Business Strategy

Masters of Sales: Selling Professional Services

selling professional services

Selling tangible, kick the tires, products is tough enough.

And selling something people can’t touch (and sometimes cannot understand) like professional services and other expert advice takes more muscular marketing and selling, plus a longer sales cycle.

The truth is, however, even if you are selling tangible products, customers and clients rely on your advice and expertise in guiding them to intelligent purchases. In that sense, learning a few strategies from the successful services sellers is worth your time if you want to advance your career.

Who You Know + What They Think of You

If you take Warren Buffet’s words seriously, and you should, “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” In any sales market, people buy from you because you have engendered some elements of trust because, at sunset, we all have to justify our decisions, whether to a manager or a partner.

Trust is a fraught word. Let’s simplify by saying that a buyer “trusts” you if s/he would recommend you to a colleague. Establishing this level of referral power means that buyers have gotten to know you on a more than arm’s length level because you have been part of their network, trade association or community group, and they have witnessed your reliability; you pitch in, give before you get, and have other good citizenship qualities. That means that you have been an active, if not leading member of the buyers’ network.

Every great rainmaker I have known or hired has been a leading member of the group(s) where their buyers affiliate. They share information, contacts and join committees where they can become known in a more personal manner. They attract referrals (sales!) and build their businesses or professions without knocking on doors. They ditch the pitch and demonstrate their worth through actions.

When you start in sales, yes, you do have to knock on some doors to meet buyers, but every initial contact should contain the question: “Are you a member of an association or group that I can attend so I am better informed about your business?” If you have disparate industries into which you are selling, pick the industry that is on a growth path and in which your products or services would be of high benefit to buyers. Don’t worry about your competitors being members of a group. Focus on what you bring to the table and deliver more than you promise.

Many people do not consider themselves raconteurs or comfortable conversationalists. Attending a group for the first time is daunting. You can ease your way by asking for the attendee list; if it’s not available, arrive early and check the name tags to see if there are people with whom you want to connect. Take a moment to stand up straight, put your hands on your hips, relax and walk in, pausing at the entrance of the meeting room. Someone will likely look your way.

My advice to the introverts among us, myself included: ask open questions of people so that reflexively, they speak with you. Here are some openers:

  1. Hi, I’m Chris. What brings you here?
  2. I’m new here and wonder if you find this group helpful?
  3. Are you on a committee and if so, which?
  4. Since I do (fill in the blank), do you think I could be helpful to the group?
  5. Tell me about your work.

Give your card if one is offered to you. As you chat with people and there is a reason to reconnect, mark their card and do so within 24 hours. Reasons to reconnect could be you have a connection or information to share. Whatever it is, no matter how delightful you are, people forget faces and names quickly. Your job in a networking environment is to meet just a few people with whom you can forge a relationship for business or friendship.

Success Favors the Prepared

When I accompany people in the field, I ask them what they read every day on their own time. The successful ones read and track the news about the companies and industries into which they are selling. They know how their clients make money or don’t, the client’s competitive threats and trends, and most specifically, how their products or services can help customers ‘be more successful.’ If they deal with public companies, they read SEC filings. Arcane? Too much work?

In addition to being a known figure because of networking in the right groups, your job is to help buyers make reliable decisions that support the financial success of their companies and keep their jobs, if not advance. You cannot be first among equals no matter what you are selling if you do not know the inside of the buyer’s business.

Cross Industry Learning Points

  1. Affiliation establishes your reputation as a trusted “advisor” whether you are selling gear or pure advice. You have to join and be a leader.
  2. People in groups will converse with you if you ask open questions. They will run if you open with a pitch about yourself. Don’t overstay your welcome but say, “I know you have other people to meet so I’ll move on. Thanks for your advice.”
  3. Eventually, become a thought leader: speak, write and share your insights.
  4. Always be better informed than your competitors by reading outside of selling time everything you can about the company, industry, and competitors.
  5. Everyone has a bad day. When you make a mistake, own it, fix it and if the relationship ends, be gracious. You will meet up with lost contacts and your reputation again. Do not doubt that in our connected universe.

About the Author

Chris Filip is a business development expert improving revenue and gross margin results for B2B and professional services firms. She is an active speaker, published author and media commentator on all aspects of competitive strategy.