Selling is only dirty if you’re faking it

It’s one of life’s many and not too profound ironies that most people who are great at delivering something aren’t great at selling it, and most people who are great at selling it, aren’t great at delivering it.

That’s often a problem if you’re a consultant who’s started a business without a salesperson. Or indeed, the less common salesperson who started a consultancy without a consultant partner.

But if you’ve set up a consultancy (or pretty much any other business for that matter), nothing happens ’til selling happens. There is no business if you haven’t got cash coming in.

Selling and Consultants

Natural salesmen

I’ve been a consultant for most of my working life. That means I suck at selling. Or, to be exact, ask me to approach a prospect cold, or heaven forbid, put my price on the table and ask for it, and I begin to gently shuffle under the table.

But once I’m talking to someone, establishing credibility is not an issue (usually!), because I know what I’m talking about.

This is commonly mis-labelled “consultative selling”. But consultative selling isn’t selling unless a sale happens. What is most often called “consultative selling” is in reality credibility-building. There’s a place for it within a sales process, and consultants are great at it. But selling involves initiating conversations, even when the person you’re talking to may not be interested at the outset, asking for money and a decision at the end of the process, and getting the deal signed.

The corollary is that this is also why consultants are pretty good at getting follow-on work. They are talking to someone who they’ve already proven their value to (hopefully), and the conversation is easier to have.

Often the reason behind this is a combination of the following:

  1. You feel like a fake or not good enough;
  2. It feels uncomfortable and/or grubby.

Feeling like you’re a fake / not good enough?

If you feel like a fake or not good enough, then that’s likely either because

  1. It’s true. You are a fake or not good enough. In which case, go get good enough before you start selling. Or
  2. You know enough to know that you can’t know everything, and that bothers you. Re-read that and let it sink in. This is especially common for those of us who went from technology consulting to leading consultancies. That is no reason to avoid selling. You’ve amassed a lot of knowledge that will be useful to your clients, and if your foundation is strong enough, you will be continually learning as you deliver value. In this instance, read on – get over yourself, and start selling.

Don’t fake it ’til you make it

There’s a common approach advocated by many in the personal and professional development industries, namely that of “fake it it ’til you make it”.

This runs something along the lines of “if you don’t know what you’re doing, learn just enough to sell what you’d like to do, i.e. just a little more than the person you’re selling to. Then once you’ve sold it, errr, somehow figure out how to do it.”

To all consultants-turned-consultancy owners, that is dirty. Selling can feel grubby to those of us who don’t do it much. But the reality is that it’s only grubby if you’re selling stuff you have no idea how to deliver successfully (wannabe coaches and internet marketers take note).

Now I’ll admit there is nuance here. Oftentimes, consultants are hired because they have the experience and/or brains to do things they, or their clients, haven’t done before. They’re hired because the combination of experience, brain-power and approach will help the client get to the destination, albeit occasionally taking hairpin bends faster than they feel comfortable.

Figuring it out on the basis of your relevant experience, your brains, and a methodology to get you there is one thing. Trying to figure it out on the basis of a couple of books or online courses, touting yourself as an expert, then hoping to finish the job without being found out, is in my books immoral. Which isn’t to say that successful businesses haven’t been started that way, but that’s not my particular game, and isn’t what Value/s Led Consulting is about.

Sadly, the consulting industry especially, much like the coaching industry, is rife with people selling stuff they have no experience or often even competence in, but with the chutzpah and greed to sell it anyway, especially to the unassuming. The low bar to creating a business here, much like “life coaching” or “internet marketing”, means that many go down this route and either wilfully, or ignorantly, rip off clients along the way.

I’m not a fan. Especially as many excel in selling, which muddies the waters a lot for those who can actually deliver.

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Two reasons why you have to deal with the discomfort

If the issue is that it feels grubby or uncomfortable, then you’ll have to simply do it in a non-grubby way, and get over the discomfort. For at least two reasons.

You don’t have a choice

If you’ve set up a consultancy (or pretty much any other commercial business for that matter), nothing happens ’til selling happens. You don’t have a choice. Someone much wiser than me said that a business without income is just a hobby. And we all need to decide whether we’re in the hobby business or the business business.

That’s a reality, and you need to deal with it. There are a couple of options which will help, and I cover those in the last section of this blog. But fundamentally, if you want your consultancy to thrive, hoping you get noticed and bought from is not a high probability strategy.

You owe it to the rest of us

There are some who will tell you that it is your duty to sell because you owe it to the world to surface your talents and capabilities. Honestly.

I’d love to tell you that it is your moral imperative to sell, but I don’t think I’d be able to complete the sentence without some of my lunch repeating on me. Even if in your particular case, obviously, it’s true.

Don’t get me wrong – certainly I’d hope your prospects’ lives or businesses would be better off for your involvement – that’s the premise of Value/s Led Consulting (see more about that on our enrolment page).

But the point is that we actually all owe this to each other. Because not to sell when you have a reliable and proven way to deliver value is to leave our industry in the hands of the charlatans who have no idea, but will sell anyway. Their lack of delivery chops brings the entire industry into disrepute, which harms all of us who are genuinely adding value (rather selling the hope of jam tomorrow) to our clients.

How to move forward?

So we’ve established you need to sell, and it’s not grubby. Your options are as follows. They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, doing them all would be a good thing.

  1. Get over yourself and start selling. You know that someone else who can’t actually do what you do is currently eating your lunch because they’ve got the ****s to do it. Which is tragic, as their clients will get a crap service, but will find out too late. And your name will be slightly tarred in the process simply by virtue of sharing the same ‘consulting’ profession. By the way, we’ve all played the fantasy where “the customer will find out and come back to us later”. It is fantasy. It doesn’t happen. If you’ve lost the deal, you’ve lose the deal, and no amount of “I told you so” when it goes belly up will bring it back to you.
  1. If you can’t sell enough on your own (meaning you and nearly everyone on your board), then don’t stop doing it, but hire a saleswo/man as well. If s/he’s a consultant who also sells (a rare, but not impossible breed), likely s/he has either set up already on his/her own, or you’ll need to give them a slug of the company. If s/he’s a rainmaker, which is what you need, you should consider this. But as you go into hiring, be aware that like developers or designers, talent here is not linearly distributed. The best sales people can close sales multiples the size of the second-best sales people, and for the disruption you can expect if you’re hiring your first ones, make them great ones, not simply good ones. And be equally aware that many people are better at selling themselves than consulting gigs. And that you’re not recruiting a consultant. And don’t hire someone whose only experience is in product sales. And be oversensitive to your culture. And…. In fact, I think recruiting your first salesperson is a big enough topic to warrant its own blog post.

Product Sales
  1. In all cases, scale your business development by enabling all your consultants to do it. Note here I’ve said business development, not selling. You’re unlikely to turn your consultants into hardcore sales people, though it’s not impossible, and is a great result if it works out for a couple of them. However, you can educate consultants into how to identify additional opportunities in your existing clients, find ways to create additional value to your clients and prospects, talk with credibility either in front of a prospect or at events with many prospects, go to sales meetings with you and add depth to your pitch, and so on. (Note that our Consultancy Skills training, customised to each client, dedicates a lot of attention to doing this).

See? I slipped in a sales pitch at the end of the blog. Blatant as you like. I told you I suck at it!

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