Selling Professional Services
How I Learnt To Be Myself (And Get More Clients)
It just wasn’t working and I had no idea why.
Back in my early 30s my bosses at the time decided I was ready to start doing more business development. I’d been successfully running consulting projects for a while and was popular with senior clients. Now was the time for me to learn the executive relationship building skills I’d need to bring in new business.
So off I went to our “Executive Relationship Building” course where some of our very best rainmakers had learned their skills. I felt quite privileged as I was one of the youngest people on the course by quite some way.
The course was great. Everything made sense to me and felt like something I could do. And previous attendees had reported great results almost immediately.
But 6 months later, after using what I’d learnt pretty much by the book, I’d got nothing. It seemed that it just wasn’t working for me.
It took a conversation with one of my most unusual mentors before the pieces slotted into place.
Neil Glass probably doesn’t think of himself as one of my mentors. As the project lead on my first real consulting project he’d called me a f***ing idiot and I’d been convinced I was going to get fired when the project ended. I’d even started looking around for new jobs.
As it happened, Neil gave me a good review and told me I should have stuck up for myself more. That was just his way.
He was super smart, able to see things much faster than almost anyone I’ve ever met. But that super smartness went hand in hand with a super short temper and super sarcasm which put a bit of a block on his career progress. He later went on to write a a series of popular “conspiracy” type books like “Rip Off” and “Plundering the Public Sector” which reflected that personality.
Neil rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way, but I really liked him and always listened to what he had to say.
I ended up taking a refresher version of the course a year later and Neil was an attendee too. Over coffee I shared my frustration that what we were learning made absolute sense, but just didn’t seem to work for me.
Neil saw straight to the root of the problem.
“Look, what he’s teaching is a peer to peer approach for having conversations with chief executives. It works for him because he’s been a chief executive. He’s got that credibility. You don’t.”
“But you’ve got other stuff. You’ve run successful projects, right? Some big ones in fact.”
“Well those are your source of credibility. Senior people will listen to you when you’re talking about getting results from big projects and making change happen. But they won’t listen to you if you try to act like some grey haired executive giving them advice. That’s just not you…”
“…so use the same principles, but based on your credibility and why they’d listen to you.”
He was right. He usually was.
Over the next few months I switched how I was doing business development. Instead of trying to be someone I wasn’t I harnessed my credibility in delivering successful transformation projects to get more meetings and convert more of those into clients.
I didn’t try to give senior executives peer-level advice. I told them what had worked in the projects I’d run for other executives like them.
Later on, when my focused switched to marketing I used expertise and knowledge as my source of credibility. In recent years, thanks to a few grey hairs, I’ve been easing into the peer level credibility that didn’t work for me back then.
The key point to remember is that your source of credibility, the reason that a potential client will be interested in talking to you, is personal to you.
You can’t just copy the conversation strategies and techniques of someone with a very different background and capabilities like it was some kind of magical infallible script.
Just as happened with me, you can use the exact same words but they won’t work because they’re not backed up by who you are. They don't draw on your own unique strengths.
Those strengths will naturally change over time as you gain different experiences. And you can deliberately focus on building the types of experience and credibility you need.
But your first step is to understand what your source of credibility is right now. Why would someone take you seriously? Why would someone listen to your advice? Base your relationships and discussions with potential clients around that.
It worked for me. That simple piece of advice freed me from the shackles of acting like someone I wasn’t and allowed me to use my own strengths to start winning clients on a regular basis.
It can work for you too.
(The conversation with Neil is reported as best as my memory allows, with a few choice swear words removed)