The following is a guest post from Tom McMakin, CEO of Profitable Ideas Exchange (PIE).
Ashley looked out her office window on Broadway over at the Flatiron Building and counted the floors, calculating the approximate number of people who worked there. It was daunting. She had been a successful practice lead in a D.C.-based public relations firm and recently had spun out to set up shop in Manhattan. Suddenly the landscape of opportunity seemed overwhelming. Her old firm done good work, but where to get started in this massive market called New York? How was she going to make it rain?
The question of how to sell professional services is an enduring one whose answer is being changed by technology. It wouldn’t matter if Ashley was a lawyer, web-designer or freelance architect, his challenge would be the same. Services are sold differently than products. Whereas a laptop salesperson sells on features and attributes — think weight, size, cost, number of pixels — a professional services provider wins new business on reputation, referral and relationships.
Here are some tips from professional rainmakers:
- Shrink the pond – If you can’t be a big fish in a big pond, then make the pond smaller. Successful professional service providers define niches they can own. Good: I work with retailers on merchandising. Better: I am the city’s number one coffee shop merchandiser. On average I increase per store sale by 23%. Good: I am an immigration attorney. Better: I specialize in helping West African asylum seekers navigate immigration law.
- Harness tech — Technology has made markets broader. It is now just as likely you will have clients in Singapore or Sidney as in Flatbush or Patterson. This turbo-charged ability to access potential buyers makes it more important than ever to narrow one’s focus. If you are just a PR rep, you will be lost in an ocean of other public relations professionals. If you are the world’s foremost communications advisor to sovereign wealth funds, you can dominate the niche. Specificity attracts. Who would you rather defend you in a divorce? The best divorce attorney in Harlem or a “we do it all” legal storefront?
- Narrowcast – Technology allows us to communicate with large amounts of people because it automates repetitive tasks. That sounds like a great deal. With the click of a mouse, you can flood the zone with whitepapers, LinkedIn posts, and email offers. Indeed there are software suites that let you track such outbound pushes and then the resultant inbound “demand.” Here is the truth, however. Increasingly, customers think of such broadcast efforts as the output of spam machines. Much better is to realize that there are two-hundred individual buyers who could make all the difference in your professional services practice and then narrowcast to them.
- Know Thyself – Ashley is overwhelmed by the size of Manhattan. Instead of counting floors, she should think about where she and her firm had success in DC. Were they the pre-IPO communications specialists of choice to Northern Virginia technology firms? Her first job, now that she is in the Big Apple, is to compile a list of pre-IPO technology firms in the five boroughs. Then, vow to meet with each one over the course of a year sharing with them case studies of previous success.
- Underwrite a conversation – One the quickest ways to meet your “group of two hundred” is to underwrite a conversation between them. Let’s face it, they are more interested in their peers’ experience than they are in being pitched by you. Give them what they want – a sponsored lunch or conference call where you facilitate a best practices conversation between them. They will get to know you by your first name and appreciate the value you have given them in advance of any sort of sale.
- Stay proximate – By underwriting regular conversations between those with whom you most want to serve, you will also be hanging around the hoop. No one needs expert help until they do then they are in a hurry. This is the time to be top of mind. A firm experiences a cyber-security breach. Who do they call for communications help? Maybe the person they met three years ago at a conference, but more likely Georgia, the CEO of Crisis Communications, who sponsors the quarterly roundtable they find useful.
- Understand the buyer’s journey – Every potential client goes through the same steps in getting to know you and hiring you. They need to:
- Know your name (Awareness)
- Know what you do (Understanding)
- Feel like it is relevant to their job and business (Interest)
- Know you can do the job (Respect)
- Feel like you have your best interests at heart (Trust)
- Have the resources to hire you (Ability)
- Be ready to pull the trigger (Readiness)
The absence of any one of these elements can block you engaging with someone you can help. Make sure you go to market with a balanced approach. All billboards (Awareness) and no case studies (Respect) will keep you from connecting with potential clients.
We buy services from people we know, respect and trust or who are recommended by someone we know, respect or trust. Don’t be defeated by the enormity of a potential market. Pick your niche and farm it diligently. In time you will reap the harvest.
Tom McMakin is CEO of Profitable Ideas Exchange (PIE), a leading provider of business development services for consulting and professional services firms. PIE builds communities one person at a time, helping senior executives understand, connect, and collaborate. Since 2001, successful leaders have used PIE to tackle the world’s important challenges. He has appeared on the pages of Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Newsweek, Business Week and The Wall Street Journal and speaks widely. He is a graduate of Oberlin College and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon. Tom is also a two-time author, including How Clients Buy: A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services (2018) and Bread and Butter, a critically-acclaimed book that describes his work at Great Harvest and how he and his team created a nationally recognized corporate learning community and culture of best practices using collaborative networks.