Principles of Selling for Professional Practices - What Process Works for You?

Graham Yemm
 


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In this time of seeming constant change, no professional practices or firms can be complacent about their future. The threats come from various directions, some obvious and visible such as larger merged firms or new starts, and some less so, such as internet services. Unless you take these seriously, what does your future hold? It is important that, regardless of size, you look seriously at what you do to generate fees and to find new clients. This article covers some of the key aspects you need to think about and gives some ideas for how you can be more proactive and more effective in generating revenues. We offer some things to think about for identifying the best ways you can do this for your practice and the type of market you work in. If you start to apply these principles you can build a more sustainable business with more guaranteed revenue flow.

Traditionally, most professional firms have had to grow through forms of networking, referrals and personal relationships, because of legal restrictions. However, these constraints have been removed and, the market dynamics have changed in many areas. The “New World” requires you to operate differently if you want to survive. However, the first prejudice to overcome is your own reaction to the word “sell” and to rethink what it means. After all, you did not do all of your training to become a “seller” did you? Why should this thinking be so prevalent? In our society, one of the biggest barriers is the public perception of selling and sales people. How are they usually portrayed in our media? No wonder you do not want to be thought of like this! Yet, it is a misrepresentation if you think about how many people are involved in selling jobs every day of the week. They are working in a very different way, where they are behaving professionally and, generally, with integrity.

What are your concerns about selling? How people might perceive you? You do not like the idea of pushing people? The good news is that effective, professional selling does not have to be about this! Dictionary definitions will tell you that selling is about “convincing of value”. If you are to do that, you need to establish the right kind of relationship with clients and prospects, where you can find what their real issues are and what they consider as value – and then show them how you can satisfy that. The fun part of selling is that value is an individual perception and will change according to the circumstances too. Rather than think of yourself as a “seller”, what about a “provider of value”, “solution provider”, “problem remover” or similar? Do any of these seem better? When we were working with one accounting practice it made a great difference when the main players rethought this and saw themselves in another light. They became much more positive and had success with approaching existing and potential clients with this mindset (and some added skills we had developed with them!)

Whatever size your organisation is, there will be threats happening in your market. As many firms merge and grow, they can offer wider ranges of services to clients. Others look to establish relationships with organisations in different, but synergistic, areas where are opportunities can be generated for each other. For simple services which can be commoditised, the internet may be a threat where some clients will think they can do things for themselves. There is an answer to this – decide to become proactive in your sales effort. (Or would you prefer “fee generating”?)

To move from the more traditional, reactive style of your market to a proactive one, creating your own opportunities, does require a number of changes. These start with the people being willing to change their attitudes. For those who will not, ask them what is stopping them? What do they think they gain by staying as they are? However, it is better to start with those who are more positive and happy to move in the direction you want. We are not suggesting that your practice or firm becomes like the American law firm (and a few leading City ones) where future success and promotion is almost totally linked to billable hours and revenues generated with the mega-hours and pushy culture that often goes with it!

One early step to take is to identify the sales process which works best for your organisation and in your market. Whether people like it or not, consistently good performers will follow a process, albeit with some flexibility. This means that they can deliver results consistently. When “modelling” top performers from an investment bank, this caused something of a surprise as they thought that their successful people were all more opportunistic and entrepreneurial! These could be successful – occasionally!! Good sales organisations are clear about their process and use it for a number of things. We have examples we are happy to share.

When you have identified each stage of your process, then it is possible to break them down into best practice activities. From these, you can check the competencies needed to be able to work though them. This allows you to provide any necessary training or development to ensure that the skills are embedded.

Those who are going to do the revenue generation can now plan their prospect and client contacts more effectively. They also can be better prepared for meetings and assess how well they are progressing.

The other major benefit when you have assessed your process is that you can see where the critical control points are. From this, you can create the sales control system to measure how things are going. This tool is vital to any form of effective sales management as it puts the focus on the activity leading to the results, which is where you can take any necessary corrective action. You can set standards for the various stages and also work out the ratios needed to ensure that you achieve the desired results. This enables you to measure the right things – and will help more accurate forecasting too.

When this is in place, it becomes much easier to assign roles and responsibilities. Who will manage the process? Who are the doers? Who are the support staff? Pulling all of this together has produced some significant improvements in organisations where we have worked. Where this particular process was developed (a bank outside the UK) they have seen a considerable growth in sales, product retention rather than cancellation, and staff retention in this area.

There is another key element to this. What style or approach to selling will work best for your firm. In the professional services sector you will almost certainly want to have some emphasis on relationships and maybe a relationship selling model. An alternative to this, which is perhaps even more applicable especially for new business generation is to introduce a consultative selling approach. This requires an emphasis on communication skills, relationship building and knowledge of your business and the prospect’s market place – plus sales skills. Consultative sellers will help clients and prospects to identify the real issues they are facing and to create a sense of partnership in helping to find a solution. In the short-term, the solution may not be what you offer, or someone else could be better positioned to supply it. However, getting into the right “mindspace” of the client or prospect will pay off in the future.

We have seen many professional services firms make significant progress when they have changed their attitude to selling and introduced the processes and skills. It is not about selling your soul to the devil, it is about becoming more proactive and effective in “convincing of value”. This will enable your firm to take more control of its destiny and to generate the revenues you need to achieve the plans you have.

Graham Yemm has over 20 experience as a consultant. He runs a UK based consultancy, Solutions 4 Training Ltd and works both in the UK and internationally with organisations helping them to develop their sales strategy, processes and skills. He can be contacted at http://www.solutions4training.com/ or +44 1483 480656

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