A/E professionals have historically distanced themselves from the term selling. The s-word is rarely mentioned in some firms. The industry clearly prefers the terms business development and marketing, even if those words are sometimes improperly applied. The widespread disdain for selling in our ranks is palpable.
What is it that we dislike about selling? When I ask A/E professionals, their responses can be boiled down to one primary reason—the seller's apparent self interest when we are in the buyer's role. We don't like the fact that salespeople seem to be more concerned about their own needs than ours. Various studies support this conclusion: The most common complaints about salespeople is that they don't listen, they talk too much, they don't seem to understand our needs, and their follow-up is inconsistent. These are all signs of self interest.
Given our dislike for these practices, surely we would be motivated to approach sales differently. Right? That's not my experience. In hundreds of sales calls with technical practitioners, what I've commonly observed is not listening, talking too much, not really understanding the client's needs, failing to follow up in timely fashion. We may not like traditional selling, but it seems that's the only model we know. No wonder it feels uncomfortable for most of us.
There's a better way! Start by changing your mindset from focusing on yourself to focusing on the client. I know that's what the majority of technical professionals think they're doing, but their actions suggest something else. I suspect that the process of qualifications-based selection entices us to feature our qualifications in sales conversations. But don't be fooled—clients are more concerned about their needs and their priorities.
The best way to sell is to not sell in a conventional sense, that is, putting yourself front and center. Instead, you want to demonstrate that the client's interests are what you care most about. Here are some suggestions for doing that from the beginning of the sales process:
Don't think that merely introducing your firm is reason enough to call upon a prospective client. That's not to say you won't get the appointment. I scheduled numerous sales calls over the years by offering nothing more than "to introduce you to our firm." The client may agree to meet with you, but that's a poor exchange for his valuable time. Instead you should always offer your "entree," which typically is information or advice that is helpful to the client.
Do your homework; come in knowing something about the client and their needs. In the age of the internet, it's just plain lazy to meet with a prospect you know hardly anything about—that's so 1980s! Clients today expect you to have a basic understanding of their business or mission. Ideally you should know of at least a need or two that's relevant to your expertise and experience. Simply showing up and asking questions is not being client centered, especially when you didn't take the time to get more informed ahead of the meeting.
Spend very little time up front talking about your credentials, unless the client asks. It's common in the initial sales call to feel you need to present an expansive overview of your firm and your qualifications. Don't. It's like saying, "Let me start by telling you about the most important thing—me." A better start is to ask some questions confirming your understanding of what you researched in advance: "I was reading that your company was the first to manufacture gonzometers in the U.S. Are you still the market leaders?" Even if the client asks for an introduction to your firm, keep it brief. Let her ask for more detail if she wants it.
Mention your experience mostly in the context of talking about the client's need or project. It's always better to demonstrate your qualifications than to talk about them. For example: "That's been our experience. We've probably worked with 8 or 9 clients with that same issue, including the Big Blue Water District just down the road. What we've learned is that the best way to keep your costs lower is to..." Don't make case histories the focal point of your conversation; instead use that experience to illustrate some insight or option that's specifically relevant to the client's project.
Don't leave or send qualifications materials; provide something with information or insight specific to the client's need. It's best, of course, if your firm created that resource. But don't hesitate to provide something from someone else if you think it would be helpful. Even competitor-authored resources are worth considering if you're not competing with that firm for this particular client or project. This is a great way to show that you're focused on the interests of the client rather than your own.
Keep the focus on advising the client in subsequent sales conversations. If you continue to provide helpful information and advice, the client will want to continue meeting with you. And if that's the case, you stand a good chance of winning the job. Unfortunately, the value to the client of subsequent sales calls often declines, even if you made the effort to start well. Here's the secret to avoiding this problem: Commit to concluding every sales call with a mutually agreed-upon next step. This is easier when you've not only planned your current sales call, but the following one. Go prepared to offer something of value warranting a subsequent meeting. Even better, have a few options in mind since you can never be sure what will interest the client most.
Make your proposal client-centered. If you've worked hard to keep the sales process focused on the client, you don't want to reverse field at the proposal stage—even though that may be what the RFP is pushing you to do. I've written about the challenge of making proposals client-centered in the past. Yes, you want to be fully responsive to the RFP, but avoid being lured into making your proposal all about you. If you make the client the centerpiece of your proposal, including making it user friendly, the difference most likely won't go unnoticed.