Most advice on selling skills for professionals focuses on consultative or needs-based selling: understanding and exploring clients' needs to develop solutions and proposals that "hit the spot".
And that's as it should be. Not only does a needs-based approach allow you to develop better solutions for your client, it also allows you to build better relationships (by really understanding their business) and better persuade clients of the need to take action (by exploring the impact of their problems or challenges).
But there are other important elements to selling that professionals must master to increase their success rate in winning new business. In particular, they must learn how to sell when faced with direct competition. Or as one participant at a recent training course I ran on consultative selling put it "how do I prove that I'm the best option?"
Athletics, not Football
The first thing to bear in mind is that competitive selling is more like competitive athletics than it is like football. Unlike those sports where one team directly faces another and hence must significantly adjust their tactics to counter their opponent; selling professional services is more like a running race where all competitors line up together and the fastest finisher wins the day.
Usain Bolt doesn't worry unduly about what his competitors are doing – he simply runs his best race, and if he runs fast enough he'll win. In fact, looking over to check up on competitors can significantly distract sprinters and cause them to lose their rhythm.
In professional services, the sale will be won by the firm who most closely meets the decision criteria being used (sometimes unconsciously) by the potential client. Not the firm who somehow "defeats" their opponents. The key is to focus on the finishing line – meeting client needs – not on looking over your shoulder to see how fast your competitors are running.
The good news for most consultants, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers and other professionals is that more often than not, they won't be competing against international class athletes. Selling skills are so underdeveloped in most professional firms, and (as we reviewed in last month's edition) most professionals feel so uncomfortable in selling situations, that anyone who does a solid job of consultative or needs-based selling has a huge head start over their competitors.
Many professional firms mistakenly think that the way to compete is to focus on their technical capabilities. In reality, in most situations, the client has already assumed you have the technical capabilities to be able to do the job – otherwise you wouldn't even be talking to them. What they are really looking for is whether you understand what needs to be done, and whether they can work with you and your team.
In Raintoday.com's recent study How Clients Buy, buyers of professional services highlighted the problems they encountered with potential service providers during the sales process:
These factors are all related to how you handle yourself during the sales process. How well you listen, how responsive you are, and how well you are able to synthesise what you hear into clear understanding of what they need. It's much less about your technical capabilities.
In addition, the client will be using their interactions with you during the buying process to get an impression of what it would be like to work with you if they hired you. That's why many clients are particularly keen to meet the team they'll actually be working with during any presentations.
And for major projects they'll also be trying to judge just how committed you are to the engagement. Is the team senior and experienced enough? Have you brought along a senior partner to help manage the overall relationship and make sure they get prioritised internally in your organisation? Staggeringly, in the Raintoday.com study fully 15% of clients reported that service providers attempting to sell them professional services lacked enthusiasm for winning their business.
All these intangible factors – from listening to responsiveness to enthusiasm – are key factors for winning the competitive sale. Primarily because, as we've seen, they're so important, and so few professional service firms do a good job at them.
Make Sure You Know Where the Finish Line is
As well as the generic "experience" factors listed above, it's absolutely critical when selling against direct competition to know what criteria your client is using to evaluate potential service providers. It goes without saying that if you don't know where the finish line is, you'll struggle to win the race.
Sometimes the client won't have formalised this or written it down – in which case it's your job to help them tease out what they're looking for. Not only will doing that give you a tremendous advantage over others who haven't – but it will be immensely helpful to your client.
Only when you understand not just what the client's criteria are, but which are the most important criteria, can you properly position yourself against your competitors. It's no good focusing on what you believe to be your advantages over your competitors if those areas aren't valued by your client.
And make sure you understand more than just the rational criteria. Ask the client about what characteristics they're looking for in their service provider, how they'd like to work with them, what they'd like to see from their people. Often these factors can be decisive.
Once you've clarified what exactly the client is looking for and what their priorities are, you can make sure your solutions, presentations and proposals focus on those priorities. Do this and you'll be well down the track to winning the sale.
What if Your Competitors Have a Head Start?
The time when you do have to worry about your competitors is when they appear to be starting closer to the finish line that you are. In other words, you've figured out which criteria your client is focusing on – and your competitors have the advantage on those criteria.
Sometimes this is caused by the client's misperception of your capabilities and can be addressed by demonstrating those capabilities more fully during the sales process.
But sometimes you'll find yourself in a situation where your competitors objectively have an advantage on the criteria the client is using.
This is fairly common if you've been called in to a competitive situation late in the day. Perhaps you've received a Request for Proposal cold, or the client has given you very short notice and very little to go on.
In these situations it's likely that one of your competitors has already been working with the client for some time: helping them to understand their situation and firm up their needs and priorities. This is what you'd ideally like to have done yourself. But if it's your competitor who's in this happy situation, it can be very difficult indeed for you to win.
The problem is that your competitor is highly likely to get excellent ratings on the key criteria used by the client to evaluate potential providers. Partially because of the good relationship they already have, and partially because they're likely to have been involved in defining the criteria in the first place.
If you attempt a "straight down the line" strategy of doing the best you can against these pre-established criteria, the best you can hope for (unless the incumbent really messes up) is to come an honourable second. You may beat all the other competitors, but you'll really struggle to beat the competitor with the pre-established position, inside knowledge and access. And in sales, there are no silver medals for second place. It's a winner-takes-all race.
In this situation your best tactic is to try to move the finishing line closer to your own position. Or in business terms: to try to convince the client to change their decision criteria.
Persuading the client to change their decision criteria is not an easy task – but it can be done.
The first question you have to ask yourself though is: is it ethical? You need to be sure that you are acting in what you believe are the client's best interests. You should only attempt to persuade the client to change their decision criteria if you believe you have a better option – not just because you want to win the sale.
But if you are sure of that, then there are a number of approaches you can take.
Moving the Finish Line
The first approach to moving the finish line is to "slice and dice". If you can't win the whole engagement because overall you're not the best fit, can you win a smaller part of the engagement where you are the best fit? If so, you should discuss with the client the option of taking a best-of-breed approach to hiring a service provider rather than getting one provider to provide everything.
You'll need to show them how you can work effectively with the other service provider. And you'll need to show that you genuinely are the best choice for that one part of the overall engagement. But if you can do this, and if you can excel at delivering in this area, it can provide an excellent foot in the door for later work.
The second approach is to "drill to underlying needs". With this approach you find out why the client is prioritising certain factors. Perhaps, for example, the client is an oil company who is insisting that the professional they hire has significant previous experience in the petrochemical industries. If you don't have this experience then gently questioning why they need this experience may reveal that what they really want is a service provider with experience in highly regulated industries where health & safety is a big issue. And it may be that your experience in the pharmaceutical industry is enough to satisfy this requirement. Or perhaps the client is looking for professionals with at least 5 years experience to ensure that they only get high performers on their team. You may be able to convince them to take less experienced but high potential people with the caveat that they client can ask for them to be replaced if it's not working out.
In this way, by questioning and understanding why certain decision criteria are being used, you can often find other ways of satisfying the underlying needs – and so being able to tick boxes that would otherwise have seen you ruled out as a provider.
A third approach is to try to decrease the perceived importance of the criteria you are weak on. This involves questioning the client about why the criteria is so important and challenging some of their assumptions about the impact of the factor. For example, if the client requires that your team all speak French because some of the engagement must be performed in France you may be able to challenge just how important that criteria really is. Isn't English often used as a business language by French companies? Don't they have to deal with other non-French speaking companies? Surely it's worth checking out how important this really is in order to get the best team on the job – not just the one with language skills?
This, however, is a high risk approach. You're challenging the client's judgement head-on. Unless you handle this very sensitively, you may win the intellectual battle – but lose the positive relationship with the client you need to win the deal.
In these circumstances, the final approach is a better option. This is to try to increase the perceived importance of other criteria you are strong on. Rather than challenging the client's judgement that language skills are important, try to convince them that other factors are more important.
This has the same end impact: the relative importance of language skills is decreased. But you're not challenging the client's judgement head-on. Instead, you're introducing new information about something they hadn't considered before.
In this case you might question them about the importance of getting the right technical solution. Why do they have a problem today? What would the impact be if they didn't get exactly the right solution in place? How high would they say the technical skills of the team need to be to get that solution? Etc.
Here it comes back to needs-based selling skills. You don't tell the client that other factors are more important. You ask probing questions to help them discover this for themselves. In particular, to get a change in prioritisation you must use your expertise to probe for the impact of the factors you believe need to be ranked as more important.
Your Race-Winning Strategy
Of course, this is a somewhat simplified picture of competitive selling. But most of the time this simple strategy is a winning one:
Follow this simple strategy well, and more often than not, you'll end up on the winners podium.
Before all of you non-accountants scroll to the next article: this site is packed full of high value, practical business development tips that can be applied to all professions.
Craig Weeks is an ex-lawyer who now focuses on helping accounting firms improve their business development approaches. His articles are highly practical and it's clear he's been "in the trenches" and really lived this advice. He covers topics such as negotiation, fee pressure, making pitches and referrals.
Quick Tip: Focus, Focus, Focus to Get More Referrals
Only the very largest firms can afford to position themselves as being "all things to all men". Medium-sized and smaller firms need to be much more focused in their approach if they want their marketing and business development efforts to have bite.
This is an area where many professional firms struggle. Many have a very general market position. They provide a broad range of services to a broad range of clients. They fear that by being "too specific" in their marketing and lead generation they will miss out on potential business from prospects outside the narrow specifications.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that by being too generic, you significantly weaken your marketing approaches.
Our clients are bombarded with marketing messages from all angles – and they filter most of them out. To get through those filters your marketing needs to grab their attention. But that doesn't mean you should be using the aggressive, shouting headlines so beloved of low-end copywriters. Instead your marketing needs to resonate with the issues and concerns of your clients.
The primarily filter clients use to decide what to pay attention to is: "is this relevant to me"? If your marketing messages focus on their particular industry niche, or on the specific problems or opportunities they face – then they'll listen.
Not only that, but specialisation implies expertise. Who would you rather have as your accountant for example: a generalist, or someone who specialises in working with your type of business? Most of us would prefer to deal with a specialist. We assume that they will better understand the specific of our business – in my case the economics of consulting firms, the typical forecasting horizons, etc.
This is particularly important when it comes to getting referrals.
If you say you're looking for referrals to "any small or medium sized businesses" then people will struggle to identify any for you – despite knowing probably hundreds. The choice for them is too broad – they can't possibly give you a list of all the businesses they know, but they have no way of selecting which ones to pass to you.
Worse still, by being very generic in your description of who you serve you send the message "We are bland and no different from the rest. Our services are undifferentiated, and there's no reason why we're a better choice than any other firm". This may not be true, but your client or business partner doesn't necessarily know this. Clients you have just done some fantastic work for will be enthusiastic about your capabilities. But business partners who have not experienced this will struggle to see why they should refer you as opposed to all the other lawyers they know who target the same SMEs.
In contrast, narrowing your focus makes it easy for people to refer you. Even if your firm does have a general market position serving a broad range of clients, you are much better off focusing your referral requests temporarily on a narrower range than you are actually capable of serving. For example, if you're a "high street" law firm performing wills & probate, conveyancing, employment, matrimonial and general litigation services then try running campaigns where for a few months you focus on asking for referrals in only one of the practice areas. Help your potential referral partners understand exactly what a strong litigation referral looks like. Describe some of the recent work you've done in simple story format focused on the challenge the client faced and the end results they got from working with you. In a few months time move on to one of the other services you deliver or types of client you serve and you will get referrals there. But if you initially say you deliver all types of legal service to all sorts of client types you'll get blank faces.
News: Pro-Manchester Business Booster Breakfast: "How Clients Buy" – October 20th
For those in and around the Manchester area on the 20th of October, I'll be running a seminar on behalf of pro-manchester on "How Clients Buy". This will showcase the latest research from Raintoday.com highlighting:
Keep an eye out on the pro-manchester site (www.pro-manchester.co.uk) for details and booking information.