When Selling is the Hardest Part of Consulting Biz

Looking back on my consultant years, I know that one reason I focused so hard on repeat business was I wasn’t good at sales. Doing the work, yes; finding new clients, no.

alignmentI was reminded of that yesterday reading Perception is not reality. Author Mike McLaughlin, co-author of Guerilla Marketing for Consultants, tells a good story that a lot of us (me for sure) will recognize.

It felt like the presentation went badly:

The audience of twenty client managers glared at me with icy indifference. I tried to appear at ease, but the voice in my head had already convinced me that my presentation was a disaster of Titanic proportions.

I certainly empathized as I read it. He continues:

On the long drive home, I mentally dissected every part of the presentation, retracing my missteps. I came up with a list of things I’d do differently next time. I would do anything, I vowed, to avoid another stinker like that one.

And then, the next day:

A call came the next day from my client. Fortunately, she couldn’t see my nervous fidgeting as I listened to her: “Our managers have evaluated your presentation. We’ve decided that we want you to come back and give that same presentation to each of our operating divisions, beginning next week.” What? My dread dissolved instantly–into utter confusion. “Of course, I’d be glad to do the presentation again,” I managed to choke out.

At that moment, I realized how little I actually knew about reading people.

His point is well taken:

You can easily misread people by observing behavior. I’ve seen some, for example, who project a false sense of confidence when they’re frightened; others express inner anxiety as eerie calmness. As with the audience during my presentation, outward behavior often belies inner feelings. As a consultant, ignore this reality at your peril.

Still, though, I don’t buy that altogether. I say it’s not as much a failure to read people as a natural result of the selling situation for what I call “the rest of us” who don’t naturally sell well. I never got the idea of sales as an exciting challenge, or a fun competition, or fooling people or somehow getting them to do what they didn’t want to do. To me it was always off-putting, like a job interview, or oral exam.

I think the mentality is related to why so many normal people look in the mirror and see themselves as fatter or thinner or in some way or another less attractive than they actually are. It’s natural. But it’s not fun.

And Mike McLaughlin goes on, in his post, to offer some pretty good advice on how to go on with the selling and go on with the business. Whether it’s a natural self consciousness, which I’m suggesting, or a failure to read people, as he says, he offers some good tips on how to get over it.

For example, ask questions. “Do you think this is taking on too much?” “Are you worried about what might go wrong?” “Does this seem to be the right scope?” “Do you feel like the deliverables are realistic enough, or comprehensive enough?” “What do you think is a workable schedule for all of this?” Ask specifics. Ask questions that invite real answers. Don’t just trust your instincts; find out for sure.

(Image: Mashe/Shutterstock)


  • Roger C. Parker says:

    Dear Tim:
    Thank you, not only for highlighting Mike McLaughlin’s perceptive writing, but also showing all of us a new way to create interesting blog posts and reviews, i.e., the idea of “blog post as annotation.”

    By intermixing quotes with commentary, you’ve stimulated a new approach to creating interesting blog posts.

    Best wishes–Roger

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