The professional services sales trap

professional services sales trap

Professional services people can be great at sales (and marketing), but we often struggle. Why is that? I think it has to do with the “professional services sales trap”, which actually sets your own expertise against you.

In the last post, I wrote about the Thielian “secret” behind what I do:

People who are great at serving clients can be great at sales and marketing– without becoming a different person.

If that’s true, why don’t you see it more often? And why, you ask, does it not seem to be true for me? (It certainly wasn’t true for me, either.)

There are many reasons, of course, but the big one for me was that I was just not comfortable with “selling”. I didn’t think I was supposed to be good at it. (And, to be fair, sales is a profession that requires skill and practice, just like anything else, so I wasn’t actually good at it.)

What do we do when we’re uncomfortable?

Unless we’re very intentional, we tend to retreat to where we’re comfortable again. This is a natural human response (heck, it even predates humans).

When I first started attending sales meetings as the “techie” who could answer the deep technical questions that the sales team couldn’t address, I was fine talking to the other techies. But when the project sponsor started asking higher level questions, I wasn’t sure how to answer. So I’d retreat into technical details, thinking that my knowledge would reassure the buyer that we knew what we were talking about. After all, that’s why I was there, right? Because of my deep technical expertise…

Is that what happened? Of course not. The buyer got frustrated and tried again to get answers to their legitimate questions. My responses didn’t help, and the buyer would sometimes get uncomfortable, too, meaning they would retreat to where they felt at home.

Instead of coming together and achieving some kind of shared understanding, I had unintentionally reduced understanding, and driven the buyer away.

I just didn’t realize it at the time. (I could tell I was doing something wrong, I just didn’t know exactly what it was.)

It’s a lot easier to understand the trap when you’re trying to buy something, and someone keeps telling you something that makes perfect sense to them, but doesn’t actually answer your question. For example:

  • Your doctor describes a surgery with a bunch of medical terms instead of using words you can understand.
  • Your lawyer invokes legal terms in Latin, instead of explaining in plain english why you need to update your will.
  • Almost anything involving software that isn’t your area of expertise. 😉

When people talk this way to us, it’s frustrating, and it doesn’t make us want to buy.

So what should you do when you’re talking to a buyer to avoid falling into this trap?

First, make sure you are “helping”, not “selling”. This focuses your mind on the prospect’s problem, rather than your solution. If this person was your friend, you’d want to make sure you understood the question, and you wouldn’t feel shy about saying, “I’m not sure I get it– what are you really trying to do?”

If in doubt, ask clarifying questions, so that you can understand the business problem (or life problem), behind the technical problem. It’s OK to say that you don’t know or don’t understand. It’s OK to try to work through the problem together. Start with their questions, their point of view, their problem, and work backwards from there, instead of retreating into your area of expertise, and you can avoid the “professional services sales trap”.

p.s. Check out a free online view of Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One, focusing on Chapter 8: Secrets.

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