Every year, at the PM Forum annual conference, there's a “client panel” where buyers of professional services answer questions from the conference attendees. This year, the focus was on what works (and what doesn't) when professionals try to sell to them.
The panel consisted of Krista Lindsay (VP for real estate at JP Morgan), Jonathan Pearl (General Counsel at Sony Ericsson) and controversial venture capitalist John Moulton (currently head of private equity firm Better Capital).
I've summarised some of the discussions below – along with my take on the answers. I hope you find it useful.
What method would work well for a professional to get a meeting with you?
JM: I'll take a call if it's well researched. The number one thing is to pre-qualify – make sure there's interest or that I'm likely to want what you're offering.
Money chucked at entertainment or dining or golfing is wasted on me – just field good people, show me you have good clients, and perform well on a trial piece of work.
JP: Don't send spam emails. I'm much more likely to talk to someone on the phone than respond to an email.
Has anyone ever won work by coming to you with a brilliant idea?
JM: Brilliant insights are unlikely if you're outside and not working closely with me already. And they're not needed – just a really good understanding of what we need.
In fact, pointing out something someone is doing wrong is rarely a good sales pitch.
JP: Usually big ideas pitched from outside are way off beat – they end up wasting my time and theirs.
KL: Rather than pitching a big idea, clients are always interested to know what their competitors are doing. Nothing confidential – but benchmarking and case studies are interesting – and they position you as an industry expert and trusted advisor.
My take: Two things stand out for me here:
- Offering value in the meeting itself (by sharing case studies, benchmarking information etc.) is still an incredibly good way of getting a meeting with a potential client. You may not catch them in buying mode – but you will begin to build a strong relationship and position yourself as the expert to turn to when they need help.
- Much as I hate to use this overused phrase: Zig when everyone else is Zagging. My experience is that we're now all so overloaded with emails that traditional direct mail and telephone calls can be more effective as they're rarer.
What's the best way of making an impact in a sales meeting?
JP: Lawyers are awful – they're almost embarrased to be there. They treat it more like a social visit. They really need some sort of sales training.
KL: Spend time learning about us. People who can “walk our walk and talk our talk” are the ones you want to continue a relationship with.
JM: It's pathetic sometimes. You realise very rapidly they haven't done their research.
KL: The more you know about us the better. But use it to get us to talk.
My take: There's a combination of things here. Partly it's mindset. So many professionals feel uncomfortable selling because they believe it will damage client relationships. But actually, clients don't want you to waste their time. If you have something valuable to sell – they want you to get down to business.
But you have to do it the right way – that's the second part. The core is to build a deep understanding of your potential client and their issues – and then to ask smart questions based on that knowledge to get the client talking.
Many senior professionals feel really uncomfortable marketing and selling themselves – would it be better to use professional sales people?
JP: I have no objection talking to a sales person. I hired a law firm for mediation recently by talking to their marketing director.
JM: Too many sales professionals is a turn off for me.
KL: We want to see who will actually be working with us.
JM: It's important that the person who turns up in the first meeting is the one who will be with you the whole time.
My take: A difference of opinion here. Jonathan P was happy to interact with sales people, but both Krista and Jon M wanted to deal with the actual professionals who would be carrying out the work for them. It probably depends partially on the individual – but partly on the type of work.
Krista is hiring architects to work with her on huge projects, for example. She'll be working closely with those people for a long period of time and has to feel confident that she (and her team) will be able to work with them and trust them. On the other hand, for a shorter more transactional deal, it may be that enough confidence can be built up talking to a salesperson without speaking directly to the professionals themselves.
What's the best way of keeping in touch with you to build a relationship?
JM: Frankly, if my need for your services is sporadic it's difficult.
KL: Share your knowledge. Send me something compelling – informational, not a pitch.
JM: Something like “Are you getting your 18% VAT refund from Spain?” would catch my attention – I'd read that.
KL: Really good seminars for clients will work.
JM: Brainstorming sessions – send some of your people over. We'll throw some ideas round for a few hours over a bottle of wine – that can be really useful.
My take: Nurturing relationships with clients and potential clients is one of the biggest challenges for professionals – I rarely see it done well.
As a general rule, sharing information and insight works the best. Clients are incredibly short of time these days so they need to see immediate value in what you're sending them. Just meeting for a coffee or phoning for a chat doesn't cut it with most clients.
Some of the very best, most value added approaches – such as the joint brainstorming sessions – can be very time consuming. You must prioritise your relationships and focus those time-intensive activities where they're going to have the biggest bang for the buck.
We've been hearing for a long time that the billable hour is dying: what sort of fee arrangements do you as clients prefer?
JM: Give an accurate quote. Sticking to a fixed price helps – though it's not always possible. Keep me in touch with how fees are progressing weekly vs plan. Avoid contingency fees – they bring a huge amount of tension into the relationship.
KL: No surprises is the key thing.
JP: Contingency fees aren't a good idea – I don't like them.
My take: I'm no expert in this field but it was interesting to hear a complete lack of enthusiasm for contingency fees. What these experienced clients are looking for is certainty – knowing what they're going to have to pay in advance. They're not particularly interested in risk sharing and recognise the issues that it can have on independence of advice and trust.
That's it – hope you found it useful.
PS click here for my short video with a step by step approach to becoming a trusted advisor