Ep002: Serve, Don’t Sell

The key to selling your consulting expertise is to serve, not sell. I know it sounds weird, but it’ll unlock better relationships, more clients, and whole lot better feeling about every sales step you take.


Full Episode Transcription:

Hello, and welcome to Episode Two of The Liston.io Show, where I teach consultants how to sell their expertise with confidence, and I want to help you build a better consulting business.

I know that can mean a lot of things, and I’m going to get into the underpinning of everything that’s on my mind in a second here. But I do want to point out something.

If you want access to a 60-day sales plan, if you want to get right down into the nuts and bolts, the action, just the good stuff, you can head over to 60daysalesplan.com. It’s a prerecorded seminar you can watch at any time. If you go in now, it’ll start either in the next 15 minutes, or some time later today, but do check that out.

If you want some tactical advice, I do give you a preview of how we could work together. You don’t ever have to do that. Of course, my podcasts are free, the seminar is free. I have lots of free stuff, and the seminar is no different. So, in 60daysalesplan.com, you can go get an actionable plan that’ll put your sales back on track, in your consulting business.

Alright, so I’m really excited about today’s episode. I know this is the only time you’ve been with me on The Liston.io Show. If you know me from somewhere else, thank you so much for joining me here. I do want to really cover something that’s essential to the way I think, and the way I approach all of my advice for building your consulting business, in particular, the sales aspect.

I will, on some later episodes, talk about the thought leadership stuff I’m doing, how to build a personal brand, how to use LinkedIn effectively. I mean, the list just goes on and on and on. I could talk to you pretty much forever, but I’ll spare you that.

In today’s episode, what I want to cover is the underpinning of everything I think about, and that is this single phrase, it’s three words, and that is: serve, don’t sell. Once again that phrase is: serve, don’t sell.

Now, what I do mean by that? Well let’s start from the very top. Why do I focus on selling for consultants? Number one, it’s right next to the revenue, so as a consultant, you don’t get to continue your work, let alone expand it or really thrive in your work, if you are not able to sell. And so, there’s this real hindrance and challenge to your business model, if you’re not able to sell.

Obviously, right? Because you’re not getting clients in the door. You can’t do the work. You can’t develop new products and services. You can’t get better at what it is that you do, because you lack practice.

Really, you need to sell your services, and when I looked around in the marketplace, I have studied sales for a long time, and I’m a pretty avid reader. I wish I was a little bit faster, but hopefully I’ll be taking some sort of speed reading course in the near future. It’s at the top of the list. But when I look around in the marketplace, what I notice is that sales is not taught very effectively, when it comes to selling consulting sales.

What I’ve seen is really some fantastic books. So a few that I would recommend include Spin Selling, New Sales: Simplified. One of my favorite books in consulting is called Getting Naked, by Patrick Lencioni. It’s a fantastic book. It’s not specifically on selling, but it’s probably the closest thing to what I would want to teach someone about consulting sales.

But there’s nothing specifically on this topic for consulting sales, and I started to wonder why that is. I’m going to get to that in a second, but going back to the fact that you’ve spent a long time developing your expertise. You’ve spent a long time getting really, really exceptionally good at what it is that you do, and delivering that to clients, whose situations you can improve, through the delivery of your expertise.

Now this is amazing, right? You’re in business in order to help other people grow their business, be better at something, end some awful pain that they’re having. There’s something that you’re doing to go out and improve the lives of your clients. And so, in my opinion, you have an obligation to do that. And you have an obligation to do as much of that as possible.

Of course, you’re just a person, and so, there are limits to how much you can do, and how many people you can serve. But I do believe that you have an obligation to serve others, and in fact, I believe that part of the meaning of life for us as human beings is really participating in our community, serving others, helping others. That’s really where our own personal fulfillment largely draws from.

Now the problem, of course, is you can’t fulfill your obligation without being effective at selling. Because you need to pay your rent or your mortgage, or pay for all the fun things that you like to do: your car, your pets. For me it’s my dog and my cat, and my wife. We all have obligations, and we all need to bring money into our businesses, and the linchpin, the thing that allows us to bring in more of it, is effective selling, of course.

And yet, there is this huge gap. No one is teaching you how to sell your services effectively, whatever it is that you do. Whether you’re in IT or cybersecurity or you’re selling marketing services, or really, whatever it is. Part of your education more than likely was not how to sell, and yet, it turns out to be one of the most critical things in your business.

The way that I look at a consulting business’s revenue is pretty simple. So, on the one hand, you have leads. That’s your marketing, right? The number of people who are interested in what it is that you’re doing, and they potentially pay you some money. You multiply that by your sales, or the conversion percentage. So if you had 100 leads, how many of them convert? Let’s say 5%, right? So you have five clients, and then you multiply that by your average client value.

Just for round numbers, let’s say your average client value is $20,000. That’s your service delivery piece of your business. So in this model, you have 100 leads. Five of them become clients. You charge them each $20,000, you made $100,000 at the end of the year. Right? Well, one metric that you can pull on, obviously, is your effectiveness in the sales process, and I believe the way to be the most effective in your sales process is to serve as many people as possible, and serve, rather than sell.

Now I know that’s counterintuitive. Here I’m purporting to give you sales advice, and I’m telling you not to sell. I’m aware of the irony. You don’t have to point it out to me. But please do e-mail me if you want. I am aware of the irony, but the fact of the matter is, the way you sell as a consultant is decidedly different than the way people are teaching you to sell in general.

Going to get to that in one quick second, but before I do, I want to tell you about my friend, Dylan Hey, and the Social Media Growth Show. Now Dylan and I are good friends, and full disclosure, we’ve never met in person. We’re “Internet friends.” I should trademark that, I guess, but Dylan runs a show called The Social Media Growth Show. It’s another podcast and it’s a weekly podcast for business owners and entrepreneurs, who are looking to grow through social media as one of their channels.

Now, The Social Media Growth Show, it’s dedicated to sharing the latest tips, tricks and insider knowledge about how to grow your business and brand, using social media. If you don’t know this about me, I’m very very active on LinkedIn. I produce a lot of video content on LinkedIn. LinkedIn has been absolutely instrumental to my business.

I’m sure I’ll be covering it a fair amount, here on this podcast, but I do recommend that you go check out Dylan’s show, if you just go to Google, and type in The Social Media Growth Show, or go to your podcast app of choice. Look up Social Media Growth Show. It’s a black cover, and you’ll see Dylan here, and his name, Dylan Hey, of HeyDigital. So go check that out.

Now picking up where we left off, I told you that you really need to be able to sell effectively, in order to have the maximum control and leverage over your consulting business. But of course, we want to do that in a way that feels good, and we want to do that in a way that serves our clients’ interest first, right? That’s why I want you to just embed this mantra in your head: serve, don’t sell. It’s like, you’re going to have a little Liston in your ear always saying, “Serve, don’t sell.” Right?

I want you to internalize that, and the reason is, the problem with classic selling techniques is that they’re product driven. They’re about selling a thing, and often, a lot of the selling techniques that are extremely popular, were created years and years and years ago, maybe in the ’40s or ’50s, maybe even later than that. However, the current landscape and the way people buy things, and consume information, and make buying decisions, is completely different.

Not only that, you’re not selling a product. You’re selling a service, so what’s the difference there? Well, when people buy a product, they don’t have to talk to someone after they get that product, in most cases. They can just go use it. I have two Dyson vacuum cleaners. They were very expensive, but I don’t need to talk to anybody from Dyson after I buy the vacuum cleaner, right? They largely sell through marketing, but you can imagine a day when someone was selling vacuum cleaners, and I couldn’t be reached through marketing, and so, there was a door to door salesman convincing me to buy a vacuum cleaner.

If I did buy that vacuum cleaner, I would never see that salesperson again, more than likely. So that’s number one. You are not selling a product. People do have to interact with you in the long run, and what you’re selling, especially if you’re solo, or if you have a model where the seller is also the person responsible for fulfillment, what you’re selling is essentially yourself. You are going to be the person, not only in the sales situation, but also in the delivery part of it. You know, that average client value part of the equation.

Now, because of that, the impression that you make in the sales process will greatly affect that person’s impression, your potential client’s impression of you. That impression turns out to be paramount. I’ll give you an example of the alternative.

So when I bought a product called HubSpot, which is a marketing automation tool, I was sold. I had what was called an account executive, or representative. I forgot exactly what they were called at HubSpot, but typically, they’re account executives, and this guy seemed really nice, but he was an awful salesperson. I mean, just awful, and it was cringeworthy to sit through a lot of that process. But I knew I already wanted the software.

So the things that he said to me didn’t matter so much, because I knew I wanted the software, and he was a means to an end. I knew that I had to listen to a little bit of his song and dance, so that he could collect his commission, and I could get access to the software.

That’s not the case for your consulting services, and in fact, even if you’re not the person ultimately delivering the service, even if you have a team that does that for you, what’s going to happen is that negative reflection on you will start to bleed over into the perception of the service that will be delivered at a later time.

That turns out to be a really, really, really big deal. That’s again why I’m adamant that what you should do is serve, don’t sell.

I also want to talk about time horizon. In most consulting businesses, unless you have a very inexpensive, short project-oriented service, in most consulting businesses, we thrive on having repeat business or longer-term projects, and often, in a lot of businesses, their model is two or three clients that are multiple six figures for the whole year.

What does this mean? This means I am not playing a short-term finite game. This means I’m playing a long game with no end. If I intend to be a consultant forever, the only implication that makes sense is that I need to be playing that long-term game, knowing that even if someone doesn’t buy for me, they might buy from me in the future. They might be a referral source for me.

Whether or not they buy from me, to me … now, this is Liston speaking to you, it’s not extremely relevant, because there’s all kinds of other ways that I can serve that person and we can help each other in the long run. Even if it’s not directly tied to revenue.

Now somewhat counterintuitively, if I approach things this way, and I’m telling people that we’re not a fit to work together. Or if I’m telling people that I want to refer them to someone that I know. Or I’m making an introduction, or whatever it is that I’m doing that seems from the outside looking in … when you think of sales, you think of, “How can I twist someone’s arm into submission?”

But that’s not what we’re talking about. What we’re talking about is the behaviors that may lead to a transaction. And those behaviors really come down to service. So in consulting, the only way to look at it, in my opinion, is that longer time horizon. It’s the long run. So product sales tend to be a little bit more transactional. Whereby I go to you, I make you an offer, you take it or not. If you do, great. I move on.

Product sales are transactional. Consulting sales are relational. Because this is such a relationship-driven business, it becomes very very essential to do the things that will create and extend those relationships. Creating high pressure sales situations is just not one of those things. It’s not going to help.

What we need to do instead is understand the person that we’re talking to, our potential client. Therefore, if we can’t understand them, we have a chance to serve them, and if we understand and we serve them … again, somewhat counterintuitively, we now have a chance to actually work with them. This is why I’m so adamant. Serve, don’t sell.

So serve your client’s interest from the very beginning of the relationship, like you would in a real relationship? Do that. That’s what I want you to do. Serve their interest from the very beginning. So now, we may be getting to the point where you’re wondering, what are some ways that you can serve?

Well, number one is, just play the long game. I want you to do what’s in your client’s best interest. That can mean lots of different things, but it all comes down to, are you putting your client’s interests ahead of your own? Which, you may be saying, “Well, wait a minute, Liston. I need to eat. I need to make sure that I have enough contracts in a year.”

To that I would reply, “I agree. So do I.” But maybe the key challenge is that you also need to be having more conservations. You need to approach each conversation with the idea that you know there is more business to be had than you can ever service on your own. Even Amazon has not captured the entire market. I promise you that you haven’t, either, so do what’s in your client’s best interest, even if it means you will not make a sale today.

So here are a couple examples of things that would qualify as serving your client’s best interest, and I’m going to give you one that surprises you.

Number one is just, refer them somewhere else, if appropriate. Maybe you’ve been in this situation. You’re on the phone with a potential client. You found a call or two or three or five, whatever it is, and you start to see, this probably isn’t going to be a fit.

There’s something off. Either they’re not your perfect client type, or you’re not really sure if they’re going to get the results, or maybe they’re not quite ready to work with you yet, because they need to have other things in place, before they’re ready for that. Prerequisites, let’s call them.

In this case, and I know it’s hard at first, but in this case, the right thing to do is refer them somewhere else, if you know of an option that would be more helpful to them, than you can be. That would be such a great example of serving first, of serving and not selling, is refer them somewhere else.

I like to have referral partners, so for instance, I do sales training and coaching for consultants. Well, what is a problem some people may come to me with, that I could solve, but it’s not really core to my business? Well, the obvious one is before the sale, and that is lead generation. So, marketing, and I have people that I can refer my clients to, if they think they have a marketing problem. Or I’d say, more accurately, if they do have a marketing problem. I’ll get to that in a second, because one of the ways to serve is to pinpoint the problem.

Associated with people who want sales consulting services, maybe, say, operations consulting. Or help in hiring. There are lots of different service providers that work with my clients, or people who could be my clients, who solve problems that I don’t solve, and those are the types of referral partners that I want. So that would be number one, is just refer them somewhere else if they have a problem that isn’t something you solve today.

The opposite of serving, in this scenario, would be trying to convince someone that they should pay you money, even if you know in your heart of hearts, if you’re honest with yourself, that they’d be better off focusing on something else now. What I want you to do is refer them to the appropriate provider.

Related to that, let’s take the opposite path. If our goal is to serve and not sell, there may be times when the best way we can serve is to tell people, based on the problems you’re having, “I think I can help you.” “I think you should pursue this project.” “I think we should work together, because I see all of these opportunities for you to improve your situation.”

That also qualifies as service, right, if we really take into account our client’s best interest, and maybe we need the confidence to be able to say this. But if we really take into account their best interest, we should say, “I can help you, and here’s why.” I want you to be able to substantiate that when you do say it, but that is another way that you can serve.

Another big area of service is helping to pinpoint and clarify the problem that your client is having. So when someone comes to you, they’re frustrated, they’ve tried some things, they want to improve their situation in some way. Ultimately, they want to buy a better future. They want to buy a better version of who they are, and what’s going on today. They want tomorrow to be better than that.

Well, in order to make tomorrow better, we all have to live in reality, and identify what are the things that, if changed, are most likely to create the results that you want? The results that are likely to put you into that better future. And so, as a consultant, part of your job is to add clarity, to elucidate, to illuminate, for your clients what’s going on right now in their situation.

That may mean letting them know that, “You think you have an IT problem, but really, it’s not an IT problem, it’s just human error. And I have a way to tackle that, and I’ll help you do that, but maybe IT isn’t exactly it.” Right? Whatever it is, whatever you’re helping with, I want you to help them pinpoint and clarify the problem.

Another way that you can serve is to resist talking price if you’re not there yet. Now I’m going to record a whole episode on this, so I don’t want to go into it too much. But this is a question I get all the time is, “How do I talk about price, if I’m not ready to do it? I haven’t had a chance to build value. What do I do in this situation?”

I think one thing that you can definitely do, in the service of your client, and not selling, is to say: “Well, here’s a range where most of our projects fall into. I don’t know how much your project will cost yet, and in order to know, I have a few questions for you. Would you be willing to talk about that a little bit, so we can get closer to a price that works for you?”

Now when you do that, what you’re showing is leadership, and what you’re showing to your client is that you know what you’re doing, and that you understand the parameters of the project that they’re after.

Again, this is demonstration of service. So you don’t need to say over and over, “I’m here to serve you.” That’s not what you should take away from this podcast, but what you should be doing is demonstrating the service that you can offer, and that through the questions and the behaviors, you demonstrate that you are there to look out for their best interest.

And that only works … Here’s a pro tip. That only works if you actually mean it. Crazy, right? If you sincerely want to serve your client, and help them, and make them better off, they’re going to know it. I promise. They are going to understand that you are there to help them.

So just to recap, the reason I focus on selling is, I know that there’s a huge gap in the market, and no one’s really focused on helping consultants sell their services. And yet, as a consultant, you have an obligation to help, and you can’t fulfill that obligation without selling effectively.

The antidote to all of the traditional crap that you hear out there about persuasion and closing techniques? Throw that out the window and focus on this one phrase. Serve, don’t sell. Just want you to focus on that.

A few ways that you can start serving right now are to just do what’s in your client’s best interest. Refer them to the right people. Tell them you can help them if you can. Help them clarify their problems, and definitely definitely lead the sale as much as possible.

Once again, if you want some more tactical advice on selling and putting together your 60-day sales plan, just go to www.60daysalesplan.com, and I have to ask you, if you liked this episode, if you got something out of it … I would love it, absolutely love it, if you could go leave a review for me in the iTunes store. Tell a friend about this podcast only if it’s useful. My goal here is to make this incredibly useful for you.

So if I’ve done that, I’d love a little reward. That would be nice. If not, no worries, and I just want to say once again, my name is Liston, and I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.