The Obstacles to Selling Services


Tom McMakin and I met last week with our publisher and nailed down a title for our book. Our book is divided into four parts. The first part lays out the problem or obstacles we face in selling consulting and professional services. In the second part of the book, Tom and I lay out our 7 Elements business development framework for overcoming these obstacles.

In today’s post, I’ll lay out the first two obstacles we face in winning new customers in consulting and professional services. And, oh, by the way. If you’re in a B2B business, many of these obstacles apply to you as well. There are many similarities between business development in B2B companies and consulting. Maybe I’ll lay out these similarities as I see it at some point in the near future.

The Problem

If I’m supposed to know everything, then how come I don’t know how to sell?

Part 1: The Obstacles

  1. We’re trained to do the work, not sell the work.
  2. Selling a service is different (and much harder) than selling things.
  3. Nobody wants to be a salesperson.
  4. It’s harder than ever to sell professional services.
  5. Everything you’ve been taught about sales is wrong.

The premise of our book is simple. Whether in advertising, management consulting, law, or accounting, we are trained to do our work. We have diplomas, certifications, professional society memberships, and, in many cases, years of experience in doing the work. As we move forward in our careers, most of us in these professions are increasingly expected to sell the work. Whether on a track to become a partner in a large law firm, a part owner in a regional accounting firm, or the owner of a small boutique marketing firm, we must learn how to bring in business, win new clients, build existing client accounts…in short, make it rain. This leads us to Obstacle #1: We are never taught how to sell the work.

It’s ironic, I think. Or odd. Either way, in a nation that prides itself on being at the leading edge of business, and with some of the best universities in the world, we do not teach our students the practice of selling. It’s true. Ask anyone who has a degree in business from a U.S. university if they were offered any classes in selling or a college major in Business Sales? You’ll be hard-pressed to find any. There are a handful of universities out there who offer a sales curriculum, but you can almost count them on one hand, out of nearly 3,000 colleges and universities in the country.

Nor do we receive much—if any—professional training by the organizations we work for. We receive healthy doses of continuous education in our chosen field, but never really any sales training. I guess we’re supposed to just know how to do it or figure it out along the way. My good friend, David Richardson, former CEO of Learning House, recently offered this perspective:

Some people naturally have a knack for selling. If you don’t, you’re just out of luck.

If we’re lucky, very lucky, we may have a mentor that teaches us informally as we progress in our career. In most cases, if we ever reach any degree of competence at selling what we do, we must simply learn it on our on through years of making lots of bad mistakes. This approach seems somewhat outdated to me. Maybe really, really outdated. Like the training for a medieval alchemist from the dark ages. There must be a better way, right?

This leads us to Obstacle #2: Selling A Service is Different (and harder) than Selling Things. Selling a product is typically based upon product attributes: horsepower, microprocessor speed, screen resolution, color, size, comfort, safety, warranty, etc. Furthermore, you can test drive a product to see if, in fact, the reality matches the advertising or salesperson’s claims. You can drive a car, demo a smartphone, and walk through a new home. You can’t do that with an accountant, lawyer, coder, or Six Sigma expert.

When you hire a consultant, you typically hire someone based on their reputation, credibility, or thought leadership. We frequently hire service providers that we know, respect, and trust or who come highly recommended. The funny thing about trust is that it cannot be expedited. Isn’t it interesting that an individual will purchase a $75,000 luxury sedan or a $500,000 home after 30 minutes, but take weeks or months to hire a new accountant, marketing expert or architect? Something is different about buying a service. We’ll talk more about this down the road.

I think I’ll stop there for today. That’s a reasonably digestible chunk, I hope. I’ll pick up with Obstacle #3: Nobody Wants To Be A Salesperson in the near future.

This story was originally published on Doug’s blog.