they are talking about, and they will only convince a client to buy their services if the client recognises that knowledge. After all, you can’t sell ideas if you don’t understand them.
Selling consulting services is a difficult task. You must be proficient, not only in the technical matters of your profession, but also in the particular skills of selling, which include:
- Qualifying – determining if the potential client is serious, has a budget, needs the services you are offering, has the time to devote to the project you are proposing, and ensuring that the people you are talking to are in a position to make a decision
- Scoping – agreeing as precisely as possible the scope of services being proposed, shaping them into affordable packages, especially if there’s a need to prove your value
- Pricing – determining the price that a potential client is willing to pay (this is the area where the timid consultant is most likely to fall short!)
- Persuading – understanding and overcoming the particular objections of those involved in the decision to buy
- Demonstrating Competence – showing deep understanding of the client’s needs, and demonstrating competence by fielding all the appropriate skills the company has to offer
- Providing References – using strong relationships with current clients to gain the confidence of the potential client
..and there are many more.
The point is that almost all of these are skills that are close to the non-technical skills that all consultants must possess. They are the usual consultants’ skills, simply extended by techniques such as ‘solution selling’. If you are a good consultant you can be a very good salesman.
But beyond the special task of working on a sales opportunity, there are sales skills that all of us must demonstrate daily as consultants. We must always be ready to promote our company, our brand, our special knowledge, our methods, or any of those other things which differentiate us from our competition. This doesn’t mean parroting slogans or nagging our clients for additional work, it means confidently supporting and promoting our skills whenever opportunities arise, and, through good questioning, seeking them out. After all, if the client is rational, he or she is buying your services because the benefits outweigh the costs.
A certain kind of diffidence is understandable. Many of us see every side to a question, and when we put forward advice to our clients we do so in the circumstances and with the view that on the balance of probabilities the course of action we suggest is the best. We are not always certain and we often lay out the risks as well as the options. But this doesn’t mean we should not be confident in our skills, and if we are confident in our skills we should be confident of the value that we offer to our clients, and reasonably expect payment for what we do.
In fact, we usually find that our clients want us to be successful, that they respect us well enough to want to pay us for our time. It isn’t a zero sum game and most clients don’t negotiate as if our gain is their loss.
If ‘selling’ means identifying opportunities that will bring benefit to our client as well as to ourselves, then we must all be ready to ‘sell’. And if someone suggests you might be a good sales person, don’t be offended. It can be a good career move into a very respectable profession.