This article first appeared on June 12, 2013 on BRW

Professional services providers face a challenge that many within the sector are struggling to come to terms with. For centuries the sector – comprising doctors, lawyers, accountants engineers and the like – enjoyed a somewhat exalted position in society.

Ignorance among the general populace, fuelled primarily by the high cost of education, made studying to be a doctor, lawyer or other profession out of the reach of most, and created an impression that being a professional made the individual somewhat special.

However today, wide, relatively easy access to education and the internet has reduced (if not entirely eliminated) the barriers. A wider general knowledge and more practitioners in each of these professions – all competing for a share of business that isn’t growing as fast as institutes are turning them out – is making it an imperative for professionals to find effective ways to generate business.

Only a little more than a decade ago practitioners in these professions viewed advertising and marketing their services as being unprofessional and rather unethical. However time (and economic pressure) has forced their hand. They changed their opinion and started using brochures and advertising to generate new and additional business. Now the novelty of professionals advertising for business seems to have worn off. As advertising alone no longer generates the excitement for professional services that it once did, the more innovative in these professions have migrated to business development – a euphemism for selling.

The challenge for many professions faced with a decision to start more aggressive sales activities in their practices is two-fold. Firstly the image of salespeople is so badly misunderstood by professionals that they tend to shy away from even considering the notion of selling. Secondly, no course for accounts, lawyers, engineers or doctors teaches selling as part of the education of the people. As a result, most of these professionals either avoid selling or learn to “sell” from observation – often getting it totally wrong.

The key issue is how to deal with these two challenges.

Image problems

For starters, the image of salespeople as being opportunists or in some way unethical, even being charlatans who use high-pressure techniques and make any claim, simply to get a sale, refers to only a very few salespeople. As a comparison, not all lawyers are unethical professionals, even though some have been accused of simply chasing money or of less-than-professional behaviour.

The reputation of a few lawyers who have crossed the line refers to just a minority of evidently less-than-professional lawyers, not the entire profession. The same could be said for the medical profession. There have been instances when doctors have been charged with malpractice.

That doesn’t mean that the entire medical profession is unethical. Similarly, when a bridge collapses or a building wall falls over, one doesn’t blame the entire profession of engineering. On the contrary, the vast majority of doctors, lawyers, engineers and other professionals are hard-working, diligent, caring and capable professionals. And the same applies to salespeople. The few that have given the profession a bad name, are just that – a very few.

With regards to learning how to sell, there are a number of reputable organisations which provide sales training. Some have taken their processes to a higher level. Barrett Consulting, for example, has a sales development programme that is offered through Swinburne University of Technology as a VET-accredited sales program providing a Certificate IV in Business Sales. That course covers all of the essential elements of professional selling.

Professional services selling, on the other hand, is somewhat unique in several key ways.

1. Professional services are generally purchased based more on the personal and professional reputation of the individual partners in a practice, than the services provided by the practice as a whole. Why? Simply because most professions are regulated and as such, the services provided are controlled by law and by the profession’s own statutes and standards authorities. This restricted focus for professionals tends to temper the differences between professional service providers.

2. Most professionals are in a situation where they are expert advisers – often mixing their business development activities with advice that is also governed by statutes and regulations. As such, professionals need to be more sensitive to the accuracy of their claims and sales arguments. And while this may seem an inhibitor, in reality it is an advantage that makes the professional that much more credible.

3. And finally, professionals have to balance the way they generate business without being seen to be too aggressive in promoting the services of their firm or themselves.

askThere are a variety of skills and knowledge that professional services business development managers require, but there are only five guiding principles that underpin all of them …

  • Recognise that professionals can never be passionate about selling until they start searching for clients who they can be passionate about serving. Remember, too, that a great client is one for whom a professional would be prepared to work for free of charge, but who would never ask the professional to do so.
  • The best way to get new clients is to impress old ones. Measure the happiness of existing clients with the same kind of diligence used to measure time. That way professionals will focus on what makes a satisfied client, rather than simply a high-billing one.
  • When meeting a potential client, don’t sell competence – sell compassion. Clients can get competence from any professional. Compassion, however, makes one professional unique and different from another.
  • The single best way to get new clients is to ask current clients how to get more clients like them.
  • The best thing a professional service provider can promise a prospective client is more sleep. Ask what problems keep clients awake at night and build the practice around solving them.

Remember, everybody lives by selling something.


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