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Sales Strategy
Smoothing the Transition from Business Developer to Trusted Advisor
May 12, 2010 | Mike Schultz lock

Full-time salespeople sell all day. They can go from rookie to retiree and all they need to do is sell to be successful.

On the other hand, professional service providers study the technical aspects of their craft for years. Then they work with clients all day, all of the time, for years on end. This goes on until they find themselves up for partner, promoted to director, or off on their own. Then suddenly, they also need to develop business or they might not have any clients to work with.

Regardless of whether they want to, professionals start selling at some point because they have to. So they look to the 'sales' profession for tips on how to do it. Unfortunately, some of the tactics that salespeople use to sell are counterproductive for professionals. Why? Because when most salespeople sell, they are selling either a product or a service delivered by someone else. Professionals who sell are typically selling something far more difficult: themselves.

Many professionals—from lawyers to consultants to accountants—have yet to reconcile their 'sales' role and their "trusted advisor" role. Thus professionals find themselves struggling with the following question:

Buyers inherently don't trust salespeople, but now I'm going to have to find and land clients for my firm and my services; in other words: sell. If I start off as the salesperson, how can I ever transition to trusted advisor to my client, responsible for the most confidential and sensitive situations that arise?

It Doesn't Have to be That Way

Oily. Smarmy. Creepy. Phony. Mendacious. Two-faced. Right or wrong, these words are often associated with salespeople. None of us selling professional services wants to be associated with these terms, nor do we want to engage any selling tactics that will make these labels apply to us. I rarely see professionals engaging tactics that will merit these labels, which is good. It is not, however, because they use the right tactics. More often than not it is because they avoid selling altogether.

Here's the good news: you can sell with high integrity and without snake oil tactics. You should never have to engage any sales activity that makes you feel ethically uncomfortable.

To help you manage the transition from business developer to trusted advisor I offer the following suggestions:

Respect Rainmaking. The word 'sales' in professional services is often frowned upon as a necessary evil. However the 'rainmakers' in service firms are often the most respected, most senior members of the executive team. If you want your clients to trust and respect you from the start, make sure you respect what you're doing. Do not pick up the phone or walk out the door for a meeting until you have the right outlook on your task.

Focus on Them. Many rookie business developers feel like they need to show their expertise by talking non-stop for hours on end. If they're not talking at the prospect, then they're on the 24th slide in their PowerPoint presentation about their mission, history, services, etc.

You don't do this when you speak to clients, so why would you do it with prospects? Speak with your prospects like you would speak to a client. Prepare for your meetings. Ask yourself, “What do they need out of this meeting, and how can I help them get it?” This outlook will help you decide when to ask questions vs. when to share information, and when it might be appropriate to pitch vs. leaving the PowerPoint at home.

Play the Right Role. There are a number of roles in service business development: lead generator, technical expert, client liaison, closer, and others. Make sure you play the right role in the process.

For example, you may need more appointments with prospective clients but the phone simply isn't ringing. Someone has to pick up the phone and get some new meetings, but that someone does not necessarily have to be you. If someone else sets your meetings, you go in as the expert representative of the firm (which you most likely are). Also, by having someone else set up the appointment, you avoid making the impression that your calendar is free enough to make prospecting phone calls.

You may also enjoy going to client meetings and crafting great client solutions, while may not like being the day-to-day client manager. If so, partner up with a client liaison type–the person who likes being on the phone, at lunch, and playing golf with clients all day. They can keep the relationship strong, while you can go on sales meeting after sales meeting as the technical expert and craft solution after solution.

Treat the Process Like a Service. If you engage the business development process as if the end goal is a sale, then the prospect will feel like he's being sold to. Instead, treat the business development process like a consulting project. After initial pleasantries, the conversation might start something like this:

"Dr. Jones, my understanding of the goals of this meeting are these: you are in the XYZ industry and have ABC happening in your market. My firm specializes in helping companies in the XYZ industry deal with the challenges of ABC. Over the course of this discussion, we'll explore whether any of the expertise we have can help you get where you want to go regarding ABC. To do this, we'll talk about…"

The secret to managing the transition from business developer to trusted advisor is to treat your prospects, at all times, the same way you treat your clients. You help them solve problems where your area of expertise can be of service. You don't try to solve problems if you don't think you have the best solutions. You are on time with your commitments. You broaden their perspective on what is possible. You do not rush them unless they need a push to help them reach their goals. You tell them what they need to hear to be successful, not what they want to hear.

However you are with your clients, be the same way with your prospects. Then, when they become your clients, they will notice what's different about you as a business developer vs. you as a trusted advisor: nothing.

About the Author:

John Doerr is Co-President of Wellesley Hills Group. He is also the Founder of RainToday.com and co-author of the book Professional Services Marketing (Wiley, 2009).

About the author: 84

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