Monday, May 26, 2014

Don't Have the Personality to Sell? Think Again

One of the more persistent myths in the A/E industry is the notion that most technical professionals lack the personality to be effective in sales. You've probably heard the joke about the difference between an introverted and extroverted engineer. (In case you haven't: The introvert looks at his shoes; the extrovert looks at the other person's shoes.) The exaggeration is supposed to make you chuckle. But it also serves to reinforce the stereotype that most engineers are inherently socially challenged, and thus unfit for the sales role.

That's simply not true.

It is a fact that our profession draws more than its share of introverts. Over half of engineers and architects are reportedly introverts, while only one-fourth of the general population is. But being an introvert doesn't disqualify one from being an effective salesperson. One survey of over 100 rainmakers in professional services (including A/E services) found little correlation between personality type and sales success. Both extroverts and introverts where among the very best sellers.

Other studies of salespeople have reached the same conclusion. One meta-analysis of 35 studies of over 4,000 salespeople found the correlation between extroversion and sales success to be essentially zero. The popular idea that successful sellers need to have outgoing, gregarious personalities is a myth. Introverts can be just as successful.

In fact, introverts may have an advantage in our industry. Consider that most of our clients also come from technical backgrounds, with a supposedly similar disposition towards introversion. If there is a connection between personality type and sales success, it is this: Introverted salespeople will generally be more effective with introverted buyers.

Still, many A/E firms make the mistake of hiring rainmakers that fit the seller stereotype. They think that successful sellers have to have the outsized, aggressive personality that we commonly associate with the sales profession. But, in fact, most people dislike dealing with salespeople who display those traits—even the people who hire them! Most people, of course, includes your clients.

The sales personality myth is a comfort to technical professionals who would prefer not to have to sell. I often hear comments such as, "I just don't have the personality for selling." But that's more excuse than explanation. Many in our profession—and other professions—are indeed uncomfortable with selling, not because they lack the personality but because of their negative impressions of salespeople. The good news is you don't have to imitate the classic sales persona (in fact, you shouldn't) to be an effective seller.

So if personality isn't the key ingredient for sales success, what traits are important? The following are the ones I think are essential:
  • Care about people. This is foremost in defining great sellers. We're in business to serve others, so having genuine interest and concern for clients is a required success trait. That's what motivates us to sell.
  • Good listener. We tend to place way too much emphasis on rainmakers being good talkers. The fact is big talkers turn off clients; good listeners gain their trust and are better able to meet their needs.
  • Determined. With sales cycles commonly stretching from 18 months to 3 years, selling is not for those needing instant gratification. Unless, of course, you find reward in helping clients during the sales process.
  • Disciplined. Effective rainmakers have a system, and they don't consign their sales responsibilities to leftover time. They make developing new relationships and business a constant priority.
  • Strong problem solver. The essence of effective selling in this business is advising and problem solving. I fear that many design professionals have neglected their consulting skills, and it shows in the sales process. The best consultants combine abilities in both analysis (breaking down a problem) and synthesis (understanding the problem in context).
  • Adaptable. When it comes to selling, one size doesn't fit all. The effective rainmaker is able to adapt his or her approach to the client's personality, preferences, and priorities. This requires a sensitivity to the feedback—both verbal and nonverbal—you get from the client.
  • Authentic. Being adaptable should not involve trying to be something that you're not. Ever notice how many rainmakers come across as kind of phony? Rather than leveraging their unique personal strengths, they attempt to project the sales persona that they assume buyers expect. It works against them. A far better approach is to be genuine, even if it doesn't fit the classic image of a salesperson.
If you don't like selling, learn to serve prospective clients instead. Your personality is not the real shortcoming; it's a lack of want-to. Once your motivations shift to helping, the how-to comes much easier—and sales success should follow.  

Monday, May 19, 2014

Brand 101: Clearing Up the Misconceptions

There has been a growing interest in branding and differentiation among A/E firms in recent years. Yet brand remains an elusive concept, misunderstood by most in our industry—even among marketing professionals.

Branding is predominantly thought of as a marketing activity, something that is assigned to the marketing department to do but is largely ignored by the rest of the company. But, in fact, your marketing department has limited control over your brand!

What is brand? There are various definitions in the literature, one of the reasons for the confusion. But considering the composite of all I've read on the subject, the best definition in my opinion is: Brand is the perception in the customer's mind that differentiates (or doesn't) a product, service, or company. Branding, then, is about shaping that perception.

People often think about names, logos, marketing copy, and other tangible representations of your firm as constituting the core of your brand. But these symbols mostly evoke responses to your brand; they don't define the essence of it. That's because your brand is defined by direct and indirect customer experiences with your firm. 

So how you serve your clients is far more critical to your brand than anything your marketing department (or an outside consultant) can concoct. That's not to diminish the role of marketing. Marketing creates important customer experiences too, but they are meaningful only to the extent that they are reinforced by the experiences of actually working with your firm.

I worked with a large engineering firm that was undergoing a major reorganization and brought in a well-known branding consultant to package the new image. As is usually the case, the company spent a lot of money on what amounted to a superficial makeover. They got a new logo, color scheme, positioning statement, website, marketing collateral, etc. But they gave little attention to optimizing their project delivery process or improving their service—issues their clients really cared about in the face of the unsettling changes.

Their story is unfortunately all too familiar. Most "branding" efforts sell only the sizzle without the steak. Again, I don't want to dismiss the value of the typical marketing-oriented branding activities; I have led and supported these kinds of efforts for many years. But if your firm is serious about branding and positioning, I'd like to challenge you to look beneath the surface to where brand is really created—the client experience

I outlined a process for building your firm's brand in a previous post. It's a substantial undertaking, which is probably why most firms prefer to tackle brand only at the symbolic level. But going the extra mile is also what will differentiate your firm. As I wrote in another post on differentiation: "Real differentiation isn't about what you say [i.e., your marketing]; it's what you do and who you are. It's how you deliver distinct value to your clients. It's not easy to achieve. But it's even harder for others to replicate."

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Uncomfortable with Sales? You Should Be

Over the years, one of my chief objectives has been to help technical professionals become more comfortable with the sales role. My reasoning is understandable: Discomfort with sales keeps many professionals from getting more actively involved. More involvement, logic would suggest, will lead to more sales.

But the fact is that most A/E firm sales come from a handful of people who don't mind selling. They often have another kind of shortcoming—they're too comfortable with it. Why is that a problem? Because most buyers have a problem with sellers. One study found that 85% of buyers have a negative view of salespeople. My own informal polling of professionals in our industry yields similar results.

Why so much dislike for salespeople? RainToday conducted a survey of professional service buyers to learn what we are doing wrong. They found that 80% of buyers experienced at least one major problem during the sales process. The most common problems were:
  • Not listening
  • Slow response to client requests
  • Not understanding the client's needs
  • Talking too much
  • Lack of personal chemistry
  • Unable to demonstrate adequate value
  • Failing to craft a compelling solution
  • Overzealous in trying to win the work
I'd like to see a survey of professional service sellers asking what mistakes they most often make. I suspect their answers would be quite different. That's what happens when we get too comfortable with anything we do—we develop blind spots. And that can prevent us from taking the steps necessary to substantially improve.

Given the widespread distrust of the selling profession, there's little reason to get too comfortable. Do you really think you're immune to the common perceptions of sellers? Sure, you've probably had success. But how much more successful could you be if you looked at the sales process through the client's eyes?

Rethinking the Sales Process

I had been a business development professional for many years before I finally had an epiphany on the way to work one morning. I realized that my approach to selling embodied many of the same flaws that I disliked when I interacted with salespeople. I had been focused on what worked for me rather than what worked for the client. I started to imagine how I was really perceived by clients, and it made me uncomfortable.

That started a process of rethinking and redesigning my sales process. But the most important step was changing my mindset—from focusing on the outcomes I wanted to focusing on the outcomes the client wanted. I discovered that serving clients produced better results (for both parties) than selling to them. Hence, I developed an approach I call Service-Centered Selling.

Following are the core principles of 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 foremost objective. Traditional selling erodes trust because it's seller-oriented. But serving the client in the sales process restores trust. 

MOTIVATION: Meeting client needs, not primarily your own. We distrust salespeople because we question their motives. We suspect they're driven by their own needs,not ours. And most of the time we're right. So what about your firm? When does selling become a priority? When you really need the revenue! Think clients don't notice? Client focus is not as easy to fake as many think it is. Motives matter in sales; put the client first and watch your own needs get met as a result.

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 about 80% of their work comes from repeat clients. Sustainable success is founded on enduring client relationships. Not surprisingly, those firms that concentrate on relationship forming during the sales process—versus simply chasing projects—have a distinct advantage.

COMMITMENT: Time spent with the client is always mutually beneficial. The one aspect of my old sales approach that most convicted me was failing to properly respect the value of the client's time. Clients were generally kind enough to meet with me, and I believe some genuinely enjoyed it. But the fact is they could usually have made better use of their time. That is, until I committed to bringing something of value to every sales conversation. This is what I call the "entree," which typically involves helping the client address a need or solve a problem.

OUTCOME: The sales process is 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 they really make decisions based on qualifications. The truth is they screen firms based on qualifications (sometimes), and then select the one they feel most comfortable with. The trust-building, relationship-forming advantages of a service-driven approach to selling positions you to be the firm of choice. Don't tell clients how good you are, show them!

So what's your comfort level with selling? If it makes you a bit uncomfortable, then stop selling and starting serving. On the other hand, if you're comfortable in the sales role, ask yourself this question: How comfortable is the buyer on the other side of table? Really. Is it time to reevaluate your approach from the client's perspective?