Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Providing Value in Sales When You're Not the Expert

A couple weeks ago, I advocated offering your "entree" whenever making a sales call. This involves bringing something of value—usually relevant information or advice—in exchange for the client's precious time. It avoids the common practice of wasting that time merely talking about your firm or peppering the prospect with questions. Plus it allows you to demonstrate, rather than just talk about, your abilities to help the client.

But that begs the question: What if you lack the expertise to deliver the entree? This is the primary concern I have about A/E firms that hire salespeople who lack the technical credentials to offer such help and advice. How do they avoid wasting the client's time with the usual drivel that consumes traditional sales calls?

I had to confront this issue head on years ago, because I was one of those salespeople. I had been calling on prospective clients for several years before I was convicted of the need to bring real value to those meetings. But lacking expertise to talk in much depth about the environmental services I was selling, I struggled to determine how I could stop taking the prospect's time with little to offer in return.

Like most such sellers, I had relied on a time-tested formula consisting primarily of: (1) cultivating affinity and (2) being persistent. I worked hard at building rapport with prospective clients, hoping to win their business because they liked and trusted me. I also understood the long sales cycle that is inherent in our profession, meaning that I needed to maintain regular contact with prospects—even if there was no good reason for doing so other than not being forgotten. Of course, I brought my technical colleagues along when needed to talk turkey, but still spent many hours on my own with prospects.

It seemed to be working, at least to the satisfaction of my employer. But I knew I could do better, both in terms of building stronger relationships with clients and bringing in more work. The secret, I concluded, was to shift my focus to serving clients instead of selling to them. The problem was, what did I have to offer that would enable me to better serve prospective clients? How could I bring an entree to every sales call?

Let me share what I learned for those of you who face a similar challenge. If you're in a sales role but lack the technical credentials to deal in depth with the services your firm provides, let me offer the following suggestions:

Learn all you can about the services you sell. This seems so obvious that I hesitate to mention it. But I still encounter salespeople in our industry who don't seem all that dedicated to expanding their "product knowledge." I suppose that's because they rely on a similar approach to sales that I once did—affinity and persistence. When I changed that approach, I committed to becoming more knowledgeable about what I was selling.

One of the best ways that I learned more about technical matters was participating in proposal and project strategy sessions. Listening to my colleagues brainstorm and critique various technical approaches and solutions was far better than reading about it or attending conference presentations. I also learned that my outsider's perspective could add value to those discussions. This enabled me to hone my skills in confidently engaging in technical conversations despite my limited expertise.

Unfortunately, many sales professionals in our industry don't even have meaningful involvement in proposals, much less participate in project discussions. I don't understand how those who supposedly know the client best can be excluded from the proposal process. Plus I was never inclined to simply turn over clients I had helped develop to the project team after the sale. I think the best salespeople stay involved with clients before and after the sale, all the while learning more about how their firms meet client needs.

Assume the role of solution delivery facilitator. Although prospective clients would quickly recognize that I wasn't a technical expert, they learned to trust me as the conduit to the right technical resources within our firm—or even with other noncompeting firms. The platform for doing this effectively was both developing a general understanding of the technical issues (as mentioned above) and knowing who to go to within our firm (or outside if necessary) for any relevant client problem or need that was identified.

I rarely simply handed off a prospective client to a technical colleague. I remained involved in the dialogue and served as primary liaison in addressing client needs. I couldn't provide the expertise in most cases, but I knew precisely where to get it. That's a perspective that's very difficult to gain if you spend nearly all your time calling on clients. So if you don't have enough time to facilitate delivering service (through others) to prospective clients, you might need to consider focusing your efforts on fewer of them.

Being a solutions delivery facilitator involves more than simply bringing technical experts with you on sales calls. It includes searching for helpful information; providing that via email, web links, or in person; talking with colleagues and friends in your network who have helpful insights relevant to particular client needs; scheduling site and office visits; and helping prepare client-specific presentations or workshops.

Develop your own expertise. Over time I began to see that my strength in serving prospective clients was in addressing the nontechnical concerns that my colleagues often overlooked. Eventually I developed skills in some aspects of this that clients—prospective and existing—found useful and would pay for. These included leadership and organizational consulting, community and stakeholder relations, and behavior-based safety.

Do you see similar opportunities for yourself? Do you have marketable skills that clients may value? Or could you develop such skills? Many business development professionals have competencies that can be developed into client services. These often relate to communication or interpersonal strengths that can be applied to helping clients meet business objectives. For example, I developed my abilities as a meeting facilitator within our firm. I was then able to offer that service to clients.

Having marketable expertise—even if it's outside the mainstream of your company's services—can give you more credibility with clients. I didn't do much billable work when I was in business development, but I found clients more responsive to me when I could approach them as something more than a just a salesperson. 

Actually, anyone selling professional services should try to avoid being characterized as a mere seller. You're an expert solution provider, even if the solutions come primarily through others' expertise. As I learned, the best way to change perceptions about your role is to serve clients rather than sell to them. And when you commit to serving instead of selling, you're more likely to uncover opportunities to use your own skills and knowledge to help clients.

Problem solving and delivering business value, after all, is hardly limited to the domain of the technical experts.


Gary Williams said...

Excellent post Mel, I've been there myself as a sales guy in IT and Telecoms. I now work with subject matter experts in the professions - Lawyers, Engineers, Architects etc. The thing I'm finding is that they are now being asked to do more selling and suffer from too much expertise! By that I mean they're OK selling their own (often very narrow) field of expertise but when the client is needing to solve a problem that requires a broader solution they struggle. I think the mindset you refer to is the same problem.

Mel Lester said...

Gary, thanks for the feedback. You're right, experts in any field sometimes struggle to see the big picture. Part of the problem is that they're focused on selling their services and are less concerned about the client's broader needs. Of course, that's a potential snare for any salesperson, regardless of background.