Over the years, one of my chief objectives has been to help technical professionals become more comfortable with the sales role. My reasoning is easily understandable: Discomfort with sales keeps many professionals from getting actively involved. More involvement, logic would suggest, will lead to more sales.
That makes perfect sense, but is getting reluctant technical professionals more engaged the best route to increased sales? Or would it be more productive to help those already in lead sales and marketing roles to improve their approach? Having worked with many marketing professionals and seller-doers in our industry, I see a lot of room for improvement.
And ironically, a good place to start with this group would be making them more uncomfortable with selling. Here's why: Most people don't like being on the buyer's side of the sales transaction (precisely why many technical professionals don't care to be cast in the seller's role). Think about your own impressions of salespeople and marketers. Do you appreciate calls from telemarketers, television and radio commercials, junk mail, spam, or pop-up internet ads? How do you think your clients feel?
Of course, you would never equate selling professional services with telemarketers and spam, would you? But the similarities are greater than we'd probably like to admit. I have accompanied numerous engineers, architects, and other technical professionals on sales calls over the years. Interestingly, they commonly default to the very model of selling that they resent: Talking too much, focusing on themselves and their companies, not listening well. Why? Because that's the approach to selling that we've all experienced.
So if we're going to unlearn those bad habits, we need to become more uncomfortable with traditional sales and marketing. That was the big turning point for me as a business development professional. I took off my rose-colored glasses and realized I needed to shift the characteristic focus of my selling from myself and my firm to the client. That was the genesis of what I've come to call Service-Centered Selling.
Principles of Service-Centered Selling
Service-Centered Selling is the application of service excellence to the way we develop new business for our companies. Remember, great service happens in the context of a strong relationship with the client. Selling is essentially how we initiate that relationship. It’s courtship. Naturally the way we start the relationship sets the tone for how it will develop. If we want the client to value the service difference we offer, we should begin demonstrating it during the sales process. That difference likely then becomes the key factor in our being selected for the work.
Service-Centered Selling is more than an approach or strategy. There are numerous excellent books and seminars that teach similar methodologies—in fact, I’ve incorporated many of them. But it wasn’t technique alone that got me over the hump, nor does that seem to work for most technical professionals either.
What I needed was a new attitude, a new mindset. That’s why Service-Centered Selling pushes us to reexamine both the how and the why of the way we develop new business. It engages both the head and the heart. Here are the core principles behind Service-Centered Selling:
FOCUS: Serving, not selling. While most people hate to be sold, everyone appreciates being served. When selling professional services, building trust is the primary objective. Traditional selling erodes trust (sales is among the least trusted professions). Research by sales experts Huthwaite indicates that the area where professionals really need to focus their trust-building is showing genuine concern for the client. That concern is demonstrated in how we serve. So forget selling and get to work serving the client--helping uncover needs, identifying alternatives, and developing solutions. Ditch the pitch. It's the best way to sell.
MOTIVATION: Meeting client needs, not primarily our own. Perhaps the greatest reason for our discomfort with salespeople is that we distrust their motives. We suspect they are driven by their own needs, not ours. So when does your firm make sales a priority? Is it not when you really need the revenue? Do you think clients don't notice? Client focus is not as easy to fake as many of us think it is. So you'll not likely make a substantial transition in your sales effectiveness until you're truly motivated by serving the client.
GOAL: Developing profitable relationships, not just pursuing projects. A sometimes myopic focus on winning and doing projects plagues our industry. This despite the fact that most firms boast that 80 percent or more of their work comes from repeat clients. Sustainable success is founded on enduring client relationships. Not surprisingly, those firms that concentrate on building relationships during the sales process—versus simply chasing the project—have a distinct advantage.
COMMITMENT: Time spent with the client is always mutually beneficial. Traditional sales calls waste a lot of the client’s time. Those in sales roles in our business often recoil when I mention this. They mistake the client's willingness to meet with them--and even be friendly with them--as evidence that the client feels it's time well spent. But the fact is that clients almost always have something better to do than entertain our sales call. That is, unless, we make a commitment to always bring something of value to every sales call in exchange for the client's time. This is what I call the "entree," which typically involves helping the client address a need or solve a problem. In Service-Centered Selling, we don't just talk about solutions, we start delivering them.
OUTCOME: The "sales process" becomes the primary way you differentiate your firm. Qualifications-Based Selection rules may prevent clients from shopping your services on price (sometimes), but don't assume clients really make decisions based on qualifications. The truth is they screen firms based on qualifications (sometimes), then select the one they feel most comfortable with. The trust-building, relationship-building advantages of Service-Centered Selling will take you much further than touting your credentials (which is traditional selling). Don't tell clients how good you are, show them!