Consultative Selling for the Professions – Seven Simple Steps

Assorted forks. From left to right: dessert fo...

What question do you ask when the fork hits the starter?

My article on Procter & Gamble’s seven selling steps has been popular. It covered the process that P&G found worked for their sales specialists while on a call (state the idea, explain how it works, reinforce key benefits etc). In the article I question the applicability of this approach to the professions.

Here’s a bigger picture process designed more for selling higher value and more complex services, such as those of professional services – rather than cases of Ariel. It looks at selling and what might happen over a period of weeks or months with one particular prospective client, using the consultative selling model.

Curiously it’s another seven stage process! I’ve taken each stage I’ve applied them in turn to lawyers or accountants and their business development activity.

  1. Planning and research

Research is important to ensure targeting the right companies and people. This avoids wasting time.

One client flew two senior partners to the head office of a major computer company to discover that the service they wanted to talk about had been outsourced!

Once appropriate targets have been recognised, prepare questions for an initial phone call and meeting.

2. Initial approach to gain interest

Consider what’s in it for the prospect to spend time talking to you. Senior people will be busy. A lunch with a lawyer or accountant is not necessarily as attractive as you might think. Do you offer insights, connections or opportunities for the prospective buyer to meet their own targets or look good internally?

From your research, try to find five topics that might be of interest and pick one of them with which to lead your conversation.

I had the pleasure of sitting in a meeting in which PwC were talking to a leading international law firm. As the fork was lifted for the starter, the Senior Partner at PwC asked the Senior Partner of the law firm: “What’s your thinking about LLP status?” Sure enough, three years later, this led to work for PwC.

3. Meetings to clarify relevant client needs

Having got a meeting, the skills required now are primarily questioning and listening. You need to establish your credibility and build rapport and a sense of being a trusted advisor. As the trust develops the prospective buyer will share their buying criteria.

The role of the professional advisor is to facilitate the buyer thinking all this through – not overtly to push their services! This may take several meetings and involve introducing colleagues.

4. Presentation

A presentation is best done after the prospect has expressed interest. The skilled presentations establish an understanding of the clients’ needs (those of the organisation and of the buyers themselves, as individuals) and show clearly what the professional firm can offer in terms of features (about the firm) and benefits (how the firm’s offerings benefit the client organisations and key individuals).

But most of all, the effective seller will demonstrate their capability by providing evidence. Selling is more effective if it’s not just ‘blah, blah, blah’ but also contains something such as ‘Here – let me show you….’

5. Overcoming objections/negotiating

It is quite likely that the prospective buyer will have some doubts about saying ‘yes’ just like that. When objections are expressed, it can feel like rejections to those that are selling. But they are often what are called ‘buying signals’. If the buyer was not interested they wouldn’t be haggling!

The partner should firstly listen and acknowledge the buyers comments, perhaps asking some gently probing questions to understand better what lies behind their concerns. Then revised options should be offered with both buyer and seller offering thoughts on alternative ways forward.

If you are trying to overcome major objections and persuade at this stage then something’s wrong. You have probably missed understanding an important need.

6. Close

I don’t mean an old style, somewhat pressurized ‘closing’ (as in ‘Would you like it delivered on Wednesday or Friday?’ or ‘Would you like one dozen or two?’). This should be a process designed to reach a collaborative agreement on a way forward. The partner should be acting as a facilitator. Complex systems, such as selling professional services, need help in arriving at good decisions. Try ‘How would you like to proceed and make a decision?’

7. After-sales follow-up

Having started to establish the role of ‘trusted advisor’, the partner should now focus on fulfilling the professional service and delighting the client. This may involve a good deal of internal coordination and good project management skills.

Good client partners should continue to take responsibility for checking the quality of service being delivered, even if by a different team.

If you get this right, more profitable work should follow. Might this approach to consultative selling help your firm?

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