The fundamental purpose of your business is to serve. You serve your clients and their constituents, and ultimately society at large. It's not pure altruism since you are well compensated for your service, but it's a high calling nonetheless. Every member of your firm should understand that he or she is in the business of serving others.
It's ironic, then, that you begin building relationships with prospective clients through a practice that's widely considered to be inherently selfish—selling. You may argue that self interest is not your intent, but your actions speak louder. When you spend most of the time in a sales call talking about yourself and your firm, that's rightfully perceived as self serving. Same when your marketing activities scream, "Look at us! Aren't we something." And when your proposals devote more space to touting your qualifications than telling the story of how you will help the client succeed, that hardly captures the spirit of service.
Do I sound a bit extreme? You would be correct to point out that my examples are common practice, something clients probably expect and therefore aren't likely to view as improper in any way. But my point isn't about impropriety; it's about ineffectiveness. Selling may be the norm, but most people hate being sold. If you're looking for an edge in the competition for new business, let me suggest you return to your core purpose...serving instead of selling.
People buy because they have needs, so helping them meet those needs would seem to be the most natural response. But sellers have needs too, and unfortunately those needs typically drive the sales process. The good news is that meeting client needs is the best way to meet your own. Serve clients well and you'll make more sales and keep more clients after the sale.
This basic philosophy is captured in the following diagram depicting what I call the Service Continuum. Rather than divide your interactions with clients into two phases—(1) selling before contract award and (2) doing the work afterwards—the Service Continuum suggests that there's only one fundamental activity. That's identifying and satisfying client needs, the essence of service. The primary difference between before and after contract is that you're getting compensated after the sale. So you have to scale your serving accordingly in the pre-contract stage.
What are we talking about in the uncompensated phase? Basic consultation: Helping clients characterize needs, identify potential solutions, and kick off projects (which you hope to do under contract). The key to making the Service Continuum really work for you is getting involved early when you can have the greatest influence over shaping the project. But serving prospective clients is a better approach at any stage in the process than traditional selling.
Let me respond to a common concern about this approach: "You're suggesting giving our consulting expertise away for nothing, which helps devalue our services." My experience has been quite the opposite. When you demonstrate your expertise rather than just talk about it, it's perceived value grows in the client's mind (assuming you're good at what you do). Your help likely prompts a sense of reciprocity, increasing the odds that the client will select you. If you've been truly helpful, it becomes less likely that the client will want to switch to someone else who's been less helpful (or not helpful at all).
The value of the Service Continuum has been well demonstrated, both in our industry and in others. So why is it not routinely employed? Because it's more work. It can be hard to get some clients to receive your offer to help. Doing a good job at it requires an investment of time. Many have no doubt have been burned by prospective clients who took advantage of their help but then hired someone else.
But the more your competitors resign themselves to traditional selling because of these perceived drawbacks, the better for you. That makes it easier to distinguish your firm from the rest by serving during the sales process. If the Service Continuum isn't your current approach, let me encourage you to give it a try. If you believe you are already serving sales prospects, consider how you might serve them even better. One thing I've learned is that serving ultimately serves you back.
So let me leave you with this reminder: Serve, don't sell. Show, don't tell. Try it, you'll do well.