There is much that is difficult about selling professional services.
Especially when the sales people in professions like architecture, advertising, engineering, law and consulting begin from a deficit position – as architects, designers, engineers, lawyers or consultants – skilled in the application of their profession but without the benefit of any sales training, education, exposure or even mentors to help them sell it.
Perhaps they took some marketing classes as part of their education but marketing is a long way from sales, especially in the consulting environment.
So where do professionals find expert sales help?
About fourteen years ago when I began Beyond Referrals to specialize in sales consulting and training for management consultants, there was David Maister, Blair Enns, David Baker, Fiona Czerniawska, Charles Green, Michael McLaughlin and a few others scattered around the globe that were obviously and legitimately focused on professional services sales.
I’m sure there were others I was not aware of but the point is that there were very few focused in this area.
Today there are thousands, possibly tens of thousands claiming to be sales advisors to the professional services sector – even more if you include the branding firms bumping into the professional services sales consulting territory.
In fact the trademarked name of my company (Beyond Referrals) has been “borrowed” at least twice in the last two years as book titles by new authors in this sector possibly seeking to use it to their advantage – but maybe just using it because the space is so crowded it was inevitable that even trademarks in this space would be inadvertently appropriated.
I am less offended at what could be considered a theft or an inappropriate use, than I am disappointed that this area of specialization has become so crowded by faux experts – because there is no way that there are this many legitimate experts out there.
Too many of the tens of thousands have merely communicated a claim of expertise in professional services but demonstrate generic commodity skills as an attempt to prove their “expertise”.
Just as the postal system unwittingly fathered mail fraud, the Internet has spawned expertise fraud.
The solution is to start by forgetting about the competitors. The goal is not to be different than the tens of thousands of competitors but to be relevant and valuable to a few dozen great clients every year (maybe more or maybe less in your specific circumstance).
To do this means to focus even further and specialize deeper to gain expertise valuable to your clients.
The pleasant side effect of this is that it makes the competitor pool less relevant (read: smaller) and increases your value.
Let’s walk through this using Beyond Referrals as an example.
Focusing my expertise means shedding some areas of practice and deepening my mastery of others.
Moving forward I will continue in the category expertise of professional services but I will do less related to the functional expertise of lead generation, social media, CRM systems and content marketing – areas that need more attention than I can give and that are already well-served and even over-served by others.
To paraphrase the Polish proverb making its way around Facebook these days, they are no longer my circus and they are no longer my monkeys.
I have already begun to narrow my functional expertise to the following areas.
Focusing, communicating and proving expertise is still a big problem in the professional services sector and an area in which I plan to continue developing new knowledge and new tools for my clients primarily as a way to create and execute a brief but dynamic and meaningful strategic plan.
This work also benefits the professional services industry in general as it facilitates the move by clients from Request for Proposal (RFP)/price based selection processes to Qualifications Based Selection (QBS)/expertise based selection processes.
However convenient it may be to blame the procurement community for using an RFP process it would be unfair and inaccurate. A decade after focused expertise was accepted as a foundational requirement for any sort of credibility as a professional advisor, a majority of professional services firms still describe themselves as providing “a broad range of services for clients in many sectors” – forcing the buyers into goofy, complex selection processes to try and make sense of consultants may of which still look equally un-compelling.
When expertise is not well focused, communicated or proven by the professional services industry it presents a major stumbling block in the move from the price based RFP selection of firms to QBS selection.
As I help individual firms to better focus on selling their expertise, so will I be setting the stage for institutional clients to better recognize expertise and focus on that as the primary buying criteria instead of price.
I believe discomfort with the act of selling continues to be the greatest impediment to individual sales success in a professional services career.
The means then that confidence in dealing with buyers at different stages of the buying process remains the greatest potential opportunity for any individual to improve their sales success, revenue, and profit.
The ability to distinguish between, and respond comfortably to, an early stage buyer or a late stage buyer, and therefore to recognize and understand how to inspire instead of pursue, and to collaborate instead of close, is the most critical difference between wild riches and shutting the doors.
There are many consultants to be helped in this regard and more should be learning this in universities and colleges instead of seminars.
There is no place in a first world economy for the price based RFP selection and unconscionable abuse of consultants forced to spend $20,000 writing proposals to try and win $50,000 contracts (true and unfortunately typical).
There is no place for an RFP decision-making process that requires a total client and buyer expenditure of over $1,000,000 to make a decision about awarding a $50,000 contract (again, true and unfortunately typical).
The pursuit of the RFP model is the pursuit of third world standards – but even a benevolent dictatorship doling out untendered contracts to even only semi- competent friends and family would make more economic sense than the $5 billion dollars a year wasted in Canada alone on the professional services RFP decision-making process.
Over the next decade I hope to have the typical RFP process universally denounced and scorned by buyers as the unethical, inefficient and inappropriate tool it is, and to make QBS processes the standard for professional services procurement across all levels of government and industry within North America.
RFPs should become the new equivalent of texting and driving.
There are plenty of people complaining but not many taking meaningful action so if you see a speaking, public policy, or media opportunity that would help me make this change please be sure to share it with me.
We are at a tipping point and the time is right to change this.
In the last decade, substantial and focused expertise has gradually but undoubtedly come to be recognized as the single most significant variable driving sales success in a professional services firm.
Without expertise, process doesn’t matter, customer service doesn’t matter, and a relationships doesn’t matter.
Without expertise, not much matters to a client except low price.
So how will your expertise (and therefore your practice) have to change in the next few years?
Is it narrowly enough focused and on the right areas of practice?
Is it clearly and sufficiently communicated and to the right potential clients?
Can you actually prove it if your claims were challenged?
Or are you just committing Internet expertise fraud…
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"This should be required reading for consultants AND their clients - especially the part about RFPs." - Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching