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Comfort and trust the keys to selling professional services

Business

Business development needs finesse and a keen focus on the needs of the client.

By Hans Morse 13 minute read

Just the other week a partner from one of the big four accounting firms told me that now more than ever, staff need to hone their selling skills. He said the impact of COVID meant staff were rusty and missing key cues due to limited face-to-face time with clients.

I couldn’t agree more. Staff display reduced levels of confidence, particularly commercial skills when it comes to negotiation, and questioning skills. This has had a negative impact on their ability or willingness to have difficult conversations, for instance when negotiating fees or qualify-the-decision criteria.

On top of this, the whole idea of “selling” has never really sat well in professional services. People don’t like to be sold to. Clients are seeking guidance and expert help to achieve a desired outcome.

In other words, it’s all about our mindset. If we enter a meeting feeling the burden of needing to sell or meet our KPIs, it will be challenging. However, if we enter with the mindset that we are helping our clients find a solution to an issue or concern they have identified, or achieve a desired strategic outcome, this becomes a working partnership, beneficial to all parties.

I have always had this mindset, and when I made the shift into professional services from the pharmaceutical industry it was at the centre of my MO in the construction of a business development strategy. Being the first-ever client-facing business development manager in Australia with the big six, as they were known over 20 years ago, BD or sales functions didn’t exist. The function was purely marketing. So, the idea of having client-facing business development was non-existent and to some extent misunderstood. At the time, Ernst & Young asked me, “How do we win new business with new clients?” and my initial response was, “We need to go and talk to them and understand what they are doing and what they want to achieve.”

The approach is balanced and not over-engineered with too much psychological theory or overcomplicated by selling tactics. Too many training programs are either too salesy or too wrapped up in neuroscientific theory. While some of the neuroscience is valuable and part of the “why”, it should be balanced with pragmatic, field-tested approaches.

But there is an important element to focus on and that is heuristic bias, or decision bias, together with confirmation bias. “Tricks and tips” is how many sales trainers and coaches refer to this. In my view, it isn’t about tricks at all, but simply working with clients to get the outcomes they need.

I’ve attended many sales training programs in the UK and Australia over the years. I watched some of the first attempts to roll out multimillion-dollar sales and coaching programs at the big four, where there was a focus on over-engineered psychological theory that had never been proven in the sales environment. Bid management and how you approach business development overall with your clients should also be treated the same. As a result of qualitative analysis and feedback through debriefs with clients, it was established that a poor level of scoping and qualification of needs resulted in failed bids.

The current investment of time devoted to scoping and qualifying needs is 15 per cent of the total effort, with 70 per cent spent on proposal documents and finally 15 per cent on the presentation. The required investment is 55 per cent on scoping, 20 per cent on the document and 25 per cent on presentation.

Along with best practice methods and key enablers (advanced questioning and negotiation, collaboration, rapport, evidence-based and EQ skills) these are in some ways the secrets to success, especially in the early stages of a bid or proposal process.

Best practice v bad practice BD

Motivation plays a big part in winning new business. Many of the big firms shot themselves in the foot by offering commission-based incentives for their BD teams and unfortunately this creates unhealthy internal competitiveness. BD staff trip over each other to secure new work with higher fees, some on very large clients, but with a different service-line offering. These tactics were frowned upon by CFOs and other C-suite clients and just seen as overselling. This was mentioned to me on several occasions when conducting client insight reviews.

Unfortunately, these old-style sales tactics were introduced into the big four firms in the late 1990s to early 2000s and many of these “sales managers” didn’t really understand professional services and their clients’ MO. But firms believed this fast, slick sales approach could accelerate their success. Fortunately, slowly this was seen for what it was worth. Many culprits left or were pushed out, bringing back a level of professionalism to the industry, but at the cost of again becoming less client-centric.

No two sales or BD executives are the same. Our personalities, communication and interaction style make us unique. Different things motivate us. In addition, we need to remember the systemic effects resulting from differing service lines, markets and industries. Both factors inform and influence interaction. We also need to remember that every client is different and has different buying processes, and of course needs and concerns.

Professional staff, whether it be in the accounting, legal or consulting sectors, effectively scope out service requirements but the missing piece of the puzzle is qualifying and understanding the decision process, which is the commercial element of the client conversation, whether in a bid situation or scoping a project or a legal matter.

So, in this regard, building rapport is very important. Again, I recall an interview with one of the big four firms for a bid coaching role and I was asked how I would quickly build rapport with a partner on a bid. To me, this was an irrelevant question, and the focus should have been on how I will ensure the team builds rapport with the client to enable them to win the bid. Too much internal focus meant it was not really a client-centric culture. Comfort and trust build rapport, and we need to focus on that. If staff want to play politics and aren’t 100 per cent committed, then we’re off to a bad start.

We really need to understand the heuristic bias in decision-making, or decision bias, as it’s known. This is the “why” in the buying pattern and the simple science behind it. We need to keep in mind our clients and customers have a way of doing business, using services and a decision process they follow, so there is a need to dig deeper in terms of creating comfort with both the cost of change and the benefits of change, to outweigh the risk of change.

Otherwise, clients will stick to current services and the way they have always been doing things. This is the heuristic bias kicking in – humans have preferences about how they receive information and a preference to use readily available information (mental shortcuts) rather than examining other alternatives – and this is what needs to be addressed.

This is all in part of the questioning process and how we challenge our clients’ thinking. These are important focus areas to address throughout client conversations, during a tender, or RFP preparation to be successful.

Far too much time is spent on our own sales process and on a proposal document, rather than on the clients’ buying process and the actual approach and scope. In many cases, firms don’t even have in-depth scoping conversations with their client.

With professional services being a very different beast, particularly for accounting, consulting and legal services from a sales and client service perspective, there is now emergence of best practice approach strategies. This is the holy grail of best practice business development, with internal enablers and external client-centric demand creation methods.

As for what the specific code is for best practice BD, well that’s revealed and evident in the training we provide.

Hans Morse is a professional services business development consultant and co-founder of specialist consultancy Boost Your BD.

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