Consultants don’t sell, They help client’s to buy

At least, that’s the view of Doug Fletcher and Tom McMakin in their book, 

How Clients Buy: A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services 

And, as they point out, “You can count on one hand the number of books that have been written on becoming an effective rainmaker in the expert services professions.”

The goal is not to sell

In their book, Fletcher and McMakin very effectively cover the challenge of building your position as a trusted advisor. 

They do this under the guise of describing the book as:

The client's buying decision journey. 

What’s of most importance is that they recognise that selling professional services is not achievable through the more common mass-market, product-based tactics. 

Yet sadly, that’s what the focus of nearly all marketing and sales training that’s available out there is.

There’s an assumption that selling consulting is just like any other commodity. 

In fact, one of the easiest ways I find to determine if a course on marketing and sales has any relevance to consulting is if they call out their target audience by saying, 

This is for coaches and consultants.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you hear that phrase then run!

Run a mile in the opposite direction as the person clearly has no understanding of B2B consulting.

And for the avoidance of doubt, a consulting business and a coaching business are two very different things! (I know, because I run both)

The other people to avoid are those that talk of ‘High-ticket sales’, especially when their perception of high-ticket is a $5k-$10k fee.

Hardly high-ticket in the context of B2B management consultancy.

Now back to the book. What the author’s say and I concur with is that,

The goal is not to sell what we do but to be invited by clients into their projects as trusted partners.

Unfortunately this is both a tricky and time consuming thing to do.

There really are no fast ways in which to sell consulting services. 

In fact, throughout the book - which includes snippets of interviews with leaders from both the big firms, such as McKinsey, Bain, and Accenture, as well as some smaller boutique firms - there is a general view that you should never even say the words ‘Sales’ or ‘Selling’.

Remember, it’s about helping clients to buy! 

This is an approach I like because it forces you to recognise that consulting is never about making sales - it’s about helping clients. 

And, as the book goes on to say, “All expert service providers sell services under circumstances in which the client has to trust them implicitly.”

No One is Trained How to Sell

A core challenge that the authors identify is that there really is very little, if any, formal training given on how to sell consulting and professional services. 

I’d say there’s probably even less when it comes to marketing.

It’s why I didn’t even know that marketing led to sales until I ran my own consulting business - I know, dumb right!

Of course, it can be tempting to simply copy what others are doing in marketing  their firms. 

But copying others is no guarantee of success, and the most overt firms that you might find to copy are more often than not the biggest. 

From one of the interviews in the book, the leader of a firm says,

There's no way we can put billboards in the airport like Deloitte or Accenture.

As I mention in the article 52 Ways to Market Your Consulting Business, you can use billboard advertising, but only with sufficiently large brand recognition will it create any form of ROI.

And that's not to mention the high cost of entry. 

The seven elements of the client's journey

As I mentioned, a key tenet of the book is the client’s buying journey. 

This is described in a model around which you position you and your firm as trusted advisor. 

The journey is explained as follows:

  1. I am aware of you and/or your company. 
  2. I understand what you do and how you and your firm are unique. 
  3. I have an interest in what you do because it is relevant and potentially of value to me. 
  4. I respect your professional expertise and believe that you can help me. 
  5. I trust that you are honest. I believe you have my best interest at heart, and I feel comfortable working with you. 
  6. I have the funds and organisational support and have the ability to buy from you. 
  7. This is a priority for me, and I am ready to engage.

The authors point out that things don’t always work sequentially. 

Now, whilst I won’t go into detail on each one (you can buy and read the book yourself to do that), what I will say is that it’s a good framework, and one around which you can develop your marketing and sales strategy. 

It’s not about growth for the sake of growth

There’s an interesting interview snippet in the book where the leader of a PS firm stated,

[He] created a firm in which the value of service was higher than the value of growth or firm profit. It's not that those things are not important; it's that the value of impartial advice given to clients was more important than commercial success.

This probably does more to explain the difference in professional services marketing and selling than any other point. 

A challenge is that most of the marketing and sales training that’s out there is based on making as many sales as possible; to as many people as possible; in as many locations as possible to maximise revenue and profits, and to chase perpetual high growth. 

Fortunately, professional services firms are not burdened by what is often the shareholder’s desires for perpetual, rapid and sustained growth (which of course is an oxymoron in itself). 

Unfortunately, the fact that firms aren’t always chasing growth can have a negative consequence, and that is that they’re just not very good at the whole marketing and selling thing!

Especially when they can otherwise busy themselves delivering interesting and exciting client engagements.

Feast and famine anyone?

How big should your audience be?

Fletcher and McMakin introduce a viewpoint that you don’t need a massive audience.

Instead, you need to find the 200 people (not a precise number) that matter to you, and can sustain your business now and long into the future. 

The authors go on to say, “Once you wrap your head around this notion of narrowcasting, building awareness becomes much more straightforward and decidedly less expensive.”

This does makes a lot of sense, although I think there’s a balance to be struck between marketing to a narrowly defined audience versus raising general brand awareness. And by brand, I mean making people aware of you and what specific problems you help a defined group of people to resolve.  

In this case, you can utilise low cost digital marketing channels - like social media, blogs, lead magnets, etc. - to make a broad audience of people aware of you and to better understand you, but then focus on gaining interest from your ideal 200 (or whatever the right number is for you).

Which marketing channels?

I always believe that every marketing channel can work, but the key to making them work is to be consistent, persistent and patient.

And for that to happen, you need to choose marketing channels that you can enjoy in the long-term. 

It’s nice to hear the authors echo this sentiment,

The difficulty is not choosing the right tactic; it's having the discipline to stick with an approach that is appropriate to who you are over time.

They go on to say,

A better approach to building awareness is to find the two or three of these tactics that fit your personal style and stick with them over a long period of time.“

“Clients want to buy. They have business objectives they hope to achieve. They have resources and are scouring the world to find people who they can trust and who can add value.”

Specialist or generalist?

You can sell whatever consulting services you want to whoever you want. It’s just that you can’t effectively or affordably market like that.

Instead, you need to be brave and bold enough to choose a niche. 

To be a specialist over a generalist. And to recognise that in choosing a niche it will pay huge dividends in the future.

The authors echo this sentiment:

We have found that consulting and professional service providers who are well known to the world they want to impress do two simple things: They niche themselves and become known for that niche. They articulate what they do, who they serve, and how they're unique in a short, pithy sentence—the so-called 'elevator pitch.'

I couldn’t agree more on both of these points. 

Contrary to the belief of some, the elevator pitch is not dead, it’s just that you can now use it in so many more places and creative ways than just in an elevator!

And, for your elevator pitch to resonate in any way, you need to be specific. To have a niche. 

In fact, the authors interviewed Ed Keller, Chief Marketing Office of Navigant Consulting, who backs this thinking up by saying,

Generalists do not succeed in the long run. 

Short, simple, and to the point!  

Understanding your prospect with a simple question (and why you must always listen!)

A nugget of wisdom is mentioned in the book during an interview with Chuck Walker, Partner, Global Leader of Asset Management, Tax, KPMG, who said,

Have you asked your client for their business plan for the next one to three years?’ Just asking the simple question sets you apart for your competition.”

As a variant on this theme, when consulting I always want to know how my client is getting paid, or what’s at stake.

In knowing the answer to this, I can understand his motivations better. 

Of course, to ask such personal information means you need to be a trusted advisor in the first place.

Starting with Walker’s question is a better bet with a client or prospect that you don’t yet know that well. 

The authors also point out that,

In the world of consulting and professional services sales, ‘Always Be Closing’ is out. Now it's ‘Always Be Listening.’

This is where digital marketing methods can help you to build trust in people before they’ve even met you in the real-world.

You should also leverage your proposals to demonstrate your ability to listen! To dedicate both time and space for playing back to the client that you did in fact listen and hear! 

To demonstrate understanding of their situation as often a key challenge for clients is that they can’t articulate their problem to their peers and seniors.

Doing so at the very outset of your proposal will stand in you in good stead to be their trusted advisor. 

This  reminds me of another snippet in the book, which is that your ideal client isn't always the people at the very top of an organisation. Sometimes your ideal client is lower down in the pecking order. 

"Is there a budget" - to ask or not to ask?

There’s an interesting and short discussion on whether your should ask the client what their budget is. There are two schools of thought here. 

The first is, No, don’t ask because that will artificially put a cap on what you bid.

The second is, Yes, ask them to ensure that it’s worth your time putting together a proposal. 

The authors are proponents of the latter. 

I think it depends on the situation at hand. In my experience, one thing you must never do is to make any suggestion as to what your fees might be at the first meeting. 

The reason I say this is because: 

  1. I don’t think it’s ethical. How could you know until you’ve gone away and looked at what’s really required, what help you can provide, what efforts you’re expecting the client to provide, what it’s going to cost you to support the project, and what you might want to charge for it (value-based fee), 
  2. Whatever number is mentioned will firmly be etched into the client's mind. This gives you two immediate problems. The first being that you might determine the fee needs to be higher, in which case you’ve now created a problem for yourself as you need to explain it. Second, the fee might be lower and you come in way under budget expectations, which usually results in a credibility issue rather than a client wanting to bite your right arm off!

(Here's what to do if you've overpriced your proposals, and here's what to do if you underpriced your proposal.

What type of firm are you?

One aspect of the book that particularly caught my attention was the concept of the 3 firm types. They’re described as follows:

  • Evergreen - firms that work with clients year-in-year-out, such as accountants 
  • Acute - specialists that come to rescue. Think insolvency practitioner
  • Optimising - firms with offers focused on improvement, but services that can be seen ultimately as optional

In understanding what type of firm you are, you can much better determine how to approach your target audience. 

Even more wisdom

Other nuggets in the book include:

  • The client’s perspective on ROI - very revealing!
  • San Francisco management consultant, Tony Campanella, retells a story, “The words, ‘Never leave the scene of the crime without setting the next meeting’ rang in my mind.” As I said in my blog article, keep a hold of the ball, always be in control of the next step!
  • “No one ever needs a consultant until they do.” - this is a great lesson in understanding the importance of overcoming marketing rejection.
  • Senior partner at Bain, “This is a feast-or-famine business. On a good day, you have visibility over the next six months. Nothing more. It's why layoffs are endemic to the industry.”
  • The authors posit that consultants should not use urgency to sell their services. This was a very interesting perspective
  • ‘The myth of likability’ - We’ve all heard that you need to become ‘known, liked, and trusted’. I’ve used the statement myself many times, but what the authors proclaim is that you don’t need to be ‘liked’. Of more importance to the client is that you can do the job - that you can be ‘respected’. This is an insightful concept.
  • “Business development is not an event, and it's not a ‘sometimes’ thing. It is a process that I spend time on every day.”
  • “What is the best way to do business development if you are a consultant or professional services provider?” To us, ‘business development’ means ‘building a bridge between an expert and those they can most help.’ “  


Of all the advice in this book, this paragraph sums up the challenge of professional services firm marketing:

We have seen countless approaches to business development in the expert service industries. From our point of view, there is no one approach that is the right way. The problem is not the approach—it is the quality of the effort.”

If you have responsibility for making sales in a professional services business (from solopreneur to Big 4 in size), or if you’re in the earlier stages of your consulting career and you know that one day you will have responsibility for sales, then I highly recommend this book. 

ISBN: 978-1119434702

Images are courtesy of Unsplash and the following photographers:

 Mein Deal

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