Sales as a Consultant

    As a consultant or in any of the Service Professions, everyone is a sales person and everyone needs to be in sales mode all the time. Some firms call this rain-making, Business Development or other things but regardless of how you package it, sales is sales and nothing happens until somebody sells something.

    This week Lew addresses a range of questions about Sales as a Consultant:

    1- In consulting aren’t there specific people designated for sales of the firm’s services?

    • In a larger firm, there usually is.
    • There are usually (BDMs) business development managers that are responsible for finding and developing leads.
    • But that doesn’t preclude delivery people from the responsibility for sales.
    • Process usually includes a mix of sales and delivery people

    o   Process of getting the lead – networking, cold calling, attending conferences

    o   Begin developing relationships

    o   Once the lead becomes interested

    o   Pull in delivery people to assist on developing a proposal

    o   Most of the work from then on is up to the delivery team to develop and present the proposal

    –  How would that translate for an independent consultant?


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    o   Always need to be on the hunt.

    o   Many may work with agencies who are responsible for finding them work in return for a flat fee or cut of their fees for some period of time.

    o   That’s a good way for an independent to get started, but eventually, you want to be fully independent.

    2- So let’s focus on someone working in a professional services firm first.  What is their responsibility regarding sales?

    • It’s important regardless of what level you work, but the further up the ladder you are, the more important it is to be able to sell services.
    • In most firms, the 2 primary things you’re measured against are utilization – the percentage of hours you bill to clients, and sales – the amount of new business you are responsible for helping to bring in.
    • When you first start out, the majority of the criteria will be on billable hours.
    • You may be responsible for as much as 80-90% of your hours to be billable
    •  As you move up the ranks, the focus on utilization goes down and you focus on more and more on being a rain-maker.

    3 –  So how does an entry-level person take on the responsibility of sales and how does it change as they move up?

    • Early in one’s career, it’s more of a marketing or firm branding role than sales.
    • If you’re working towards exceeding the client’s expectations to the point where your work plays a role in the client asking your firm to propose on additional projects, you’re doing your part in the sales effort.
    • If the client specifically asks for you to be on the next project it’s even better.  You’ve made a big step toward branding yourself and the firm with the client in a very positive way.
    • s you begin establishing this brand and moving up in the firm, you’re expected to begin developing relationships with decision-makers at the client.
    • Again, if you’re at a lower level, you aren’t expected to be wining and dining the executives.
    • But if you can hold intelligent conversations with the management level at the client, they’re going to begin to see you as more of a peer than a lower-level person and start discussing their issues with you.
    • Now, as you begin to learn about their pain-points, you can take that information to the sales team or the partnership within your firm to begin discussing these issues in terms of your firm’s capabilities.
    •  But as you move into the senior management ranks of a firm, you are expected to talk to the managers and executives as peers.  Develop relationships with them so that they turn to you as a trusted advisor.
    • At these levels, you would work directly with a sales team to develop a proposal for new work.

    4 –  At these higher levels are they still focused on utilization?

    • Yes, but at a much more diminished level.
    • Their billing rates are much higher so the firm definitely wants to bill them out
    • I’ve seen that even at the Partner level, they are responsible for some billable hours – especially because their billing rate is at the top of the structure.
    • But a much larger amount of their time is expected to be centered on developing relationships with current and prospective clients.

    5 –   Let’s go back to independent contractors?  Isn’t it more important for them to be able to sell their services?

    • I think so.  As I mentioned, they can work through an agency to find them work, but there is a cost to that either in a flat fee or a percentage of the fees they charge the client for some period of time.
    • The independent consultants that I’ve worked with use sales agencies as a way to get started, but once they get in front of their clients, they want to begin branding themselves and developing relationships with the decision makers at the client in order to get additional work.
    • This is called developing annuity clients that keep calling you back again and again.
    • One other point about independents.  Many times, independent consultants are individuals who have already spent many years in another industry.  They may retire early from that career and start another one up as a consultant.  In situations like that, they’ve spent years developing a network of contacts that are potential clients or referrals.

    6 –  So the majority of it is relationship building?

    • I’d say that it’s 90% of the equation.  We call it sales, but it’s really more of a marketing and branding effort.  If you can do that effectively and develop trust with a client – trust not only from an honesty perspective but also from the point of view that they trust you to do quality work, you will always increase the chances of getting follow-on business.
    • As an independent or in more of a management role with a firm, you have to turn those relationships into selling real projects that start directly affecting the bottom line.

    7- Once you reach the management levels and establish those relationships, how do you convert that into sold work?

    • Once you’ve developed the relationships, you begin being invited to propose on projects – Request for Proposal (RFP)
    • You want to meet with the prospect to learn more about the problem they trying to solve.  It’s important to focus on solving their problem rather than coming up with a solution right away.
      You also want to figure out how they want to be informed – their RFP will generally spell it out a specific format and the exact information they want in it.
      It’s OK and sometimes good to be creative, but don’t get too cute and ignore their instructions. It’s important to know your audience.
    • A good example of this is on the TV show The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice.  They meet with the customer to find out what they want and what criteria they’ll be evaluating them on.
    • They often get into specific conversations regarding the tone of the presentation.  If you’re working with an entertainment company like Disney, your presentational tone may involve much more creativity than if you’re dealing with a Wall Street investment firm.
    • You can’t over-prepare. Some theatrics involved. Make sure everyone knows their role, what to say, what not to say. Relay experience of Bob’s preparation meetings.

    8-  What do you do when you lose the sale?

    • Accept that you can’t win them all – someone has to lose
    • After putting in that much work, they owe you some explanation why you didn’t win.
    • Review lessons learned and use them to improve rather than pass blame.
    • be persistent and stay in touch.

    9.-  Many people seem uncomfortable with selling.  What advice would you give someone trying to learn the ropes?

    • When many of us think of sales, we think of selling a tangible product, a car or a software package. It’s easy to describe the items benefits. – they’re unambiguous.
    • Selling services is much different.  You can describe the types of experience your firm has had on other projects, but it’s rarely an apples to apples comparison
    • I’ve seen many sales people who were successful at selling things but just couldn’t hack it selling services.
    • So with that being said, I’ve also seen people be very successful
    • The first thing I would tell people is that it’s about relationships:
      • You need to start building relationships early in your career
      • Networking – staying in touch with fellow consultants that move on, client employees
    • A close second is providing excellent service.
      • That includes high quality work
      • Predictable communication
      • Keeping the client happy
      • This will ensure repeat business and referral business
      • That’s really just part of networking
    •  Understand the client’s business issues
      •  It’s never a case of one size fits all
      • Each problem is unique and each solution is unique
    • Prepare for a long sales cycle
      • Few companies contract for a large project without a lot of thought and validation.
      •  It’s not like “House of Lies” where they sell and deliver a new project each week.
      •  A consulting sale can take months
        • Relation building
        • Meeting other key people
        • May need to wait for an opportunity that meets your firm’s specialties

    10-  Any final thoughts on sales?

    • Always be in sales mode – keep your eye out
    •  Be familiar with your firm’s service offerings

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