STOP READING: Before you read any further I’d like you to take a second and review your professional association code of conduct. Carefully read the parts that deal with client versus consultant best interests as well as business development and selling.
If you do not belong to a professional association read the code of conduct posted by the Canadian Association of Management Consultants here.
RESUME READING: Okay start reading again as this article deals with a significant ethical issue faced by any consultant (in any profession) when selling their services.
You may be breaking your professional code of conduct simply by selling your services.
Let me explain…
There is a very subtle line between persuading a potential client to engage you (bad) and helping a potential client make an informed engagement decision (good).
In fact there are many sales advisors out there that suggest that you should persuade instead of help – some of whom I believe may have played roles in the Wolf of Wall Street. Just think of some recent sales consultant book titles to see what I mean.
There are two basic approaches to selling professional services.
The first approach is to target a potential client and attempt to satisfy your need to make a sale by persuading them to buy your services.
If you use words like “convince”, “persuade” or “influence” to describe your selling process you are likely using a sales technique rooted in persuasion and focused on your need to sell.
The second approach is to find a potential client and ask them if they have a need for advice such as yours and if so, to ask them if they would like to buy some of that advice from you, recognizing that “no thank you” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
If you use words like “educate”, “inform” or “explain” you are likely using a sales technique rooted in client advocacy and focused on your client’s need to buy.
The first technique of persuading is about getting something that you want while the second technique is about helping someone get what they want.
If there is a professional code of conduct for lawyers, consultants, architects, engineers or other professionals out there that advocates for the consultant’s interests over the client’s I have not yet been able to find it.
But that’s exactly what a persuasion based sales technique is about – putting the consultant’s interest ahead of the client’s.
Now you could argue that this distinction is merely one of semantics and that there could never exist an ethical issue with any selling process.
You would be wrong of course – but in case I can’t convince you maybe I can suggest to you that it would be good for all consultants (regardless of discipline) and all consulting professions that we should always be mindful of the ethical line that exists in business development.
The line that is defined by the answer to the question – is this engagement better for the client or the consultant?
The answer to that can be very difficult to nail down so better to ask yourself two questions at the start of any business development interaction:
The answers to both will keep you on the right side of the ethical line when selling consulting services.
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"This should be required reading for consultants AND their clients - especially the part about RFPs." - Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching