Everything You’ve Ever Been Taught About Sales is Wrong


By this point, we’re well versed in the fact that universities do not teach sales, and most of us receive very little formal sales training from our organizations. That said, there are those among us who have received “sales training” at some point along the way: either paid for on our own nickel or offered by our organization. There are dozens of reputable companies offering basic sales training. Before I get blamed for poo-pooing these programs, let me just say that they are not all bad. Especially if you are 23 years old and just starting a sales career. It’s better than nothing, especially seeing as how you’ve learned very little along the way which would prepare you for a career in sales.

Killer Pitch

Selling expert services requires more than a killer pitch, a winning personality, and effective time management.

Let me outline a few sales approaches and why they are wrong, misguided or lacking in my opinion:

Better Personality

This approach was first popularized by Dale Carnegie. Dale’s famous 1936 book, How To Win Friends and Influence People, kicked off this movement. The core of Carnegie’s approach can be summed up as “it is possible to change other people’s behavior by changing one’s behavior toward them.” On the cover of the book, he promises the following:

  • What are the six ways of making people like you?
  • What are the twelve ways of winning people to your way of thinking?
  • What are the nine ways to change people without giving offense or arousing resentment?

A pleasant personality, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. The issue, as I see it, is that most individuals who have made it into consulting and professional services have already had the rough edges of their personalities rubbed off. By the time one has finished law school, a top MBA program, or made it to partner, most people are not lacking in basic people skills. It’s not to say there aren’t some who would benefit from a healthy dose of humility or empathy, but generally speaking, this isn’t the limiting factor.

Great Pitch

A good friend of mine works for a very successful management consulting firm. We were having drinks one Friday after work, and he shared his senior partner’s sales philosophy with me: “It’s all about the pitch. You got to ‘hook’ them. If you don’t have a compelling ‘pitch’, you’re dead in the water.” If a prospective client didn’t immediately bite after his persuasive pitch, the senior partner’s typical reaction was “Screw ’em! If they’re too stupid to see the value in our proposal, then they’re a bunch of idiots and I don’t want to work with them.”

Unfortunately, I think this philosophy is more common that you’d like to think. I think it’s a result of the training that many received along the way on selling products, and it’s misguided thinking when it comes to consulting and professional services. While one-time purchases can be sold on attributes using a well-polished pitch, consulting and professional services are typically bought on the basis of relationships, respect, and trust.

You can’t hurry trust. After all, can trust and respect be earned after one client visit? They can’t (at least not very often). While having a “great pitch” may be handy for selling Tupperware or a timeshare, I don’t think it’s a very helpful approach to selling expert services.

Clever Tactics

Another major sales camp is what I call clever tactics training. This line of thinking goes: if you could only prospect better, present better, negotiate better, and close better, you would win more business.

If you’re selling copiers to small business, optimizing the sales process may be super helpful. But that’s not the typical way consulting and professional services are sold.

Again, this approach was developed for product sales. If you’re selling copiers to small business, optimizing the sales process may be super helpful. But that’s not the typical way consulting and professional services are sold.

Sure, I’d love to be a better negotiator. I’m lousy at negotiations. I’m sure if I took one of the negotiation programs offered in the in-flight magazines, I’d be much better at buying a home or car. The fact is, being a master negotiator just isn’t that relevant to earning trust and respect. Great client relationships are built for the long-haul, and being a master negotiator doesn’t really do much for you. Naturally, you don’t want to do client work that is priced below your cost to perform the work, but aside from that, doing great work at a fair market price is far more important to the success of your practice in the long run.

Time Management

The time management skills approach was popularized in the 1980s by Franklin Quest (which subsequently became Franklin Covey in 1997). I remember in my early years with GE in the late 80s being sent to a time management course. These popular courses utilized a handy day calendar — the Franklin Planner — which, of course, was sold separately. Franklin Covey and similar programs are really good at helping you squeeze every last minute out of your day. If you are making 10 sales calls a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks of the year…sure, managing your time better would result in more productivity.

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with these types of training programs. There are plenty among us who procrastinate, and/or spend way too much time on social media at work. The problem, as it relates to selling consulting and professional services, is that time management programs don’t tell you what business development activities you should be doing instead of goofing off. It’s great to prioritize your daily calendar if only you knew what activities would yield the most value as it relates to winning new clients.

Time management programs don’t tell you what business development activities you should be doing instead of goofing off.

In closing, the sales training that is widely available to us is simply not very effective at helping us sell consulting and professional services. Most of the training won’t hurt, and might actually help. Some of the training is actually detrimental.

But, it’s not very helpful to simply tear down other approaches without offering an alternative solution. So, in other posts in this series, Tom McMakin and I will outline the 7 Elements business development framework for consulting and professional services. Our approach is unique in that we take a close look at how client’s actually buy these types of services.