Death of a Salesman

Why good selling and good consulting are one and the same

I envision a world without sales people. At least in technology consulting, a very narrow (but massive) sector, where I work.

More and more organisations are moving towards a consulting-led approach, where early engagements are driven by SMEs acting in an advisory capacity, rather than salespeople. This is nothing new in practice (good salespeople have always been consultative, or the much-vaulted “trusted advisor”), but the shift in mentality changes the dynamic with customers in subtle ways.

Customers tend to, in my experience, quickly disengage when working with (non-consultative) salespeople. By reframing the conversation as consultative, and striving to add value with every engagement, consultants can better understand clients challenges, bring them greater awareness of changes in the IT (or any other) landscape, and together look at potential areas where the two align, and therefore there is a potential opportunity.

The new challenge is maintaining neutrality as an advisor, and not seeing everything as a nail. The temptation is to see a potential for a specific solution everywhere, and this is rarely the case. Tailoring a solution, as well as the story that surrounds it is crucial to making that connection to a client’s business challenges. By maintaining solution neutrality, you can still understand the potential opportunities for your business, but forcing your services into unwanted conversations will close more doors than it opens.

Consultants reading this, by now, are horrified. Precisely because of the image problem that salespeople have, consultants do not want to be tarred with the same brush. However McKinsey, arguably the most prestigious management consultancy firm, “doesn’t sell” instead relying on its reputation and the trusted positions into which its consultants are placed to drive future business. No-one sells because everyone does.

To create this model of the future, a few things need to change; namely incentives and job titles. Incentives drive behaviour quite directly, and most people use fiscal rewards as the only real determinant for career success. I don’t have the answer here, but organisations need to re-evaluate how they reward success, and what changes can be made to drive a more consultative process. Titles, on the other hand, are easy. Whilst there will always be a need for a sales function (for the writing of proposals and so forth) those that are advising clients should never be referred to as sales people, as this motivates the wrong behaviours. Something like advisors, consultants, industry SME, anything but “Sleazy Salesman who only cares about his commission”.

I firmly believe that consultative selling, and shared risk reward commercial models (more on this in a later post) are the future for services organisations, as they provide the best value for clients and firms by correctly aligning incentives with success on both sides of the relationship, as well as strengthening the relationship itself. If you disagree, leave a comment.

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