Sales Advice to New Consultants

_IAN1120Almost thirty years ago I began my career as an artist in the art department of an ad agency never intending one day to become a consultant. And never ever intending to get involved in sales. It’s been an interesting journey and I’d like to share some of what I have learned in the form of sales advice to new consultants.

Sales Advice for Non-Sales Professionals

Working in the art department of an ad agency began as the realization of a dream for me but after a few years of mocking up ads I got tired of the smell of Pantone markers and burns from the paste-up wax machine (this was the pre-computer art department era) and approached my boss about taking over a vacant account management role. A classic case of the grass is always greener.

Within two weeks I went from being a member of the creative department to a “suit”. It meant learning to use a WANG word processer to write contact reports and a slight upgrade to my business attire but I was already pretty comfortable dealing with clients so taking complete control of managing client projects and campaigns was fairly uneventful.

That is until about two weeks in when my boss reminded me that as a suit, 30% of my role was “business development.”

“What’s business development” I asked, remembering that I had seen the category on time sheets but had never really understood what the term meant.

“Sales” was the response. “You need to bring in new clients.”

I was kind of shocked because I actually thought that clients just found us. I had no idea we had to go out and find them. And sales was for losers. Greased up has-beens who had no real skills other than a lack of social decorum that permitted them to wear down potential buyers like mangy coyotes running down baby deer.

There was no way I was going to do sales – which was ironic because the only reason an art department exists is to create the campaigns that sell things. Somehow I had come to believe it was about art. What an idiot.

My boss was of the opposite opinion. At least about the doing sales part.

Selling Is About Consistent Effort (At Least I Had That Part Right)

So I pretended to know what I was doing and began to sell. And to everyone whom I attempted to sell anything to over that two year period from about 1989 to 1991 may I offer my sincerest apologies.

There was no coaching, no training, no targeting criteria, no tools or support. Just me left alone to figure out how to sell these expensive, intangible services.

While I was earnest in the belief that I could help, I was useless in the approach that I developed. It looked something like this…


  1. Go to marginal networking events and meet marginal potential clients.
  2. If there were no marginal clients invoke Plan B and attempt to meet pretty girls.
  3. Invite marginal potential clients or pretty girls to lunch.
  4. Sweat through lunch wondering how to convince marginal clients to hire our firm or convince pretty girl that I was date worthy.
  5. Realize I had no idea how to do either and resign myself to accepting that neither would be achieved today.
  6. Cheer myself up with the false idea that these things could not be rushed and that obviously a second lunch would be required.
  7. Leave with guests wondering why I had ever invited them to lunch in the first place, and me cooking up scenarios I could use to justify the lunch receipt on my expense account submission.
  8. Shift quickly to Plan C – find an RFP to respond to.
  9. Spend weeks writing a proposal in response to the RFP and preparing for and attending the inevitable useless presentation.
  10. Repeat steps one through nine upon receipt of the RFP rejection letter.

After two years I knew my super-deluxe sales system was not working. In that time I do not recall the firm winning one new piece of business. And I was not the only one doing sales. It was heart-breaking, seemingly impossible, and not something I would wish on anyone especially the owner of that agency that was a great guy and deserved better. If only there had been a more sophisticated and well-managed approach to selling.

Sales Advice to New Consultants

It is with that thought in mind that I offer the following sales advice to new consultants in any profession that one day realize that to advance their career as an architect, engineer, lawyer, IT expert, or management consultant they will have to start bringing in their own clients – first as a contributor to a team effort and then ultimately on their own.

If you adopt the principles below I promise you that (i) selling will become a very comfortable thing for you to do and that (ii) you will have sales success.

You Sell Expertise

Understand that you are selling expertise – not relationships, not methodology, not hours, not people. Expertise. You must be able to clearly define, communicate and prove your specific expertise. If you cannot credibly defend your claims of expertise than have nothing to sell.

A Buyer Is Not A Buyer

Understand what makes early stage buyers different than late stage buyers, and how to objectively and accurately tell them apart.

A Buyer Is Not A Buyer (Part II)

Understand what an early stage buyer needs from you and what a late stage buyer needs from you. It is different.

Be Careful Around RFPs

They are deceptive and alluring but can also waste a lot of your time. Learn to make good “go vs no-go” decisions. Avoid whenever possible.

Measure and Manage

Measure your selling activity and progress regularly and in a meaningful way. (Hint: Language like hot and cold is not meaningful. Hint 2: Sales revenue is an outcome, not activity and progress.)

To Thine Own Self Be True

Understand what you are comfortable doing in terms of lead generation and make it part of your routine. There are many tactics that can work but the real key is consistently using them over time – and if you hate doing it, you’re going to avoid doing it.

Help Someone

Understand that selling is not convincing or persuading. Selling is helping people to make a decision and that sometimes you will help them make a decision to not hire your firm. Once you take that approach then selling, and especially closing, become 1,000 times more comfortable and 1,000,000 times more effective.

I’d wish you good luck selling but luck has very little to do with it.

If you’d like some help learning new sales skills and how to be comfortable selling, then join us Friday April 24th in Winnipeg for our one-day seminar Sales Skills for Non-Sales Professionals.


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The Consultant with Pink Hair

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

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