Archive for the 'Sales Strategy' Category

Sales skills are essential. Short video on how to become better at it.

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

According to Gary Pines, a Principal at Harding & Co., we are in the Era of Rainmaking. Effective sales skills are an essential component of an executive’s business toolkit as well as a key determinant of career advancement. Gary speaks with Life, Optimized about how you can become a better sales professional.

Gary’s interview provides specific steps for evaluating your sales pipeline, building relationships and transforming relationships into economic value. The interview also provides viewers with tips on engaging with prospective clients, prioritizing listening and learning about a client’s needs over pitching them a service, and the importance of asking for the business. Rainmaking is no longer just the province of sales professionals, and Gary’s interview reminds us that all executives can be successful at selling. Watch the interview on Life, Optimized to learn more.

Life, Optimized is brought to you by Dignitas, a multi-family office. The site is a compilation of the latest trends and issues affecting the personal lives and careers of successful executives and entrepreneurs. If you have a great idea for our next interview, let us know by signing up at

Here is the link to the interview:

Ask. Listen. Do not interrupt.

Friday, October 8th, 2010

I received this email from one of our program participants that illustrates the benefits of listening and asking questions.  Specific names have been removed to maintain confidentiality but her process and outcome are worth sharing.

Your help in prepping me for my important meeting today with our prospect from XYZ was invaluable.  It was just supposed to be a quick “coffee”, but it went much longer than that, and we had a wide-ranging discussion during which he shared some confidential information about the company and indicated a strong intent to move on with us.

After a few pleasantries, I asked him how things were going.  That question immediately got him going, with him telling me the critical things that were going on at the company and sharing with me the most important issues with which they are dealing.  I guided the discussion with a number of questions.  As the conversation progressed, I began to contribute my experiences or views on an issue, when he seemed to want it — he did enjoy the give-and-take and the harking back to our old company.  However, there were a few times when I was going to talk but shut my mouth quickly, when it became apparent that he had a lot more to say.  I also was very careful to be brief in my comments, something I’m not always good at.

I learned a lot listening to him, and also I felt that he became more and more invested in our conversation and relationship as we went along.  One piece of evidence of this is that at one point he looked at his watch and said he needed to break away.  However, he didn’t, and instead we kept going in a substantive discussion for probably another 15 minutes.

Another piece of evidence is that, early on in our discussion, he talked about getting back with us in six months.  By the end of our meeting, he had changed that to two months. Mentioning that we should be involved upfront in helping them develop their strategy.

This approach to the meeting definitely helped ensure a successful outcome.  I learned a lot about the company and their issues; we built our relationship in this new form (client-consultant vs. co-workers); and we have a next step.  I was not as nervous about the meeting as I might have otherwise been, because I really felt prepared. 

Winning approach: Ask questions. Listen. Do not interrupt. Engage them in a conversation. Allow them to think through their issue. If you want to read about how to change, you can read chapters 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18 in Ford Harding’s Rain Making – 2nd Edition book.

Want stronger word of mouth and customers who are less price-sensitive? Survey findings reveal how.

Saturday, October 2nd, 2010

Work is flowing. Clients are active. Demand for services is getting everyone back on track and optimistic about the future. This optimism is reflected in replenished marketing budgets for 2011, but not without a catch. Firm leaders want dollars spent on marketing to be accountable with measurable results. While this seems like an obvious request for product sales managers who can track things like brand advocacy, repeat sales, and price sensitivity, professionals continue to struggle with how to align their marketing spend with results.

I was intrigued to read a recent article published by FORBES/Insights in association with George P. Johnson agency, titled, “The New Rules of Engagement – CMO’s Rethink Their Marketing Mix”.  This 11-page article is an easy read survey summary compiled from more than 300 marketing leaders from companies with annual revenues of more than $500 million. At first glance a professional may opt out of relevance for their own firms based on these hefty criteria, but the surveyed CMO’s challenges while greater in scale are similar to those faced by even the sole practitioner.

The findings of the survey show an increased concentration on connecting more deeply with customers through “engagement”. For their study, engagement is defined as the interactions, experiences and context that create and nurture enduring, profitable customer relationships. See the relevance to all of us? The following quotes from the FORBES/Insight article made me reflect on how professionals approach marketing:

1. “25% (of the big guys surveyed) have no specific strategy related to customer engagement.” - Surprisingly high for their size, but this finding doesn’t make me feel so bad that professional service firms follow. While this is a critical strategy for professionals, the approach is often ad hoc and less thoughtful. I conclude that it should be a more substantive effort for professionals.

2. Marketing budgets don’t always align with engagement priorities – The article described how for many of the “Bigs” print and broadcast ads while lowest on the “engagement “ spectrum make up close to a quarter of their marketing budgets. This made me think about where professionals are spending their marketing budgets. Why is travel to conduct face-to-face meetings with clients and prospects discouraged without a hot lead, when firms easily spend thousands on updating their websites and brand image?

3. Experiential events topped the list with 48% rating it as having the highest engagement. – The part left me hanging – -wondering specifically what the “Bigs” equate to experiential events since the other categories covered Live Event Sponsorship, Trade Shows, Webcasts, and Social Networking Sites?????? - – readers please weigh in here and share.

 4. Using an integrated approach that reaches customers across various media may be the most engaging option.” – Confirmation that what we encourage works. More to say here, but will reserve it for a future blog post.

5. Employee engagement translates into a “delighted customer base.” – This statement gave me the longest thoughtful pause. Most of our clients have told us that their staff is really busy. They are working long hours and being pulled in multiple directions due to delivery, new initiatives, and high client demands. With all of these necessary and justifiable distractions, how are firms equipping their staff to over-deliver to clients? Readers weigh in here too if you have thoughts.

Sometimes interesting reads don’t necessarily provide new information, but make you reflect on its relevance to yourself.

Approaches for closing the deal – How to ask

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Many consultants are uncomfortable asking for the sale.  They have a fear of rejection or say it feels pushy to ask and courteous to wait.  By waiting, what they don’t realize is that they could lose the sale! 

Asking for the sale is a consultant’s right.  You have spent time and energy crafting and presenting a solution to address a client’s need.  You have also flushed out and succinctly addressed specific client concerns.  Your question to the client, “Do you have any other questions?” is answered by the client with, ‘No.”  Now is the time to ask.

You’re on, so here are some approaches for your LAST question: 

·             Needs based: “Since you have agreed that our capabilities and approach meet your needs, can we work with you on this project? 


·             Relationship based: “Since we have worked well on past projects together, are you comfortable proceeding with us for this project?


·             Fee based: “If we drop our fees 15% do we have a deal?” 


·             Assumption based (Assumes that you are starting the project) “Can we schedule the first round of leadership interviews next week?” 


·            Next Steps: “Where do we go from here? “

After you ask for the business, you must follow these two sales rules to get a successful outcome:

1. When giving concessions, each additional concession should be smaller so that the client can see the end of the negotiation is near. 


2.      After you ask for the business be quiet and listen. Do not say a single word until the client responds – even if it feels like eternity! 

Silence can be golden!

Author:  Gary Pines   (

Rainmaker Story #15: Turning an Anti-Sponsor into a Sponsor

Monday, January 18th, 2010

We have all had to deal with anti-sponsors, people in a client organization who don’t want you to get work at their companies.  Dealing with them tests a professional’s rainmaking prowess.

One rainmaker I know advises his people to “nuke’em,” by going to their bosses and pointing out that they are obstructing progress.  I have no doubt that this man does just that and does it successfully.  It’s not an approach for all professionals in all situations.

My colleague, Gary Pines, a proven rainmaker, took a different approach with an anti-sponsor, whom I will call Marie, who was blocking our chance to work at an old client.  For some reason, she took a dislike to Gary and Harding & Company.  We are not sure why, but perhaps it was because on our original assignment we were brought in by the Managing Partner of her firm, without Marie’s knowledge or approval.

Whatever the reason, she was trying every tactic she could to make sure we got no more work.  She said that the members of the committee she was working with didn’t want us, though we knew from moles on the committee that this wasn’t true.  She said that we were more suited for a small piece of work, awarding the larger share to a competitor.  Even when the competitor failed to produce results, she continued to resist hiring us.  She threw up barrier after barrier.

Gary, a cheerful, likeable, gentlemanly person, might have been able to nuke this anti-sponsor, because of his relationship with the Managing Partner and several key committee members assigned to selecting consultants.  Instead, he chose to win her over.  Over the next eight months he wore away her resistance.

He remained irrepressibly sunny and helpful to her.  He included her in most of his communications with the firm, demonstrating that he wasn’t trying to go around her.  He was helpful above and beyond what was required, in spite of her sour responses.  During one meeting with her at which she was raising objection after objection, he leveled with her, saying, “Marie, somewhere along the way we got off on the wrong foot with each other.  I don’t know why or how and I don’t care.  From today, as far as I’m concerned, we’re starting fresh.  I want to work with you, I want to help you and I want you to be a success.”

She absorbed the message without comment, but from then on things began to change.  In communications with others at the firm, Gary made a point of mentioning Marie positively, if she provided him even the remotest excuse for doing so.  He stayed in touch with her and continued to be positive, polite and helpful.  And he wore her down.  Today, she is a strong sponsor for Gary and our firm.

Turning around an anti-sponsor is one of the toughest challenges a professional can face.  It takes emotional intelligence and maturity to resist taking personal affront at someone like Marie and to do what Gary did.  It also takes a lot of hard work.  But the return on the effort can be huge.

Passing on Relationships #2: The Classic Transition

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Transferring a relationship from one professional to another is best done while the client is working with your firm, because the work, itself, provides the professional seeking to pick up the relationship plausible reasons for staying in front of the client.  There are two principal strategies.  The rainmaker can step away from a relationship with a client, while a colleague moves in or the rainmaker can maintain her relationship with the client, providing a colleague the opportunity to develop a relationship with the client’s probable successor. I will call the former The Classic Transition and describe it here and the latter The Generational Transition and deal with it at another time.

The Classic Transition

A rainmaker starts a transition in account leadership by assigning a colleague to manage all other of the firm’s professionals working for the client company.  Once the colleague knows the company’s issues and people, the rainmaker starts bringing him to meetings she has with her senior contact at the client.  She plays the role of the senior representative of the firm at the meeting, letting the colleague do most of the talking with the client.  If the client seems comfortable with the colleague, the rainmaker steps away from the account by:

  • Never going to a meeting with the senior client contact without the colleague.
  • Deferring to the colleague as much as possible and becoming increasingly quiet at meetings.
  • Advising the client that she cannot attend a meeting and recommending that the client and colleague go ahead with the meeting without her.
  • Letting the colleague schedule future meetings without her.

As the rainmaker steps away, the colleague must serve the client so well that he accepts the transition.  He must, in the words of one rainmaker, get the client to forget the rainmaker’s phone number.

Passing on Relationships #1: The Issue

Monday, December 14th, 2009

A couple of years ago, I attended a retreat for all of the new partners at a consulting and accounting firm.  The CEO packed a lot of wisdom about the ways to be a successful partner into a twenty-minute, before-dinner speech. I have been turning one bit of advice over in my mind ever since.  “Some of you know that when you started on one of my accounts, I always told you to make the client forget my phone number. And some of you did service the clients so well, that they did forget all about me.  Now it’s time to encourage the people working on your accounts to make the clients forget your phone number.”

The CEO was addressing one of the perennially difficult aspects of selling professional services and building a practice, the safe transfer of a relationship between a client and a professional to someone else within the professional’s firm.  Firms and their senior professionals need to do this for several reasons:

  • Retirement: Most obviously, you can’t take a client with you into retirement—at least not if you truly mean to retire. Helping the firm keep your client will help it earn the money it will need to buy out your share of the ownership.
  • Upgrading: You will sometimes develop an account that is not the most strategic use of your attentions.  Turning the account over to someone else allows you to move on to bigger things.
  • Specialization: Fewer people are good at developing new accounts than are good at managing and expanding existing ones.  Smart managers of professional firms do all they can to keep the “finders” finding. To have the time for it, finders have to turn over existing accounts to minders.
  • Organization Designed for Growth: Some firms build this kind of specialization into their organizational design. Partners mind accounts.  To become senior partners, they must pass on these accounts to new partners and then go out and bring in new clients.

The process is commonly referred to as “handing off of a relationship,” a description so inaccurate, it can do harm.  A relationship exists between two people and is the product of time spent together, of sharing thoughts and experiences.  I cannot give my relationship with a client to you, even if the client were willing, because you weren’t there when the client and I shared those thoughts and experiences.   The best that I can do is introduce you to the client and get out of the way while you and she share thoughts and experiences, so building your own relationship.  Because “handing off” suggests something simple that I can do for you, it may lead you to sit around and wait for something to be given to you.  It will never happen.

The words used by the CEO are much more accurate.  I can set you up to meet my client one or more times, but then it is your responsibility to service her so well that she forgets my phone number.  Rather than handing you something, it’s then my job to get out of the way, to disappear while you develop your own relationship with the person.  How strong that relationship becomes has nothing to do with me, as long as I don’t interfere.  It’s up to you and the client.

In a subsequent posting, I will provide some suggestions for doing this.

Rainmaking Problem #25: Selling a Service that May Embarrass an Entrenched Competitor.

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

I recently received a query from an old friend who is faced with a problem I have seen before.  In both cases, a firm has a service that will benefit clients tremendously by taking advantage of some relatively unknown features of the tax code.  In both cases, the firms find that prospective clients tend to vet the service with their auditors, before going ahead.   The auditors argue against hiring the firm, often on grounds counter to the facts of the tax code.  But also, they are probably embarrassed that someone outside their firms is bringing the fresh idea to their clients.  Though the firms with the new services can demonstrate that the auditors are misinformed about the objections they pose, the auditors’ resistance often kills client interest in going ahead.  Often, the auditors’ strong relationships with their clients and easy access to them weigh more than the logic of the firms trying sell over auditor resistance.

What would you recommend these firms do?

Teaching Narrow Specialists How to Address a Broad Issue, Part 2

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

Professionals who have developed skill at selling work in their areas of expertise, often find it hard to sell a broad solution to a problem that extends into areas about which they know relatively little.  Yet, rainmakers do this all of the time.  In an earlier post, I described a change in mindset needed to become an adviser on broad sets of issues.  Clearly, a change in mindset is not sufficient.  The professional must learn to conduct a discussion about a broad business issue.  Used to having command of a subject, they often say that they don’t know what to say and ask about issues where they have limited expertise.  It is a legitimate concern.

When talking with a client in their areas of specialty, professionals ask relatively narrow questions.  Borrowing from Chomskian linguistics, I will call these surface questions.  The surface questions used to learn about a client’s desire to redesign her company’s pension program differ greatly from those required to learn about her need for a new headquarters or her need to make a merger or for any other specific problem.

However, regardless of the issue, surface questions in all specialties gather information in the same categories, such as information about the nature of the client’s issue, its source, its size, its complexity, its urgency, its risks and opportunities, and so forth.  With that understanding, it is relatively easy to construct questions, which I will refer to as deep questions, that are more generic in nature and that will allow a professional to converse with the client in areas that go beyond the professional’s area of detailed knowledge.

Here is a comparison of some surface questions with some deep ones.  For the surface questions I will assume that a location consultant is interviewing a client about moving its corporate headquarters.  The deep questions, of course, can handle a much broader set of issues.  Note that these are just sample questions, not a definitive list.  Also, keep in mind that the same question can be worded many ways.  For example, Why would that be a problem for you?  is essentially the same question as I can think of several reason why that would be a problem.  Which ones stand out to you?  I have chosen brief versions of most questions to make a point.  If you don’t like the specific words shown, see if you can reword the questions to make them more palatable.

To determine the nature of the problem:

  • Surface Questions:  Why are you thinking of moving your corporate headquarters?  What kinds of talent are difficult to recruit at this location?  Why is being in a peripheral location problematic?
  • Deep Questions:  What is it that you wanted to talk about?  What seems to be the issue?

To establish cause:

  • Surface Question:  Why are you thinking of moving now?
  • Deep Question:  How did the problem arise/develop?

To establish urgency:

  • Surface Questions:  How soon does your lease expire?  If you continue to fall short in the number of researchers you recruit, how soon do you end up in competitive difficulties?
  • Deep Questions:  What kind of time pressure are you under?  Why the rush?

To establish goals:

  • Surface Question:  What do you want to accomplish from a move?
  • Deep Question:  What does success look like?

Top establish size:

  • Surface Questions:  How many people are based at the headquarters?  How do they break down by job type?  How many would you expect to move?  How many square feet do you occupy?  Do you expect space requirements to go up or down?
  • Deep Questions:  How big is this issue?  How many people does it affect?

To establish scope:

  • Surface Questions:  Is the current location under consideration or are you definitely going to move?  Would you consider a long distance or only a local move?  Are there certain other locations that must be considered?
  • Deep Questions: What are its parameters?  What areas will be affected?  How broad a set of solutions are you willing to consider?

To establish risks:

  • Surface Question:  What happens if word of the move leaks out prematurely?  What if insufficient members of the research team choose to transfer to the new location?  Are you subject to political pressures in making this choice?
  • Deep Questions:  What are the risks?   What could go wrong?

To establish opportunities:

  • Surface Questions:  If you move to a new location and your recruiting problem goes away, what difference will it make?  How would easier access to your customers help the business?
  • Deep Questions:  What are the benefits of making the change?  How much would you gain from the change.

To establish barriers:

  • Surface Questions:  Why are you considering staying put?  Why not explore alternatives directly with economic development authorities instead of working through a consultant?
  • Deep Questions: What stands in your way?  Why are you considering doing this with external resources, rather than in house?

I could go on, but suspect the point is made.  Professionals who are used to showing off expertise in the questions they ask, sometimes fear deep questions are too general and so highlight their lack of content knowledge.  But clients almost always answer deep questions without hesitation.  When they are focused on talking about their problem, information that draws attention to the professional can be a distraction, even if that information is posed as a question.

Revenue Implosion through Channel Failure

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

Many professional service firms have learned how quickly good times can turn to bad over the past year.   They are learning or relearning that developing business is something that must be done in good times, if you want to delay and minimize bad times like these.  Less often they realize that one source of their revenue implosion has been the failure of a single channel to market.  To reduce that risk in the future requires not just increased business activity, but a diversification of the channels through which business comes to them.  Now that a recovery is underway, it is a good time to do that.

Examples of channel failure include:

  • The loss of a rainmaker who provides a disproportional share of a firm’s or practice’s new business.  This is the simplest and most common source of channel failure.
  • The loss of a referral source who provides a disproportional share of the firm’s or practice’s new business.  A cost reduction consultant received all of his work from a turnaround manager.  When that person was forced into retirement, his sole source of business disappeared.
  • The failure of education programs as a channel for new business.  Several consulting firms ran seminars on specific methods for dealing with corporate problems.  After the seminars some attendees would hire them for large engagements.  At first these seminars attracted high-level participants, but after time, more and more junior people entered the mix.  When senior people stopped coming to the seminars, lead flow declined and when even the junior people stopped coming to the seminars, there were no more leads.
  • The failure of an internal referral channel.  There are many examples of this. The engineering studio of an architectural and engineering firm got all of its business from projects that originated with the firm’s architectural studios.  When architectural projects dried up, so did the engineering studios lead flow.  In later years the management of the studio developed personal relationships with client facilities managers, which gave them a second, less cyclical, direct-to-market channel.  Also, at the large accounting firms, the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act reduced leads from audit partners to forensic accountant practices specializing in litigation support to zero overnight.  The litigation support consultants, who had relied entirely on audit partners for a steady flow of new cases, had to scramble to develop new channels.

Channel failure is surprisingly common and can be devastating, all the more so, because the single channel usually looks as if it will never cease to provide new business.  It almost all cases, its failure comes as a big surprise.

The best way to avoid the problem is to have multiple channels to market.   Any professional who relies on a single channel and who doesn’t know how to go out and generate business through multiple sources exposes himself to grave career risk.  But, I don’t really expect many people to recognize and act on this knowledge.  History shows that it is all too easy to become complacent and to ignore channel risk.  You do so at your peril.