Ep054: Demonstrating Sales Leadership to Your Client

Demonstrating sales leadership is a critical skill to master.

Leadership can be interpreted in many different ways, but its true meaning is defined through thoughtful action. When it comes to demonstrating leadership to your clients, it’s important to really listen to them (regardless if they’re wrong) and bring empathy, along with strategy, to the sales process.

Yes: leadership starts from the moment you begin selling! As a service provider, your clients are watching your every move to understand what it might be like to work with you. Show leadership early and often in the process.

In this episode, I’m sharing:

  1. What leadership is, and what it isn’t
  2. Why you shouldn’t be afraid to say “no”
  3. How to ask questions with purpose
  4. How to maintain a strategic business perspective

So, what is leadership? It may be easier to tell you what leadership is not: leading through fear or power. As captain of the ship, you believe in the process, and can confidently guide the client with you. Let them know that you know what you’re doing, and what needs to be done to achieve the outcomes they want.

Leaders have boundaries and say no. The client isn’t always right. I’ll say it again: the client isn’t always right. Sometimes your process may not align with theirs, and it’s okay to say “no” sometimes. Remember: you’re the expert. Exude confidence when discussing project details with the client so they won’t have to question how you get things done or if you have what it takes to do the job.

Leaders are curious. It’s important to ask questions to fully understand what the client needs, wants, and is expecting after choosing to work with you. If you aren’t curious about the details of the project itself, how will your client know your interests are in line with theirs?

Leaders think strategically. It’s vital to maintain a strategic business perspective. Identify which problems need solving, and come up with a way to do so. Your client will want to know how you’re going to help them solve their biggest problems, so your strategy is absolutely essential to them!


Full Episode Transcription:

Hello and welcome to the Liston.io show. I am Liston and I am here to help you build a better consulting business, build a better agency, build a better professional services firm. In today’s episode, I’m going to be talking to you about demonstrating leadership in your sales process, client leadership, so that you can show how you work before you even work for them. Having leadership throughout the process, it’s really critical because it allows you to maintain control, and also steer the relationship to a better outcome. So one of the big problems that I see in selling consulting and services is that it can be really tricky because on the on hand, you need to really understand your clients, so you’ll ask a lot of questions and get to know them as much as possible. But on the other hand, you have to convince them that you know what you’re doing, that you’re a strategic thinker, and that you can lead them to better outcomes.

You see, when clients are hiring people like you, wonderfully talented experts in their field, they don’t want order takers. They want people who can bring insights and a strategic mind to bear on their projects, on their engagements. So clients need to see leadership throughout the sales process, but in the early part of the process, you need to spend a disproportionate amount of time listening rather than talking. We’ve all been told this horrible lie, which is the client knows best, right? The customer is always right. But we definitively that’s not the case. It’s certainly not the case that they’re always right, and it’s also very unlikely that you should just defer to them in any situation. Right? We’re going to want to dig into what’s going on so we know how to truly help them, and that’s going to show leadership.

So the antidote to this tricky business, which is selling consulting and services, is to show leadership throughout the sale, to show your client that you know what you’re doing, that you’re strategic, that you have their best interest in mind. You have to show them leadership all throughout, which means de facto, they’re not leading the process. You’re going to have to take the reins. Now, before I get into what leadership is, let me take a second to tell you what leadership is not, just so you don’t misconstrue anything I’m saying here. Leadership is not unbridled aggression, leadership is not domination, leadership is not inflexibility. Leadership is morality, and confidence, and courage, it’s lots of different things.

As I was sketching out what I would say to you today, I took a look at Harvard Business Review’s articles on leadership. They had two articles that I’m going to cite here. They are linked in the show notes. What they did in these articles is they went around and they asked top global leaders who are leaders in their own respective fields, what do you think are the qualities that make great leaders? What are the qualities of leadership? So this isn’t exactly sales, but I think what it does show is people who are in leadership positions, it shows what they’re thinking about what is great leadership, and it shows what they’ve learned along the way.

So in the first study, leadership was categorized into five different themes. Those themes are strong ethics and safety, self organizing, efficient learning, nurtures growth, connection and belonging. So those are the five themes in one of the studies, and in the second study, they asked what is the difference between innovative and non-innovative leaders? As a consultant, maybe we don’t want to rock the boat too much. We don’t want to be so innovative as to blow things up and start over, depending on your engagement of course, but generally, people will be a little bit reluctant and averse to that. But we do want to bring some innovation to bear on an project that we touch. I want to highlight a few of these themes.

One is manage risk. The second is to demonstrate curiosity. Innovative leaders tend to lead courageously, seize opportunities, and maintains strategic business perspective. So I’ve thrown a lot of ideas out there. I think that was nine total themes that I’ve given you so far, but what I’m going to do is boil this down to four themes, and tie those themes to concrete actions you can take in your sales process, to not only demonstrate leadership, but to actually lead effectively so your clients get the message that you’re ready to lead now in the sales process, and you’re ready to lead effectively and empathetically through the life of your engagement.

So the first theme I want to highlight is strong ethics, and lead courageously. Here’s what you can do in order to demonstrate this. Don’t be afraid to say no. No, I can’t do that. No, that’s not how we do things here. We have a different process, we don’t do it that way. I’ll explain why. I said at the top of the show it’s been said that the customer is always right, but we know that’s not true, especially in sales, and especially when it comes to running your engagements effectively. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that your client isn’t strictly hiring you because they don’t have the bandwidth to execute. They want the expertise that you bring to bear, they want the strategy that you bring to bear, they want the process that you’ve developed. All of those things, when it comes to these conflicts where clients want you to do things a certain way, all of those things require you to say no at some point. You’re the expert. Tell your client how you do things. It’s totally okay to say, you know what, we don’t do it that way. We do it this other way, and here’s why. Here’s what we’ve learned over the years.

Now, you can turn that into a moment that’s not about conflict, but it’s about educating the client on things that you know that they don’t. You have your own process that creates success. Tell your client why you do things that way. Here’s another version of not being afraid to say no. Occasionally, you’ll get clients who self-diagnose, who come to you and say this is our problem, we know that this is our problem. Will you just fix it for us? In those instances, I believe it’s incredibly important to say, “It sounds like you really have a handle on what’s going on. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions to learn more about it?” We don’t want to take what they’re telling us for granted, not because clients lie. Some do, we don’t want to work with those clients obviously. But it’s not because they lie so much as perhaps they don’t have the same perspective that we have. Perhaps we know things about what it is that we do that they don’t know. That comes with the territory. They’re not going to know everything that you know.

So when they self-diagnose and ask you to just jump right into the solution, you’re going to have to take a step back and say, we’re not there yet. I need to ask you some questions just so I can be comfortable with what the problem is and really get a handle on it. Are you open to hearing a few more questions, or to answering a few more questions? Another version of saying no that you might have to confront, is people may come to you with a really valuable high budget project that seems really interesting and sexy, and you’re all about it, but you know it’s not something you can really do for them. Maybe it’s not the right problem for you to focus on, maybe it’s not how you want to apply your bandwidth. Maybe it’s just kind of out of the realm of what you and your firm are best at. In those instances, you really do have to say no. That’s not something we can help you with, but let me tell you about the things that we can help you with.

I think this is really critical because even if it means you lose the sale, going back to the leadership theme, it does demonstrate strong ethics and that you’re willing to lead courageously. You know, a leader has to stand for something. A leader doesn’t lead strictly by fear and power. A leader believes in something. Your clients want to see that you believe in something, and that you have limits to what you’re willing to do, and say, and agree to. So in order to demonstrate strong ethics and to lead courageously, don’t be afraid to say no.

The second theme I wanted to touch on is providing goals and objectives. The way you can translate this into your sales process is to show them how it’s done. Every sales call, every meeting, every communication, it should have a clear purpose, and it’s always, always to serve the needs of both parties. That means your sales calls, that means your meetings, that means every communication has a goal and objective unto itself that serves a larger purpose, which is for both parties to be better off at the end of this engagement. So in your sales process, a lot of the things that you’re doing are serving the purpose of educating your client, showing them what’s possible, and bringing the relationship closer to a working engagement, and obviously a transaction. At every step along the way, you will be showing your client exactly what it is that needs to be done in order for all of that to happen.

One big tool that you can use to provide goals and objectives, and show them how it’s done, as I said, is to use an agenda whenever you have a meeting. I think that’s really critical. So you can put it in writing ahead of time and send it to them. You can also say it, verbally say it, when you’re on a sales call or in a meeting. My understanding is the purpose of this meeting is to cover XY and Z, and by the end of the meeting, I hope that we both A. Right? So that’s all the agenda needs to be, is to lay out specifics about what the purpose is, what you hope to accomplish, what you’ll talk about, and what will happen if this is successful.

Another thing that I cannot overemphasize is to always, always, always have a next step. Anytime you conclude any kind of communication with your client in the sales process, they should know what would need to happen next in order for the sale to continue. Sometimes, you’re going to have to ask them. What do we need to do next to keep this moving forward? But even if you ask them, you’re showing leadership because you have the end in mind. Going back to theme number one, right? You’re leading courageously. You’re showing them the objective of each stage of your sales process is to move to the next stage. This helps your client understand how your sales process works and why. Moreover, professionalizing your sales process itself is a great way to show your clients that you can lead, and the type of leadership that you can provide during your engagement with them if you’re in a delivery role.

Now, even if you’re not in a delivery role, there’s something called the halo effect, right? Your client, with one percent of the information about your company, which is their interactions with you in the sales process, they’re going to extrapolate from that and make a determination about how likely you are to lead well, or your account manager or project manager, whoever would take over for you. They’re going to extrapolate how likely your company is to lead well during the engagement. Of course, providing goals and objectives, and communicating those thoroughly is a clear sign of leadership that we all want in effective management that we all want. So that’s number two, provide goals and objectives. You’re going to show them how it’s done.

Leadership quality number three is to demonstrate curiosity. The way I would translate that is to ask great questions with a purpose. One universal theme you’ll see about leadership is communication. No one says, “I really love my boss because it’s a mystery to me what they’re thinking all the time.” No one has ever said that and no one ever will. That is always a point of frustration. One of the keys to all relationships obviously is communication, and so communicating well is a requirement. One of the ways that you can communicate well is to be curious. Just the fact that you’re curious shows you want to learn more about this person, who they are matters to you, and the types of things that you will do will vary based upon them and their situation. I mean, that’s kind of the definition of consulting, right? You’re going to put together custom plans and strategies, even though you and I both know they fall within a range of likelihoods and possibilities, and maybe 60, 70, 80, even 90% of the things you do are very similar, and you have templates and processes that you use. All of that, for sure, absolutely.

But you also need to learn as much as you can about the client. This goes back to integrity too. You can’t help them if you’re not curious and don’t understand them. So I always feel like when someone jumps straight to the solution before they learn more about me, I’m always sitting there going, “But you don’t know anything about me. How can you be so sure that you can help me when you’ve just listened to me for a total of five minutes?” And now you want to sell me a $25,000 thing. That makes no sense at to me, and in fact, it really quite boggles the mind why anybody would do that. In many cases, you’re selling things that are far more expensive than that. 50, 100, millions of dollars in engagements. So really asking great questions with a purpose will demonstrate curiosity, which demonstrates leadership.

There are two types of questions you should be asking in every sales situation. Number one, open-ended questions. Questions that the client is free to go in any direction that they want. They are not yes or no questions. Second, follow-up questions. Whenever you hear an answer to an open-ended question, you’re going to get hints and clues about follow-up questions that you could be asking, that will deepen your understanding, and of course, further demonstrate your curiosity. So ask follow-up questions. Can you tell me more about that? What did you make of that? How’s that affecting you? So that’s theme number three, demonstrate curiosity, ask great questions with a purpose.

Finally, theme number four that I would like to highlight is maintain strategic business perspective. There are lots of ways you can do that, but I would summarize it like this. Know your case studies and tell stories. So when I say know your case studies, I don’t mean regale your clients with blow-by-blow case studies that are listed on your website, or that are turned into whitepapers on your Google Drive, or Dropbox, or Box drive. Right? That’s not what I mean. What I mean is if you have an intimate understanding of your case studies, you’ll be able to tell stories about how you, or your company, identified client problems, how you developed solutions to those problems, and what sort of transformation occurred as a result. I also don’t want you to get lost in minutiae. Focus on the business problems they need solved. You’re going to be spending a lot of time understanding those problems that need to be solved, and once you do understand them, you’ll then take the time to define what solving those business problems will actually do for them. So keep your eyes on the strategic value of what it is that you do. That’s what your clients want and need the most.

If I could summarize strategy, it’s how do I decide what to do now, knowing that I essentially have infinite opportunities in front of me? So maybe it’s more about deciding what not to do. Maybe it’s more about deciding on priority. As long as you’re maintaining that strategic business perspective, and you know your case studies, you know how you’ve helped other people like this client, and rather than saying, “Let me tell you about a time,” you can extrapolate and abstract what your company has done to help people like this in the past, and explain that to your client. You’ll know how to ask the right questions to get to those strategic issues because of the success stories and success cases you’ve had in the past. I think the key there is to tell the story about the strategy. I’m not suggesting you give away your best thinking for free. What I am suggesting is that you demonstrate to your client that you’re focused on the strategy, and that you’re focused on helping them improve their business. That’s the key here. So that’s theme number four, maintain strategic business perspective, know your case studies, and always, always, always tell stories in your sales process.

That concludes another episode of the Liston.io show. I just wanted to let you know there will be some changes coming to this podcast very soon. I think you’ll be very pleased with those changes. I’m just letting you know to look for it. I’ll release a separate episode at the end of January all about how that’s going to work. Don’t sweat it, I’m not going anywhere. In fact, you could actually be hearing from me a little bit more often. But since you listened through this whole episode, I just wanted to thank you for being here. Also, if you know anybody who would benefit from hearing this episode, I’d love it if you just shared it with them. Email it to them, share it on social media, whatever is the easiest way for you to share it. I just want to help get the word out and hopefully help more people through this podcast and through these insights that I’m sharing with you. So thank you so much for being here and I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.