The Role of Relationships in Selling Professional Services

Club Manager Quarterly Cover 2014I recently wrote the following article for Club Manager Quarterly, the industry publication for managers of private clubs. Like many organizations private clubs need to be good at sales in order to grow and survive. Given the intangible nature of what they are selling (an exclusive experience? status? community?) and the sensitive manner in which it must be sold, their challenges and the lessons learned finding the right “business development person” can be easily extrapolated to the professional services sector. If your firm has ever wondered how to identify the right business development person you may find the following article valuable.

In the late 1970’s Dr. Robert Means identified four basic sales environments and the corresponding sales person motivational profiles most suited to each. It’s no surprise that he then determined that the success of a sales person was driven by correctly matching the sales person with the most appropriate motivational profile to the unique sales environment in consideration.

So what is the sales environment of a private club in terms of selling memberships and what is the most appropriate motivational profile to hire for that role?

First let’s address the sales environment. Means found that the sales environment was determined by two variables – the degree to which a relationship is required during the selling process and the complexity of the sale.

The Importance of Relationships When Selling Memberships

The least accurate thing you can do right now is to interpret “relationship” to mean “friendship”. The need for a relationship with the sales person during the selling of club memberships is not to be interpreted as meaning that you need to go find an outgoing, chatty, “gift-of-gab” type individual to befriend strangers and persuade them with their charisma to join your club. In fact, that may be the opposite of what you need.

Think of a sales cycle as being either extremely brief as in minutes or much longer possibly even years. In order to sustain a longer sales cycle such as the one that may occur during a membership sale, an appropriate and professional relationship must develop. This relationship can be considered a conduit toward a sale so it is important that the conduit be strong and appropriate.

The strength of this conduit will be determined by how well it reflects the intangibles of the product or service for sale.

In a club environment there are tangibles that can be evaluated directly by the buyer such as the state of repair of the club itself, the quality of the food, and the attentiveness of the service.

However, there are also intangibles that cannot be evaluated directly and must be evaluated indirectly – often by evaluating the representative of the club which during the buying/selling period is the sales person. Things like quality, exclusivity, market reputation and culture are all evaluated using indirect methods. The relationship with the sales person is a critical part of this indirect assessment.

The relationship element of the sale is also an important element of the anticipated post-sale experience of a new member and as such they evaluate it prior to agreeing to join. As their most familiar representative of the club, a potential new member understands that they may want to rely upon the sales person for advice, introductions and familiarization if they do join and so they are evaluating this element late in the buying/selling period as fears of buyer’s remorse begin to creep in (based on this you can begin to see how valuable a well thought out program assisting a new member through their first 90 days can be not only in closing more late stage new members but also in retaining them once they are in and through a trial period).

How Complex Is A Club Membership Sale?

A club membership is typically not an overly complex sale in terms of customization. In fact there are usually very few options or customization opportunities available. Although it is more complex than a simple product purchase it is far less complex for example than implementing a new ERP solution for a business.

However there is an interesting mix of tangibles and intangibles to be evaluated by the buyer and their needs for joining may vary and may not be obvious or clear to the seller (or even the buyer) meaning some discovery and exploration may be necessary to ensure relevance to the potential new member.

Given all this it would be fair to characterize the complexity of a club sale as a moderately complex sale.

Which Motivational Profile Works Best?

So with a high need for a relationship during a moderately complex sale, what does Dr. Means suggest is an appropriate motivational profile?

Based on the two variables identified by Dr. Means the club sales environment is one requiring a “Servicer” motivational profile.

More attentive over a longer period of time than a typical “Responder” (an inside sales person as an example) or a “Closer” (car sales) but not selling something as complex as an “Adviser” (custom IT implementation) the club sales person does not require a lot of technical skill or even significant sales skills but does require a very specific motivational profile designed to establish relationships, use their personal image to represent their product (the club), and to sell through networks and by referrals from existing club members (cold-calling lists of executive strangers would be painful for this person – but inviting friends of members to come experience the club as his or esteemed guests would be the definition of a great time). These folks are patient, methodical, self-confident, detailed, and organized.

Assessing Motivational Characteristics

So how can you tell who has a “Servicer” motivational profile or not?

The most accurate way to tell is to use Dr. Means’ Oxicon online assessment tool but for our discussion let’s consider the following four motivational attributes that are assessed by the tool.

With many similarities to McLelland’s Need Theory of Motivation, Means evaluates four needs: Power, Autonomy, Competitive Drive, and Affiliation.

The Need for Power

It makes sense that an individual fitting a motivational profile titled “Servicer” would not have a high need for power over others. A low power orientation is desirable.

The Need for Autonomy

As mentioned earlier the ideal “Servicer” is methodical but also certainly capable of independent thought and action where required.

Sales, however, is a process that needs to be consistently managed over time so someone with a high need for independent action and desiring a lack of routine would be unsuitable for this role.

Competitive Drive

Someone with a high competitive drive is someone that wants to win and to do so is not afraid to put themselves in win-lose situations.

As a sales person if you can’t bear to frequently put yourself in a situation where you will hear “No thank you” then you are also unlikely to hear “Yes please” very frequently as well.

Needless to say someone with a high (but not obscene) competitive drive is desirable for a “Servicer” sales position.

The Need for Affiliation

The private club environment, although exclusive in terms of membership, is intended to be inclusive in terms of experience once a member becomes a part of the community. It is therefore appropriate that the motivational profile of a “Servicer” be aligned with a high need for affiliation, the need to be part of a group.

Compensating the Perfect Club Sales Person

This is not a commission sales person. In fact if you chose that route you would be likely to (i) lose the right person if you already have them or (ii) attract the wrong person to the position.

Both the club and this person want and need structure and order and that includes their compensation package. Some incentives are appropriate but add them onto a strong salary and focus them on achieving tasks related to managing the selling process (KPIs such as number of potential new members hosted per month, leads discovered per month from current members, etc.) but not outcomes related to sales (new members).

Finding The Right Person

So now that you know who you’re looking for go out and find them. They might be teachers that are tired of teaching (one of my clients has had great success with exactly that), nurses tired of nursing, waitresses tired of waiting, or any number of service oriented individuals.

The point is that what you’re not looking for is a high-pressure straight commission sales machine to try and fix your membership problem overnight.

You need a considerate and confident “Servicer” to work a sales process over time and consistently bring new members and financial and social success to your club.

3 Responses to The Role of Relationships in Selling Professional Services

  1. Bruce Wade says:

    Hi Cal,
    I hope you are doing well. I was wondering how I could access Dr. Means’ Oxicon online assessment. I haven’t able to find it on the web.
    Could point me in the right direction? Many thanks, and enjoy the holidays.

  2. Kunal Kumar says:

    Brilliant article Mr. Harrison. It’s very well written and equally well communicated. Thanks for sharing.


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"This should be required reading for consultants AND their clients - especially the part about RFPs." - Blair Enns, Win Without Pitching

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