Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Problem with Selling

There is a fundamental flaw in how most architecture and engineering firms market and sell their services: The focus is on the seller rather than the buyer. We know this intuitively but aren't sure what the alternative is. If we are to contemplate a better approach, it's advisable to first characterize the problem with the current method.

When I do sales training, I always start by asking participants what their immediate impressions are when I mention the word salesperson. As you would expect, their responses are overwhelmingly negative. Common descriptions include fast-talking, aggressive, self-centered, deceptive, dishonest. The prominent impression is that salespeople are more concerned about their needs than the buyer's needs.

The assessment is harsh and probably unfair to most sellers. But the perception is real, and you dare not ignore it when selling your firm's services. Why? Because if the prevailing image of salespeople is negative—and various surveys show that selling is the most distrusted profession—is there any reason to think that prospective clients view you differently when you're in the sales role?

It works but needs to work better. Of course, you can argue that you're making sales. So are other salespeople. But wouldn't you like to find a better way? There's an interesting contradiction I've observed over the years. Most technical professionals are a bit uncomfortable in a sales role because of the stigma attached to it. Yet when I've accompanied them on sales calls, I've witnessed the very behaviors that they say they dislike about salespeople—talking too much, not really listening, focusing on themselves rather than the buyer.

How can this be? They don't have another model to follow. Selling in our profession is naturally patterned after the selling we've observed elsewhere and have perpetuated in our firms for decades. Plus it's worked. Until recently, most A/E firms were doing quite well using the traditional approach to business development. But I would argue that the old way isn't good enough anymore in the wake of the Great Recession.

Motives matter. Why are salespeople so distrusted? Trust is built on an understanding that both parties have the interests of the other in mind. Fair or not, most of us seem to think that salespeople are generally more concerned about their own interests. Perhaps it's the long tradition of unwarranted cold calls, pushy sales pitches, lack of complete candor, and pretending to care. What's interesting is the fact that most people love to buy, but we don't trust the motives of those hired to help us buy.

Is this relevant to your firm? Well, when does interest in selling peak in your office? Is it not when you really need the business? If that's what primarily motivates you and your colleagues to get out and sell, don't think that clients don't notice. Here are some common sales behaviors that reinforce the notion that you're not acting in their interest:
  • Cold calls for the simple purpose of introducing your firm
  • Sales conversations that focus on talking about your firm's qualifications
  • Scheduling sales calls primarily for your convenience ("I'm going to be in your area...")
  • Disregard for providing value for the client's time
  • Using nontechnical salespeople who lack the skills to address client needs
  • Asking for information without offering help or advice
  • Marketing predominantly for self-promotion
  • Proposals that focus on your firm rather than the client or project
The Golden Rule is a good starting place. Every buyer is different, so it's necessary that you learn what you can about what he or she wants and expects. But generally you'll do well to apply the Golden Rule—treat buyers the way you like to be treated when you're in the buying role. This involves flipping the focus from yourself to the buyer.

Let me encourage you to evaluate every facet of your business development process in this regard. You'll find many tips for buyer-centered selling by clicking on the links above and using this blog's search bar. Client focus is a popular theme among A/E firms these days, yet it's rarely evident in how we develop new business. It's time to break the mold and shed the stigma about selling. Do a better job serving buyers' interests and see how that ultimately better serves your own.

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