Most professional services firms value sales ability very high – if you are good at bringing in new business, you’ll rise through the ranks faster, make more money and grow your professional track record faster than you ever thought possible.

And there’s a good reason for that, too: most people find it very hard to combine being a great, professional advisor with being a great, professional seller.

It’s almost like “never the twain shall meet”.

I’ve been on both sides of the table – fortunate enough to buy and sell professional services for close to two decades, and be involved in what probably amounts to several hundred million worth of deals. And over that time, I’ve seen how the very best professional services sellers are different – in six distinctive ways.

They Accept They Are In Sales.

When I was a young management consultant, this was probably my toughest challenge: to acknowledge and accept the fact that I was in sales (too). You see, there was a little voice inside telling me “you didn’t go to college, in order to become a salesperson.” Or “you’re a management consultant, you shouldn’t have to be selling as well”.

Over time, I started seeing just how much this attitude was holding me back. And I wasn’t alone – over the years, many have told me they have similar hangups about sales that hold them back from success.

The very best, however, understand that sales is just part of what they do – and perhaps even the most important part. They accept it, and in most cases even enjoy it.

They Act Like Chameleons.

Sirius decisions did an interesting piece a while ago on “The Three Roles Of The B2B Sales Person”. According to their findings, they see sellers play three different key roles throughout the sales cycle.

The domain expert – buyers want sellers to add value from the very start to the very finish of the sales process. They expect them to be knowledgeable about their industry, circumstances, challenges and potential solutions. In short, they expect those in professional services sales to very much act the part of a trusted advisor.

The strategic orchestrator – most complex B2B sales today require a team selling approach, and the very best sellers are able to lead those teams to victory. As strategic orchestrators, sellers are required to marshal resources and align them to the buyers organization.

The risk alleviator – as our research at RAIN Group has shown , one of the top 10 factors that makes buyers decide to work with one firm versus another is “because the seller helped me avoid potential pitfalls”. Risk is a very important factor in any buying decision today, and the very best professional services sellers not only acknowledge that, but turn it into an advantage.

They help buyers accurately assess the levels of financial, solution, vendor and personal risk and suggest ways of mitigating those risks or eliminating them altogether if possible.

They Educate Their Buyers.

For our What Sales Winners Do Differently research, we at RAIN Group studied over 700 major purchases from buyers who represented $3.1 billion dollars in annual purchasing power. One question we wanted to answer was, “Is it the company and offerings that make the biggest difference in the buyer’s purchase decision, or is it the seller and how they sell?”

Guess what: it’s the seller and how they sell that most separates sales winners from the rest.

Truly outstanding professional services sellers mix the very best of their ability as salespeople with their highest levels of performance as consultants and advisors. According to the RAIN Group research, the number one factor why these sellers win deals is because they educate their buyers with new ideas and perspectives.

The key word here is new – unless you’re truly delivering breakthrough insights, buyers are unlikely to be persuaded by what they see is another “me too” consultant quoting the last publicly available statistic.

They Build Trust Into The Process.

The traditional sales process is broken – it is built on assumptions that are simply no longer true. Buyers do not follow a decision-making process. Not all consultants aspire to be great sellers. Factors outside of the span of control of those involved in the buying and selling side often influence whether or not a deal will close.

Savvy sellers also understand that it’s never about the first sale – it’s about building a relationship, a foundation that will serve them and their clients for years to come. In other words, they focus on building trust – not closing a sale.

My friend and esteemed colleague Charles Green has identified five steps in the trust building process:

  • Engage the client in an open discussion about issues that are key to the client;
  • Listen to what is important and real to the client; listen at three levels—get the data, affirm the importance of that data to the client, and demonstrate you recognize it;earn the right to engage in a true dialogue.
  • Frame the true root issue, without the language of blame, via caveats, problem statements and hypotheses; pursue radical truth-telling in socially acceptable terms; reduce risk by taking risks—articulate a point of view; create by giving away.
  • Envision an alternative reality, including win-win specific descriptions of outcomes and results, including emotional and political states; clarify benefits—make clear what’s at stake; be tangible about future states.
  • Commit to actionable next steps that imply significant commitment and movement on the part of each party.

They Communicate The Value Of What They Are Selling.

Whenever I’m asked whether consultants can sell, my answer is always the same. Not only can they sell, but they are better positioned than virtually anyone else to do so.

Why ? Because consultants possess a unique skill set.

Consultants are excellent at key parts of the sales process, including: defining the problem, identifying and testing potential solutions, pinpointing obstacles that are likely to occur in collaborating in finding the best approach to moving forward.

In short, consultants are uniquely positioned to communicate the full value of what they can deliver to clients – thereby maximizing the potential for the client to want to move forward, and move forward with them.

They Minimise Uncertainty And Encourage Action. 

Because of their background and experience, many of those in professional services sales understand that with business comes a certain level of ambiguity. Commerce is complex, and decisions often have to be made with very little information and input, which may have a disproportionate impact on the outcomes and success of any project. Many consultants are great at finding ways to minimise uncertainty – thereby encouraging their clients to take action, and increasing the chances of them doing so.

According to HBR, “the feeling of uncertainty will not necessarily be overtly articulated by very many clients. But it is there.”

Three kinds of uncertainty can be distinguished:

“First, there is the basic uncertainty of knowing with whom to deal and on whom to rely. In other words, the client who is interested in getting some assistance via a professional service is faced with the problem of where to get it. He has a number of alternatives open to him. Because of the large sums of money involved in the purchase of the services themselves, there is also uncertainty as to whether these monies are being wisely spent. I am referring to such expenditures as those for large-scale research undertakings, costly consultants, or commissions or fees paid for services. In most instances the amounts eventually at stake are still larger.”

“Finally, there is even more uncertainty in the problem itself. This problem is why the buyer of professional services is seeking advice or assistance in the first place. Whether the problem is in marketing, finance, personnel, research and development, or what, it is without question the single most important of the three sources of uncertainty.”

Those who succeed is successfully marrying the skill set and competencies of the great consultants with those of the great seller are poised for success. The true rainmakers in any organization are admired, valued and almost always first in line when it comes to future opportunities for their career development.

Yet, most firms are plagued by the same phenomenon: a relatively small number of individuals bring in a disproportionate amount of all business. By following the six principles outlined above, you now have the option to choose to become one of them.