The professional services selling myth

by Kirsten Hodgson

I've worked with a number of lawyers and other professionals who are petrified that, in order to build their businesses, they are going to have to convince people to hire them by pitching to them. They're understandably nervous and the idea of 'selling' doesn't sit well with them – they're in their roles because they enjoy their profession and helping people. They've been sucked into the professional services selling myth.

While there are aggressive rainmakers out there who do focus on themselves and their needs, this approach doesn't fit everyone's personality. The good news is that there is another way: focus on the other person and their needs.

Larry Bodine alluded to this in a recent blog post: 5 marketing tips to make it rain in 2012. In it he said to stop pitching to people because nobody likes it and to start asking questions. He's totally right. Asking intelligent questions is one of the best things you can do in a new business meeting. That's because:

  • how can you let people know how you can help them unless you know what their specific needs are?
  • And, how can you know what their specific needs are unless you ask questions to uncover these?

How should you approach each new business meeting? 

Before each new business meeting:

  1. Research the person/people you are meeting and the company – look at their website, do a google search, check their social media profiles, look at their annual report
  2. Find out the other person's objective for the meeting by asking 'What would you like to get out of this meeting?' or 'What would make this a good meeting for you?' or 'If there was only one thing you could get from this meeting, what would you want it to be?' If you have called the meeting, you may be better asking this at the start of the meeting itself.
  3. Write down the other person's objective for the meeting – once you've done so, jot down how you can meet their objective
  4. Write down your objective/desired outcome for the meeting - ensure it's SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely). For example, it may be to get a meeting with the CEO in the next 2 weeks, to gain agreement to run a workshop within the next month or to be able to put together a written/verbal proposal based on that client's needs by X date.
  5. Write down at least 3 questions you would like to ask the other person/people – what do you need to know in order to move to the next step? When in the meeting, the key is that you listen to the other person's responses and don't leap in as soon as you hear an issue they have that you can help with. You want to find out about the various issues they have and then uncover which are most important to the client. The danger with jumping in is that you focus on an issue that actually isn't that far up the client's priority list. A really great model to follow in new business meetings is the SPIN selling model, the brainchild of Neil Rackham – I like the way the questions move from general to more specific and that they seek to create a need. It's a logical process that's easy to follow.

At the end of the meeting, discuss the next step with the prospective client. Get their agreement both on what action will be taken, who will take it and when it will be complete. For example, you may say 'It was great to find out about the issues you're facing over the next year. You mentioned that X and Y are really critical and these are things with which we can assist. Would it be of value if we were to put together a short proposal setting out our understanding of your needs, how we could help and the associated costs?' If the client agrees let them know when they can expect to receive your proposal and stick to the deadline you agree – better still, deliver it early.

If they don't agree, find out what they suggest happens next and, again, agree a timeframe.

What other tips would you share to help other professionals get more from new business meetings? 

Do you agree with my tips above? Why/why not? 

Specialising in professional services and law firm marketing. I help firms to retain and grow existing clients and attract more of their ideal clients. My core services include social media for lead generation, voice of the client programmes and tender strategy and development. Outside of work I love to run. I’m a bit like Forest Gump in that I’m not that quick but can keep going for ages. I also enjoy coming up with new inventions. Unfortunately, most of them have already been invented! | * Professional services marketing consultant | * Legal marketing consultant | * Law firm marketing consultant
  • Promod Sharma | actuary | blogger | advocate

    Thanks for these tips, Kirsten. I’ve used a similar approach for years.

    As an actuary, I have no training in sales or pitches. However, I know how to ask questions and propose solutions. That provides a free sample of my capabilities. When you’re genuinely interested in others, they become interested in you. Why wouldn’t they?

    I usually skip steps two and three. The “official” reason to meet is often to get to know each other. The real reason emerges during the discussion. They would not ask or agree to meet unless they wanted something.

    • Kirsten Hodgson

      Great points Promod – especially providing a free sample of your capabilities. Why are so many reluctant to do this do you think?

  • Promod Sharma | actuary | blogger | advocate

    I’ve found that professionals are afraid to give free samples because they fear prospects will tell competitors who will then steal their intellectual property. That’s a tad egotistical since at the core we’re similar to our competitors in what we do, how we proceed and what we achieve.

    What’s different? We are. Free samples help show who we are in an authentic way that others can’t easily copy.