Consultants often have trouble with selling. The process feels awkward, the skills seem undesirable, results are poor — this can snowball and affect consultants’ confidence in their own expertise. The good news is most consultants already have what’s needed to sell more confidently, comfortably, and successfully. This article covers four common challenges and how consultants can overcome them.
Challenge #1: Apparently, None of the Other Consultants Have to Sell
Consultants often hear peers say things like “I get all my clients through referral.” The underlying message is consultants who do not get their clients that way are failing and should work harder at getting business via referral. This, my darlings, is a load of crap. However, I want to focus on how that misinformation can create problems when we do have a referral.
When prospects come to us via referral; it’s easy to think we have an advantage and/or we can be more relaxed about the selling part of our conversations. These things are actually rarely true, especially in today’s world of social media “relationships.”
Taking the business for granted usually backfires, so approach the sales aspects as thoroughly as you would with other prospects. If you do not happen to get the business, do not see that as some sort of extra-negative outcome. How the prospect came to us often has zero effect on whether we get the business or not. Don’t worry about what this may say about how the referrer feels about you, either. Believe me: they referred a prospect to you because they respect what you have to offer.
Challenge #2: Uncomfortable in the Sales Role
Many consultants are uncomfortable with selling because it brings up an image of a pushy and unprofessional individual who cares mostly about their own wallet. Fortunately, that’s an outmoded approach and image. The perfect sales approach for consultants is “consultative” selling, which is:
Uncovering each prospect’s wants, needs and interests
and when appropriate
offering services and products to meet those wants, needs and interests
Looks familiar, right? That’s what consultants do as consultants. Selling folds into that — it doesn’t replace or undermine it.
Challenge #3: Too Much Consulting, Too Little Selling
This source of this challenge is part nomenclature and part…well, a form of consultant conceit. (Not that yours truly has any personal experience with the latter. Ha!)
The nomenclature part: One of the things consultants often do well is ask questions to assess the situation. In selling this is “uncovering wants, needs and interests” or “discovery,” and uses the exact same set of skills. What’s more, most questions asked when “selling” are identical to questions asked with the consultant hat on, we just need to add a handful.
The consultant conceit part: After asking questions and hearing the answers, consultants often offer high level advice. They talk about how they would solve the problems, improve the situation, and help reach objectives. In selling this is called “presenting” and the skill set is again nearly identical. Alas, this is also where many consultants run into difficulty. Consultants can get so caught up in showing off our marvelous expertise we forget the deal is not yet set. We leave the meeting feeling great — certain our expertise is obviously valuable — then crash when the “client” doesn’t come through with a contract, after all.
The solutions to this particular challenge:
- Fold qualifying into these conversations
- Use a guide or framework to help ensure you cover everything in an organized manner
Challenge #4: Too Much Selling, Too Little Consulting
The last common challenge is the flip-side of the above. Many consultants who would normally ask plenty of questions before presenting their general recommendations skip questions when they are “selling.” They ask one or two questions but then jump right into a services-dump, often mentally gritting their teeth over being forced to “sell.”
That approach doesn’t connect well with prospects because the recommendations are not tailored to their situation and perspective. What’s even worse is that the consultant can come off as inexperienced, or arrogant and uninterested in working with the prospect.
The list of solutions for this problem is slightly longer and starts with letting go of the ideas you shouldn’t have to sell and/or that selling is a bad thing. In addition:
- Embrace consultative style selling
- Use a guide or framework to prepare-for and conduct sales conversations
- Fold qualifying into those conversations (see below)
- Learn to express benefits
How to Mesh Consulting and Selling
At this point you may have noticed some trends in overcoming common challenges:
Like most people whose work includes selling, consultants need a model that suits them well. Consultative Selling doesn’t just have a suitable title, it applies a familiar model and skill sets and is therefore easier to adopt.
Consultants often do more consulting than selling. It’s helpful to have a reminder or guide or recipe to follow — that’s what The Consultative Framework provides.
Qualifying must be folded-into the conversations. This is the truly salesey activity, so tips on handling it may help.
How to Put on Your Sales Hat
Once you’ve given whatever advice you want to give for free, it’s time to put on your sales hat and do some “qualifying.”
Surprisingly, one of the best ways to comfortably make this transition is to make it obvious. Say something like, “Now I’m going to put my sales hat on and ask you a few more questions.”
After you make that statement, roll right into the qualifying questions. Here are examples:
“Tell me about the fit we’ve discussed. Look good to you, so far?” (The answer lets you know if your fabulous advice is fabulous in their eyes.)
“Do you have budget set aside for this project?” (Get the hard money question over with quick so you can breathe again.)
“Tell me about your decision-making process — what’s the process and who is involved?” (The answer is full of valuable information, including who else you may want to talk with.)
“What’s your timeline for making the decision and moving forward with your new consultant?” (This is a timing question.)
“Is there anything that could get in the way of us doing business together?” (Helps uncover barriers or challenges, including those out of your and your prospect’s control.)
Collectively, the answers to qualifying questions tell you how “hot” this prospect is, which helps guide your expectations. The prospect’s answers also tell you what kind of next steps you want to take, and sets the stage for moving forward.
One More Salesey Thing: Ask For the Business
There is one more challenge consultants often face when selling: they forget to formalize their side of the potentially synergistic relationship. That’s consultant-speak for failing to ask for the business.
When we ask qualifying questions, we’re also asking prospects to talk about their level of interest and intent. But that’s just one side of the equation and if we do not also ask for the business, prospects may feel taken for granted — which never works well. Do not assume your own interest and intent are obvious. Make a statement such as, “I’d like very much to work with you on this project.”
From Concepts to Confident, Comfortable Success
This and other articles on selling provide concepts and tips. There’s only one way to move from grasping concepts and comfortably applying them to generate success: practice, practice, practice. Practice with colleagues. Practice with real prospects. Practice in a great workshop (contact me to discuss this).