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Three Tips for Selling Professional Services & How to Avoid Common Pitfalls

Each month, Kimble co-founder Mark Robinson leads a workshop where he answers questions from attendees about the challenges they’re facing as professional services leaders – the focus of these VitalSigns Workshops is on what decision-makers need to look out (or listen) for in order to drive success, the heartbeat of the business. After each session, we will take one of the most impactful and actionable questions we received and expand on Mark’s answer, with hopes you can apply the learnings at your organization. If you would like to sign up for our next VitalSigns Workshop on December 4th, click here

Question: What advice do you have about selling professional services?

Mark Robinson’s Answer

Selling services is not the same as selling a product. A product is the same whoever buys it — even if every buyer doesn’t get exactly the same value from it. A product can be ordered, invoiced and even paid for before you ship — but professional services can change at last minute, and they are usually paid for after delivery. There can be extra complications which cause delay — and delay matters a great deal when your business depends on selling people’s time. Below you can find three tips for selling professional services:

1. Keep business leaders closely involved in business development

Experience and a deep knowledge of the sector are particularly important assets when selling services. For me, one of the toughest transitions in the trajectory of a growing professional services business is the moment when the founders and the core team which started the business, hand over the sales effort to new recruits. At that point I see some businesses run into trouble — everything is thrown over the fence to the sales guys. That can lead to difficulties which blaming other team members or hiring more is unlikely to fix.

Obviously leaders can tell the story better than anyone else — and they can be an asset to the sales team. It is very important to keep them involved in sales rather than back office. You can always recruit people in the back office, but it’s harder to recruit people who can tell the story as well as you.

Senior management will need to find a way to stay involved without trying to micromanage the team — it’s a delicate balance. They should prioritize business development. In many businesses, more effort goes into the biggest numbers. But winning a one-day engagement at a new client where there is a possibility that this could turn into a much bigger account is as important in the long term. Losing that small deal may not seem important — but winning deals with high potential value is critical to success.

2. Balance target with sales headcount

If you hire too many sales people, they will tend to pull things into the funnel which may not be appropriate. On the other hand, if you get the balance right such that salespeople have a large pipeline, then they will naturally qualify and win more deals.

A balanced sales headcount is more important to a services organization than a product-led one— it’s problematic when many deals keep slipping to the right. You have a lot of possible engagements showing up at the top of the funnel but the penciled-in start date keeps moving further out — many of them never actually closing.

This makes life difficult for the delivery team. Resourcing can’t trust the sales forecast, consultants or other services professionals don’t know what they are going to be working on, and the revenue forecast gets out of whack as well.

I have seen this happen in services businesses myself — and the solution is to qualify very carefully. Instead of having a wide range of clients in your sights in the way you might do when selling products, focus on the best. The best clients for a services business are those where there is a prospect of it turning into many engagements — delivering more predictability and more revenue to your PS business. Instead of frantically lining up lots of deals, go all in on the best prospects. Sell to the people where you are confident you can deliver value to their business better than anybody else.

3. Develop your differentiation

What’s your differentiator? It’s “we have the best people” — right? Wrong. Every professional services business says (and believes) that they have the best people. It is the number one bullet on the number on slide in every sales presentation. You know your people and you know how great they are but saying so isn’t enough to win the deal over another business which also has the best people.

Equitech told me that they used to advise PS firms on how they could improve and the number one suggestion was looking into the types of specialist expertise within the company. Very rarely do people running companies analyse the different types of projects they have done and realise that they have built in-house experts.

You have to look at the case studies, at the value you have been able to provide for customers to identify something that you can be famous for, that you can convince people you have the expertise and experience that others don’t.

In my previous business we did data warehousing and business intelligence. We got selected by a retail hospitality chain because of our expertise in Oracle data warehouses. Over the course of the long project we got to understand the business problems of retail hospitality businesses. We went in as technical experts and came out with lots of vertical knowledge about the way that retail hospitality businesses are run and what is important to them. For example, they need to know when to ramp up production. We used our vertical knowledge to market to retail hospitality businesses on the fact that we knew how they could be more efficient by using technology such as meteorological data. We presented and they were amazed that we knew what made them tick – we won more data warehouse projects.

So, we were able to build on that and go to other similar companies, large spirit manufacturers, some of the top names in hospitality and say that we were the acknowledged experts in using data like this. We had the case studies to back it up. Some of them came to us and when we mentioned their competitor, they would ask us to come in and talk to them.

When you have developed your differentiator, make sure that it is cutting through. Don’t just ask the sales team if they told the prospect about it. Make it part of your win/loss analysis and find out in particular if the clients that you won said it was important to them.

Final Thoughts

Tailoring the sales effort to a growing Professional Services business is an ongoing endeavour. Over time, the story you are telling your prospects and existing customers develops and changes. Making sure that the right deals are coming down the pipeline, that they close and start when they are supposed to and that the information gained during the delivery is brought back into the sales effort takes commitment and communication from the whole business.

If you have any questions like this one you would like to ask Kimble’s co-founder Mark Robinson, you can register for the next VitalSigns Workshop and submit your questions here!



Mark Robinson

Kimble Co-Founder