Should You Hire a Dedicated Salesperson for Your Consulting Firm?

As a consultant who leads a boutique or solo consulting firm, you’re neither trained nor all that interested in being a salesperson. You want to solve problems and work with clients. Wouldn’t it be better to just hire someone who is a professional at sales to drum up

If you run a consulting firm and you’re about as good at generating new business as you are at whipping up a Baked Alaska (i.e., it’s not your forte), hiring a salesperson may seem like a natural step to augment your business.

Ironically, if you’re running a boutique consulting firm and you are very good at signing clients, you also may be considering a full-time sales pro due to your frustration that no one else in your organization approaches your business development prowess.

In both cases, the action you’re considering won’t deliver the results you’re hoping for.

For small consulting firms, a full-time salesperson is like coffee beans in the roaster. The aroma is sublimely alluring, but the taste is undeniably bitter.

Two hurdles trip aspiring sellers of consulting services:

Clients Buy People, Not Products

In consulting, buyers conflate the solution and the people who deliver that solution.

Danny Decisionmaker wants to look in the eyes of the person responsible for developing a valuable result in return for quite a lot of cash. That’s you, not a salesperson.

Consulting Sales Requires Depth of Knowledge

Your path to becoming the obvious choice for a client is deep discovery, followed by careful tailoring of your offering to meet the client’s needs.

A full-time salesperson without ongoing delivery responsibilities won’t possess the nuanced understanding required to craft a compelling offering (that the firm can deliver).

This is why founder/owners tend to be the best salespeople for their consulting firms. They intuitively grasp their firm’s offering at a very deep level and are able to fluidly adapt to the prospect in front of them.

In addition to the two hurdles, a paradigm shift may be needed:

In the product economy, sales, manufacturing and customer service are separated silos. (You wouldn’t expect a plant manager to carry a sales quota.) However, in small consulting firms, those functions are merged. You must generate revenue, create value and service the client.

If your consulting offering becomes task-oriented, systematized, and repeatable, you resemble a product company and a dedicated salesperson is more likely to succeed. However, that shrink-wrapped product approach is not the calling card for most small consulting firms. Nor is it what clients are looking for when they consider hiring a boutique or solo consulting practice.

I have only seen one small consulting firm successfully deploy a full-time salesperson and I’ve seen every other attempt fail.

Should you hire a dedicated salesperson? If your firm is under $50 million/year, the answer is, No.

Instead, ramp up your rainmaking by improving the skills of your firm’s consultants and practice leaders. If you’re a solo consultant, there’s no substitute for burnishing your own abilities.

If you could pick one business development skill to improve at your firm, what would it be?


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Text and images are © 2017 David A. Fields, all rights reserved.

By | 2017-08-23T15:33:24+00:00 August 23rd, 2017|34 Comments

34 Comments

  1. Aaditya August 23, 2017 at 6:03 am - Reply

    Hi David,

    Loved your book. Am reading some articles that you send on email like this one.

    One suggestion – Make it easier for people to react to your articles. Writing a comment requires person to think, compose and write down. Just ask a survey kind of question at the end of the article which can be answered with a single click. e.g. For this article, You can ask 1. Don’t agree at all. We have diff sales team and we are doing fine 2. Got a new perspective of looking at things. Never thought about it this way 3. Totally Agree, Talking from experience.

    So the reader can click on one of the 3 choices. This gives the article feel vibrant – like many have read it, many have been here, have thought about it. Because when you see 0 comments or very few comments, it looks like a deserted place nobody bothers coming to. Such impressions make a big difference in deciding if the person will come to your blog the next time.

    Hope this suggestion helps. (We are growth marketing consultancy, by the way)

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 6:13 am - Reply

      Great suggestion, Aaditya. My team and I often ponder what question to include at the end to encourage thoughtful engagement. You’re right that sometimes the questions take too much thought or would require a consultant to reveal information that feels too personal. Fortunately, the community that reads my articles is great and we always get at least a few, well-considered, comments on every article.

      Your survey idea definitely merits consideration for a future article. We need to think about how to use it to drive more comments rather than supplant comments. Thanks for sharing your insights and knowledge!

    • Simon James October 4, 2017 at 9:12 am - Reply

      Sorry I disagree with Aaditya.
      Relevant (non spammy) comments add further dimensions to the conversation, enhance the page content and give a small SEO boost.
      But having a survey, in addition to comments, makes sense if you want some actionable insights into your readership.

      • David A. Fields October 4, 2017 at 9:42 am - Reply

        We’ve actually included surveys in articles in the past. (For example, this one on benchmarks.) However, we’ve never used them as part of the comment/feedback process. While comments, dialogue and discussion are what we’re shooting for, we are pondering the idea of including a survey as a feedback tool in an article.

        Thanks for chiming in, Simon.

  2. Dan August 23, 2017 at 6:26 am - Reply

    David,

    This article is right on the money(pun intended!). No one has the passion for my business like I do. Prospective clients want to see and feel your desire to help them. While being able to close a deal is certainly important, a salesman is much more likely to appear to have that as his main priority. I want my prospect to feel that I share his goal of solving his problem, not merely securing his signature on a contract to hit a quota.

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 6:40 am - Reply

      Dan, your passion for your business and dedication to your clients blazes through in your comment.

      It sounds like you may have a solo firm, in which case fleeing from the idea of a dedicated salesman is definitely the right move. As your firm grows (if you want to grow it past yourself), part of your mission will be to invest the same passion in your team so that other consultants in the group can also make rain. Although they won’t be dedicated salespeople and won’t share your depth of understanding, they can (and should) bring in business.

      I appreciate you joining the conversation.

  3. ramzani August 23, 2017 at 6:38 am - Reply

    Hi David,

    I think the challenge is that most management folks view their problems as that of the left picture (product economy). Subsequently he wonder if he can get 10 regular people instead of hiring 1-2 consultants.

    This also mean the consultant need convince the management folk to change their view to the right picture. What do you think ?

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 6:47 am - Reply

      That’s an interesting question, Ramzani. Typically, I frame product vs. consulting economies as a distinction in how you run your firm and behave as a consultant; however, applying the concept to how a client views his own problem highlights an important point:

      Clients don’t care what it takes to run a consulting firm. They don’t see a Venn diagram at all, and whether or not you have to make rain is irrelevant to them. All they want is a reliable, credible, efficient solution to their problem. In most cases, they will turn to internal staff first if there’s any way at all to use them.

      Inertia is our #1 competitor and internal staff is #2. I’m glad you underscored that point.

      • Anatoli Naoumov August 23, 2017 at 10:35 am - Reply

        David, I believe the topic Ramzani has brought up leads to a separate post: how to switch client’s thinking from product to service/behaviour. In my industry – industrial energy management – I come across this situation disappointingly often: to reduce electricity cost client wants to change bulbs (product), while we see that flipping a switch (service/behaviour) will have a much stronger effect.

        • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 1:24 pm - Reply

          The topic is officially in my “article ideas” folder. Of course, we’re dealing with basic human nature: people will opt for an easy solution that appears inexpensive and gives immediate relief over a solution that seems complex, initially expensive and risky… even if the latter would ultimately be more effective and efficient.

          The article topic request is duly noted!

  4. R. Shawn McBride August 23, 2017 at 8:03 am - Reply

    This is a great way of conceptualizing a common problem – for sure. It just takes a lot of knowledge to sell for a consulting firm. And it’s not something you can just put someone in to plug and play.

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 9:27 am - Reply

      “Plug and play” captures the misconception very neatly, Shawn. Many consulting firm leaders are looking for an instant sales solution when they consider a dedicated salesperson. As you point out, that simply isn’t going to work in most cases.

      Thanks for the great addition to the conversation.

  5. Tom Rayner August 23, 2017 at 8:30 am - Reply

    This has certainly been my experience, though with one slight caveat. Most client’s worlds are full of people (vendors, consultants, etc.) trying to get a foot in their door. The world is highly competitive. If a prospect has budget, appearance of budget, potential for budget someday, know someone with budget, etc. business development / salespeople are trained to seek them out relentlessly and build a relationship. But clients need a reason to talk to you. They need to see value in some form. Pure salespeople (in consulting) rarely are able to credibly offer a client value, at least in their initial interactions – or enough to even get a meeting. Client relationships in B2B are long term – rule of thumb 8 – 12 contacts over 8 – 12 months to earn sale. After this, 1-2 additional years to build to strong advocacy. That does not lend itself well to traditional sales model / salesperson who is not likely to develop a long term relationship. The far better model is the great consultant who develops strong selling skills. And as your firm scales and you develop client account specific leaders, ensuring they develop strong sales skills. The caveat was that I have seen pure sales / salesperson work – similar to your comment in the article – it was the exception. In both cases, the person was an exceptionally strong consultant who developed exceptionally strong sales skills, and delivered very significant results.

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 9:37 am - Reply

      Your rules of thumb are intriguing, Tom. The consulting sale takes trust and building trust often takes at least the 8-12 month time frame you suggest. While thought leadership can shorten the timeline dramatically, by its very nature that trust accrues to the thought leader, not to a proxy such as a salesperson.

      You’ve seen one exception and I’ve seen one exception. Probably every consultant has seen that one exception, which is what keeps the hope alive that maybe hiring a salesperson can work. Alas, I’m here to squash that hope!

      Helping the strong consultant to develop strong sales skills is, as you say, the answer for most small consulting firms. Nicely put, Tom.

      • Anatoli Naoumov August 23, 2017 at 10:46 am - Reply

        Training even a thoughtful consultant to sell is difficult; I’d know since I have been doing this for years. It took me years to really appreciate that selling is not a necessary evil stage of a consulting project, it’s a skill in its own right. However difficult it is to train a consultant to sell, training a product salesman to be a consulting salesman is even more difficult.
        As you said it, at selling stage Denny must see eye-to-eye the person who will deliver.

        • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 1:33 pm - Reply

          Very true, Anatoli. Not every consultant is cut out for rainmaking. Leaders of firms tend to have what it takes, and inside most boutiques there are a few consultants who have a rainmaking spark that can be fanned into a flame, with some guidance, training and coaching.

  6. Chris payne August 23, 2017 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Hey david. Great article. Would you recommend a sales administration person who can do effective follow up with prospects. I’m happy to be the face of the firm but I don’t have time to prospect new cusromers do the follow up that I want because I’m always working on client projects. What would you suggest as a good mix to manage these.opportunities? Thanks in advance! Chris

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 9:44 am - Reply

      Chris, you’re getting to the nub of the issue. Here’s an idea to mull over: the solution to your challenge isn’t finding someone else to do the follow-up calls with prospects, it’s finding someone else to take on more of the delivery work so that you can spend more time developing business.

      For most small consultancies, the recurring bottlenecks limiting growth are 1) winning clients and 2) creating appropriate infrastructure. The final piece of consulting–creating value through delivery–is not a real bottleneck. “We can’t find other people who can do what we do” is a red-herring. There are plenty of people who can be trained to take your place as a creator of value; virtually none can take your place as a rainmaker.

      Terrific question, and I’m glad you asked, Chris.

  7. Vivek Soman August 23, 2017 at 10:39 am - Reply

    David, good article and a question I have been wrestling with for over a year. My firm is focused in that we serve companies over $1B in revenue in only one industry. We have 3 distinct services and the benefits and deliverables of each can be rather easily explained. In that context, what do you think of hiring someone to expand top of the funnel? The primary responsibility would be getting prospective clients to give us time for initial 30 minute meeting / call. Either me or one of our senior people can take over from there.

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 1:30 pm - Reply

      Absolutely! You appear to have a strong Fishing Line – narrowly target and precisely defined problem(s). In that case, it’s easy for others to open the door for you. Hence, a good Fishing Line leads to referrals and 3rd-party recommendations. After the referral, you close the deal.

      There’s no rule that says referrals have to be from someone not on the payroll. That’s not a dedicated salesperson, it’s a dedicated referrals source. The only reason I don’t generally recommend using a “top of the funnel” person is it’s generally inefficient. If the problem you solve is pervasive, you don’t need someone devoted to making a zillion calls; if the problem you solve isn’t pervasive, then your canvasser has a brutal job with low success rates.

      Net: Go for it. With the right scripts and guidelines in place, the model could work very well for you.

  8. Jaime Campbell, CPA, MBA August 23, 2017 at 11:11 am - Reply

    We also have had little success with a dedicated salesperson. What we’re experimenting with right now is working with a salesperson to enter clients into a part of our sales funnel that precedes our flagship consulting service – paid webinars delivered by me personally.

    I’ve been a seminar, webinar, and workshop presenter for many years, and the praise and excitement just flow and flow!

    The last piece of the puzzle before launch is to create a seamless and automated purchasing experience – to go online, register, pay, and get an automated invitation & unique registration link. Ideally with the ability to manage subscriptions to webinar series and such.

    So we’re going to test this hypothesis that a salesperson can sell webinars and be a point of contact for setting up appointments with me once webinar attendees want to discuss engagements.

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 1:37 pm - Reply

      Jaime, your experience is telling. The experiment with the webinars will be interesting–in large part because of the question of whether you’re able to leverage a low-fee webinar into a high-fee consulting engagement. Thanks for sharing your case study in working with a dedicated salesperson.

  9. David Burnie August 23, 2017 at 11:26 am - Reply

    David,

    Agree completely with your thoughts re: hiring a salesperson. However, I do think there is a place for sales support. As per your CRM video conference I believe a sales coordinator can be invaluable. They can help to:
    – manage and update the pipeline in your CRM
    – schedule business development meetings
    – research target companies
    – assist in outreach (e.g., they can send intro emails from your account)
    – coordinate weekly sales meetings

    Cheers.

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 1:42 pm - Reply

      100% agree, David. Administrative support for your business development efforts is practically mandatory.

      There’s a whole pit crew that keeps a race car on the track, and allows the driver to do his job and win the race. It’s unlikely that the guy who replaces tires at warp speed could drive the car to victory, but you definitely need him in the pit. (I’ve now exhausted my knowledge of auto racing.)

  10. Rob Musterer August 23, 2017 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    Whole heartedly agree. The problem I run into is that clients want me personally to be the primary service provider. So I’m always too busy with service delivery to work on business development. I’ve tried in the past to start working for the client and then introduce support staff to ease them into a project. This worked a third of the time for me. Other times, the client objected at the very beginning of the process as they can foresee the intention and did not want the change.

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 5:18 pm - Reply

      The issue you’re bringing up is very, very common, Rob. There’s a long process of building equity in the firm separate from equity in yourself. The process starts in a few places, one of which is precisely codifying what you do so that someone else can, in fact, do what you do as well or better.

  11. Len August 23, 2017 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    While I agree with your points for much of the western world, there are markets – geographical and sector-based – where clients are actively looking for solutions rather than simple advisory. For example, they are looking for a solution to a supply chain issue, or the automation of a process, or the establishment of a shared service centre, projects that are implementation-heavy, tool-heavy, change management-heavy, but advisory light. They are looking for “playbooks”. Wouldn’t sales people be perfectly suitable for those?

    • David A. Fields August 23, 2017 at 8:45 pm - Reply

      There are buyers in every market that are looking for standardized solutions or for straightforward implementation. As a result there’s a lot of money in providing solutions and implementation services. Can those types of offerings be sold by a dedicated salesperson? Sure.

      The more productized your offering is, the more it lends itself to a product-oriented sales process. That also looks less and less like consulting. Not good or bad, just different.

      Very fair question, Len. Thanks for asking!

  12. Mack Arrington September 6, 2017 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    The other side of hiring a sales pro is: How are you going to pay the sales pro?

    If you hire a sales champion, they don’t come cheap or easy, and there is a high failure rate for dedicated salespeople in consulting. You have to ask yourself: How long does it take you to sell a consulting contract? As previously said, the sales cycle for consulting can take over a year (especially if you hit the prospect’s budget cycle at the wrong time). If your new six-figure sales pro has to start from ground zero, and it can take a year to run the sales cycle, you have to figure how to pay (and keep) the sales pro even if he/she does not bring in a significant contract for a year.

    I don’t know of any sales pro who would take a straight commission position with a company that has no success record to show for its dedicated salespeople. Just as you don’t want to hire an unknown quantity salesperson, they don’t want to work for a company that has no track record of successful salespeople.

    A couple of thoughts. 1. Consider what kind of offer you can make to attract the right salesperson. 2. Using a proven professional sales system can increase sales efficiency by about 51%—often it’s best to train the consultants to do the selling even though it’s a huge effort and they are not comfortable with it. 3. It can work well to hire an admin to keep on top of the prospecting and progress, and to keep the consultants on track.

    • David A. Fields September 7, 2017 at 8:50 am - Reply

      You make an excellent point, Mack: not only is it unwise for most small consultancies to hire a dedicated salesperson, top-notch salespeople generally wouldn’t join a small consultancy anyway because there’s no track record of success and the compensation is too uncertain.

      Of course, the issues run deeper than pay, which is why even if you feel you can afford to carry a salesperson for a year, hiring one is a bad idea. For that reason, I’d politely push back on your first thought about considering the type of offer you can make. Better to consider no offer and move to your second and third thoughts. Those, I agree with wholeheartedly. (Granted, I’m biased since I train consultants to make rain and anyone who was on my CRM webinar a few weeks ago knows I push hard for using admins to support the process.)

      Great input, Mack. I’m glad you joined the conversation.

  13. Ed September 11, 2017 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    Where it might work is if a trained consultant prefers to do business development and not delivery. Perhaps delivery oversight is required, but the bizdev person is not actively involved in the day to day.

    • David A. Fields September 11, 2017 at 5:19 pm - Reply

      A trained consultant–someone who’s been in your practice for a while–who prefers to develop business is a treasure. Lock that person in! Offer your hand in marriage and promise a weekly stipend of chocolate. That’s exactly the profile you’re looking for.

      Note that what you’re describing is not hiring a dedicated salesperson; it’s letting one of your staff evolve into the business development role. As you correctly note, Ed, your consultant-turned-BizDev person should still have a role on the delivery side, though it can be lessened significantly.

  14. Mark April 11, 2018 at 1:17 pm - Reply

    Hi David, today I’m spending time on your site, great site! I don’t need sales people. I’m the best sales person I know (see, not shy). What I need is a 2nd in command that run operations while I’m selling. Right now, I am selling and managing. This is the single most important thing that would boost my firm. How do I find and hire that operations manager?

    • David A. Fields April 11, 2018 at 3:55 pm - Reply

      Good for you, Mark! (Both in terms of going through the site and, more importantly, building your firm.)

      As with any position, you need to take the time to define, exceptionally clearly, what the position you’re hiring for will do. What, precisely, does success look like? What skills are required? What knowledge? What personal attributes? How will the person fit into your firm?

      When you have those areas figured out, then you can start working through the hiring process. Finding good people is hard. No two ways about it. You’ll have to put in time to find the right person then put in time to get him or her up to speed.

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