Selling Professional Services

Sales: the essential activity from which all growth, even survival itself, is achieved.

It’s a very harsh value delta (to use an old sales theory term). Without selling, revenue shrinks, resulting in the loss of ground against the competition at the very least. On the other hand copious excellent sales activity drives rapid growth. Despite these glaringly obvious facts this is an area in which many professionals are still not comfortable. How many prefer to euphemise, finding ‘business development’ more palatable than ‘sales’? (Intellectually just as valid as a Victorian parlour maid covering the dining table legs because a naked leg is indecent. Indeed removing the legs from a table has pretty much the same outcome as taking sales away from a professional firm: collapse.)

Many readers will recognise this as an absurdly outmoded way of thinking. Astonishingly however I am still being asked about this ‘sales is tacky’ perception. One trap to avoid is that business development embraces so much more than selling – market positioning and shaping your offering just for a start. So there’s a risk if you let someone conceive of themselves as responsible for business development, they might think they can still tick all the boxes without ever actually selling anything. Sound silly? It is, but it’s out there.

Top firms of accountants or consultants (for example) have been amongst the best sales performers for a century. Think of a great name in the professions, and there you will find a nest of the most committed and capable sales people one can find. Even though most of the time they are delivering services rather than selling them. Some of them are renowned for leading the way.

So it is perhaps surprising that there are still firms where selling services is valued less than delivering services – rarely by top leadership by the way, they have been fully alert to the need for sales excellence for a very long time. Surprising that is until you look a little deeper into where it comes from.

In my experience the issue is less often prioritizing sales strategically, and more often one of personal transition. Professional services’ version of the Peter principle if you like: people are promoted primarily on their service delivery performance and technical expertise. Then when they breakthrough into partnership or senior executive grades, they suddenly are expected to embrace a new responsibility for leading business development – or sales. An area where they have less experience, training and knowledge, and which they associate with less respect than professional services.

Do professionals who cringe away from the word ‘sales’ do so because they associate it with importuning the unsuspecting? Let’s face it none of us relish foisting our offering onto people who don’t need it. Or is it the fear of the discomfort of making a sales approach, then even worse, being rejected and feeling humiliated? Or is it pride viz surely I’m too successful and senior to need to lower myself to ask for business? Perhaps even lack of confidence and belief in their ability to execute this new thing to their own normal standards?

It’s usually a variation on these themes, maybe all at once. It partly comes down to a lack of self-belief, partly to misconceptions about effective selling. So the solution is first build self-belief, second demystify sales, third adopt a simple sales approach.

So firstly, teach people how to quickly and lastingly reinforce their own self-belief in the areas they need it by cognitive restructuring. Sounds complex but it simply comes down to teaching how self-belief results from conditioning, and how to marshal one’s conditioning to deliver the desired change. A switch of focus from outputs to inputs.

Then secondly demystify selling by forgetting all about proprietary sales processes. They aren’t necessary if you remember a few golden rules (which are overviewed in my next blog). There’s no magic key that manipulates people into buying something they don’t really want or can get better elsewhere. Indeed trying that approach pretty much guarantees failure. I know this is intuitively obvious, but some people still need reassuring that’s what the data shows.

And thirdly simplify selling by focussing on managing your emotional impact. There is an overwhelming body of work that shows the most important thing a sales professional (or any would be influencer) can do is to manage their emotional impact on the other party. So obviously importuning is out for a start.

Professional business development is all about this – making the client feel at the emotional level that your firm is the right one to appoint. In one way this is about demonstrating competence, in another it is about finding people (adviser & client) who can get on incredibly well. Grace: combining empathy, resonance, optimism, and caring about both party’s self-esteem guarantees positive emotional affect.

If they need you to take the lead, liven things up, amuse & entertain them: go extravert, or take an extrovert with you. If they need quiet time to reflect undisturbed, or to gently process what you’re saying, go the other way. If you’re making them less than comfortable with one style, switch to the other. Evidence has debunked the stereotype sales loudmouth: ambiverts win in sales.

Make them feel good around you; they’ll want you to be their trusted adviser. Make them feel the other way, you won’t get past step one. It’s about helping people improve their own business’s performance by working with you to let you deliver exactly what they need, and at fair value. Selling in this way is the opposite of the pushy telesales nuisance we all stigmatise – no successful telesales professional would dream of trying to hit their target like that.

It’s about respect and professionalism, just as your people would hope it would be.

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