The Consultant’s Conundrum

Every consultant faces The Consultant’s Conundrum: you get paid for your thinking and advice, but you should listen more than talk early in the sales process. Learn the 4 tools to overcome The Consultant’s Conundrum in order to be better at selling the right way.


Full Episode Transcription:

Hello, and welcome once again to the Liston.io Show. I am your not quite fearless, but almost fearless host, Liston Witherill. I wanted to say, hi. Thanks for coming here. Thank you so much for listening. Once again, I am so amazed, flattered, just in debt to you for being here. Thank you so much for being here once again. Today, I have a great show for you. I am going to be talking about something that you may not have thought about, but I call it the consultant’s conundrum. It’s about a problem that you and I, every other person selling their services faces in selling their service versus delivering it and why you’re such an expert in the first place.

Before I get to that, I do want to let you know about something that I have going on right now. That’s called, “The consulting power up Facebook group.” It’s private. I’m going to be putting things in there that I wouldn’t post on LinkedIn. There’s going to be a lot of free content, a lot of video content, a lot of discussion, a lot of Q&A. If you go in there and ask me a question, you may hear me answer it right here on the podcast. I’d love to see you there. All you have to do is type in, “Consulting power up in Facebook.” You’ll find that private Facebook group. Of course, just send a request in, and I would be happy to add you. Once again, the name of that group is, “Consulting power up.”

So today, I want to talk to you about attention. A really, really big and difficult tension to maneuver. It’s almost as if you’re walking on this tight rope, and each step you take imperils the next. Now, as a consultant, one of the things that you get paid for, one of the things that makes you so great at your job, one of the things that has driven you to do this in the first place is that you have a lot of knowledge. You have expertise, and not only that I would argue, that you really get paid the big bucks when you know how to apply that expertise.

It’s not enough to simply have the knowledge, it’s about the application of it. It’s about communicating how to apply that knowledge. It’s about strategically advancing that knowledge in such a way that it could improve your client’s conditions. So, you have to offer advice. You have to be bold. You have to be forthright about your opinions, and about why you think things should be done in a certain way, and maybe differently, and maybe drastically differently. You have to do all of that embedded in your opinions, embedded in your advice are solutions to these problems that your clients are facing.

Whatever the problem is that they have today, there must be some way to at least improve it. The reason that they’re talking to you in the first place is you might know how to do that. You have solutions to offer. This is why you were so good at your job. You like to solve problems. You like to offer your advice. You like to offer your opinion. You’re good at it. You’re probably not just good at it, you’re damn good at it. That is a reason why you have a business as a consultant.

I got some bad news for you and you knew it was coming. This of course is not the right approach to selling, sort of, with a slight caveat. I’m going to get to that in a second. Here is the consultant’s conundrum in the sale. The consultant’s conundrum is as a consultant, you get paid for what you know, and you get paid for applying what you know in an effective way that improves your client’s condition.

In a sale, the key challenge of a sale is to learn information is power as they say. Not that this is a power struggle when you’re in a sale, but having information to understand if you can help your client and having information to advance them to making an informed decision about whether or not to work with you is key. Here’s the rub, you cannot gather information if you’re exclusively talking. As consultants, we get paid to write reports, to host meetings, to give presentations, to write strategy documents, and draft roadmaps, come up with change management plans and all kinds of other things. It’s us asserting our opinion and leading a conversation.

What I would contend is the consultant’s conundrum in the sale is that in this case, leadership of the conversation should be based more around listening than telling. So, let’s talk about why that is. Now, in episode four of this podcast, you may want to go back to it and listen where I talked about why asking questions and discovery is so powerful. It’s related to this conundrum, the consultant’s conundrum in that asking questions provides leadership and structure to a conversation, but it also solicits your client to speak and tell you more about their current situation.

There’s this myth going around in consulting circles that selling is about talking and persuading, and manipulating, and getting people to do things that they’re really not interested in doing. To that I say, “Nope, that’s not right.” Selling is more about listening than talking. The reason is if we can adequately, maybe not adequately, but fully understand our client’s situation, when we talk, our words will be more impactful.

We can customize our message, our product line, our services, all of the things that we need to say in order for our client to understand how we can specifically solve their problems and how we can help them. In order to tailor that information, we need to understand as much as possible about our potential client. This culminates in only one conclusion. Having information is the only way you can lead a potential client to making an informed decision. That is to say, you can’t discover unless you listen effectively. You can’t discover without empathy. Of course, you can’t be empathetic without understanding, and you can’t understand without listening.

Do you see a pattern here? That in a nutshell is the consultant’s conundrum. I challenge you to start thinking differently about how you approach the sale. I’m going to talk to you about that in a second. First, I’d love to give a shou out to my good friend, Simon Thompson. Simon has a podcast called, “The Growth Lever.” Every week, he discusses actionable tactics and strategies that B2B marketers can use to grow their businesses. So, if you are a digital designer, developer, or marketer, then this is a show for you. I recommend it. I really like Simon. He and I are friends. We’ve worked together for a few months in a few different capacities. Go check that out, The Growth Lever with Simon Thompson.

Back to the consultant’s conundrum, I’m going to give you some strategies for overcoming it, but I do want to say one more thing. Remember my whole thing, my motto, that thing I keep repeating to you, “Serve don’t sell.” Remember that? Part of serving is listening, and part of serving is talking and advising, which is the whole tension that surfaces the consultant’s conundrum in the first place. You may be wondering, “Okay Liston, I don’t understand what the hell you’re telling me.” Don’t worry, I’m going to straighten it out.

Just bear with me here. Let’s think about in the sales process when you’re trying to land a new client, acknowledge this, part of serving is listening, part of serving is talking and advising. We need to listen in order to give the right advice when we do talk. Any sale is divided into its constituent parts. We may call those, “stages.” Those constituent parts comprise a process, i.e. your entire sales process. The things you do and the order that you do them in in order to help your potential client, make an informed decision about whether or not they want to work with you.

Okay, so you have these parts, those parts make up a process. What’s the point? In the early part of the process, which I call “discovery,” and when I say discovery, what I mean is the totality of the information gathering phase. During that process in discovery, when you’re also qualifying, you’ll be demonstrating your expertise even though you’re listening the majority of the time. How do you do that? Simply by asking good, thoughtful, insightful questions that help your client start to think about their situation in a new or different way.

In other words, even though you won’t be talking very much during this time, you can still completely and totally demonstrate your expertise, and your style of consulting simply by asking good questions. During the time of discovery, this is really where I think the consultant’s conundrum is really the biggest deal, because the problem with talking too much in the sale comes only if you do it before you’ve listened for a good amount of time.

In the early part, I call this the 80/20 rule of the sale. I don’t mean the Pareto Principle. What I do mean is in discovery, I would suggest that you listen approximately 80% of the time. What that means is in a 60-minute call, you may only be talking for 12 minutes, or in a 30-minute call, you may only be talking for 6 minutes. I know that sounds fairly ridiculous. However, you’re going to learn so much more if you try to talk less.

Now, in episode four, I did talk about research done by Gong.io about the percentage of talking versus listening for high-performing sales people. What I would contend is in the early part of the sale, you’re going to be listening a lot more and in the later parts of the sale, you’ll probably be talking a lot more. So, for instance, in the offer stage in particular where you’re going over what it is you can do for your client, and how that all works, and answer any questions that they have, you’re going to be doing a lot more of the talking. We don’t want it to ultimately get necessarily to 50/50, but if you’re listening 80% of the time during discovery, and you’re talking 70% of the time during the offer phase where you’re going over exactly how you can help, it’s going to even out not quite to 50/50, but it’s going to approach that.

The first tool that I would suggest for you to meet this consultant’s conundrum, not talk too much, but really have rich conversation that’s full of information, data, and color and detail about your client’s current situation, I want you to talk only 20% of the time and listen 80% of the time. Now, there’s two skills that I want you to think about. Obviously, if you’re going to be listening so much of the time, you should have a plan and structure for the types of questions that you will ask. You should also let your client know, “Hey, nothing weird.”

It may seem like I’m not talking much. Now probably, I do want to lay your concerns. People really do like talking about themselves. For instance, I’m sitting in a room alone with my dog right now talking to you, and I quite enjoy it. Same thing goes when you’re on a sales call. You are going to be asking questions and your potential client probably won’t have a hard time filling the majority of that call.

In order for that to be useful, you’re going to ask questions and talk only 20% of the time, listen 80% of the time, but you better make sure those questions are impactful. The first tool I’d give you is the 80/20 of the early stage of the sale. So, listen 80%, talk 20%. The second tool I want to give you is to ask powerful thoughtful questions that give you the most fundamental baseline information that you need in order to understand, can you help your potential client improve their situation?

The next thing I want you to do, this is tool number three, and that is to practice active listening. What I mean by active listening is just really being fully present, not checking Facebook, not checking LinkedIn. Yes, I also want you to close your inbox, don’t look at your email, turn off your notifications. If you’re on a Mac, there’s a wonderful feature that allows you to put your computer on “Do not disturb.” Don’t look at your phone. Have that on do not disturb also. Give your undivided attention to your client throughout the call.

For me, it really helps to take notes. In a 30-minute call, I can generate a couple hundred words of notes often more than a full page of notes. I’ll leave that to you. However, it’s helpful to you to really document and remember the conversation. I’ve heard some people say that they can’t take notes during the call, because they find it too distracting. For me, it’s actually quite helpful, because it allows me to capture everything that I need to know about, and it allows me to capture and commemorate a level of detail that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to create during the call.

I find that really helpful, because I can always go back after I write something down, and they stop talking. I can go back and reference what they said. Really, one of the things that people talk about in an active listening is when someone says something, this is called reflective listening, or mirroring by some people. There isn’t a lot of agreement on all of these terms, but one technique you can use is after someone says something you can paraphrase back.

What I understand you’re saying is blank. If they agree, you know that there is mutual agreement on what’s been said, and that you are understanding the conversation correctly, and understanding what they’re saying and where they’re coming from. Now, this is an important point in communication. It’s not enough to simply talk, or to simply listen. There needs to be a feedback component of the communication so that both parties fully understand each other. When someone talks to you, you may interpret their words in a way that they don’t intend to convey. That is why this idea of reflective listening or active listening, or just let’s throw out all the damn jargon, okay? It’s just me and you here right now. Let’s throw it all out.

That’s why this idea of just repeating back what you heard, or paraphrasing what you heard, and asking your client, “Did I get that right? Did I understand that correctly?” If you ask that question, it’s going to make a major difference and help you once again overcome the consultant’s conundrum. Here’s the last tool, tool number four that I want to give you. So, the first tool is the 80/20 of the early sale, not the Pareto Principle. The second tool is asking well thought out probing questions. The third tool is to practice active listening.

Very closely related to that third tool is the fourth tool, which is the follow-up question. This turns out to be one of your most important instruments in your sales toolkit. As much as I love all my tech tools, and trust me when I say, I do love and completely geek out on tech tools, by far something that’s much more important than any tech tool that I could possibly buy, use, or master by far what’s more important than that is to ask good follow-up questions.

Here is a great follow-up question. I’ll give this one to you for free right now since you’re listening, and you’re kind enough to be hanging out with me right now, and that is, “Can you tell me more about that?” Remember, tool number three is to practice active listening. Essentially, what that means is just pay full attention, be mindful, don’t be distracted. Be in the moment with the other person you’re talking to. When you do that, what you’re going to see or I should say more accurately, hear, I like to do Zoom calls. Zoom is a video platform.

What you’re going to hear when you do your calls are little moments where your client gives you a partial insight into their world that you would be remiss to not learn more about. I’ll give you an example, I had a call today with someone who told me that the owner of her company has historically done all of the business development. In passing, she said, “So you know, there’s nothing that we’re doing that’s proactive right now.” Then she moved onto the next topic.

After she finished talking, I didn’t interrupt her in that moment, but after she finished talking, I said, “Thank you for that answer. It sounds like you have a lot going on. I do want to go back to something you said a second ago, which is that you’re reactive rather than proactive. Can you tell me more about that? Understanding what our clients mean when they say these things is absolutely crucial. Can you tell me more about that is a wonderful follow-up question.

Another thing you can do is just repeat the last few words when they end a sentence. For instance, if someone said to me, and that’s why we need more sales. I could just say, more sales, and then remain silent. When you do that, there’s unwritten and probably completely subconscious thing happening where people feel compelled to just tell you more about whatever they just said. I don’t know why it works, but somehow we’re all programmed to do that. I’m not exactly sure.

Those are the four tools. You now know all about the consultant’s conundrum. If you’ve had a hard time listening during the selling process, hopefully I’ve elucidated or at least uncovered part of why that is. I think it’s totally natural and in inseparable part of being a consultant someone who gets paid to offer their advice. Once again, your four tools are the 80/20 of the early sale asking great probing questions, practicing active listening, and then asking follow-up questions. That is the show today.

Once again, if you are interested in getting some longer form video content from me, totally free of charge. I do welcome you to meet me over in the Facebook group, “Consulting power up.” Until I see you there, or until the next podcast. Thank you so much for listening. My name is Liston Witherill. I hope you have a fantastic day. Bye.