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Never Say Sell

A fantastic guide for professional service firms on how to expand existing client relationships.

Sean Johnson
Sean Johnson
8 min read

We aren’t ambulance chasers - we’re the ambulance. We have a moral obligation to use our skills to solve client problems.

There’s a strong correlation between experts and an aversion to “selling.”

Add on work doesn’t just happen. Even if you do great work you still have to fight for it.

Being on-site with clients and getting to the level where we be open, spill our unperfected thinking out on the table, and hash ideas back and forth, means we are present at the creation. This how you expand your SOPs, and get non-RFP work.

Being involved in M&A is a great way to get more work. Researching an industry, evaluating potential acquisitions, running analysis on what a client could do with a company once they buy it. Tons of work following - integration, technology, strategy, etc.

Account Planning

Most account planning sessions are a random hodgepodge of ideas. Instead, consider using the following 6 key ways to grow to guide your conversations - from easiest to hardest:

  • More: More of the same work wit hate same buyer.
  • Expand: Different work with the same buyer.
  • Extend: More of the same work with a different buyer in the org.
  • Reach: Different work with a different buyer.
  • Evolve: New work we haven’t done before with the same buyer.
  • Innovate: New work we haven’t done before for a different buyer.

New vs. Existing Work

To sell new work, they have to:

  • Be aware you exist
  • Undersand what you do and how you’re unique
  • Be interested in what you offer - relevant to their goals.
  • Believe you have credibility.
  • Trust you to have their best interests at heart.
  • Have the ability to engage (authority, budget, etc.)
  • Be ready to act.

Presumably existing work you’ve checked the first 5 of those boxes already. But it’’s not that simple:

  • Aware: you lack broad awareness within the organization.
  • Understanding: they don’t understand all the services you are equally capable of offering them.
  • Interest: sometimes you have the solution but the buyer has no interest.
  • Credible: credibility is hard to scale across services and across relationships.
  • Trust: colleagues won’t necessarily trust us right away. Can also be competing circles of trust hindering our ability to prove ourselves to other buyers.

Contacts at client companies can actually have a disincentive to refer. If you did great work it makes them look good. That’s a competitive advantage for them in terms of promotions, etc.

Even though in theory there should be a scale advantage in professional service firms, very often they have difficulty bringing those advantages to bear. That represents an opportunity for smaller firms.

How to find your best opportunities.

Boutique firms tend to be known for a narrow band of expertise, and should focus on on MORE, EXTEND, EXPAND. Stay away from EVOLVE and INNOVATE, as this would be like starting a new firm. You can sometimes win REACH and EVOLVE work if it’s smaller in scope and close enough to your core competencies, because you can move faster than bigger firms.

Use your unique advantages as a boutique firm - culture, adaptability/agility, and storytelling.

Big firms tend to have advantages in technology and global reach.

Structure: are you trying to rely less on travel? Structure by region. Are you trying to expose to multiple industries to develop your team? Structure around travel and cross-functional collaboration. Are you trying to scale the time and talent of a few key experts or leaders? Structure to ensure they get to spend time talking with key customers vs. being bogged down in administrative minutiae.

Growth strategy: organic growth firms do well with EXPAND, EVOLVE, REACH. M&A based growth strategies tend to do better with new and different work because you can buy your way into those offerings.

Abandon the brochure - ask questions. These should be aimed at understanding the client’s overall strategy, the role of the group you’re serving, and how your capabilities might be leveraged to achieve those goals. Be curious.

Questions you should always be able to answer:

  • What is their budget cycle and fiscal year?
  • How does each individual in the project define success? How does the firm measure success?
  • Is this initiative tied to a larger strategic project? How do we ensure we’re aligning to those outcomes?
  • How does this project interface with other BUs in the organization?
  • Whose support do we need to earn to make this implementation go smoothly?
  • What external factors are acting on the business or industry?
  • What is the change management process for this project?

Any time you’re doing a project there is going to be a major change management element. It’s crazy not to include it in your SOW, because it won’t be successful if you don’t. It also requires that you meet a lot of people in the client organization. Those are new open doors. And you have to go back and share the results with them. And they’ll see you get results.

Cozy up to their technology - marketing consultants who integrate with the client’s CRM will see more engagement, better results, and deeper relationships. You’re now part of the team.

Do a loss analysis - if you have a good enough relationship with the client you should be able to get an understanding of why you lost a project.

When your existing buyer leaves (whether a new role in the company or a new org):

  • Go meet the new stakeholder in person.
  • Gather as much info about their background as you can.
  • Ask them about their priorities. Listen, don’t pitch.
  • Make adjustments - no one ever takes over a program and says “I want to keep it EXACTLY the same.” Make sure they can put their mark on it, or you’ll lose it entirely.
  • Build relationships maps inside the organization. Have a sense of successorship - who’s going to be the new folks in charge? Use that info to create a “First 100 Days” playbook for the new contact in the organization. Go out of your way to try and help them be successful in the new role.
  • Don’t forget to nurture the person who’s leaving. If you do it right you now have 2 customers.

Stay aware of trends within and between industries. Create a point of view on them. Use that to have touch points with clients - it’s not selling, but it’s opening the aperture. Let them tell you if the point of view is valuable.

Look at existing work and ask what the next logical step is. Limit ancillary services to where you have the “right to expand.”

Allow for limited or appropriate scope creep in projects, if you decide that type of work is exactly where you hope to expand. Earns you a case study for that work.

Leverage the budgeting process. None of your clients like the budgeting process and will welcome the help for free. Gives you the ability to get your work included in next year’s budget.

Don’t just “land and expand.” Weave yourself into the fabric of the world’s great companies.

Focus on delivering great work over expansion - mediocre work closes future opportunities. And those opportunities are hard to earn.

Whenever you do an engagement, always do something extra. Something that wows. The cost of sales doing something extra for free vs. trying to go get another logo is a no brainer.

  • Helping over the weekend to meet the deadline
  • Doing some additional analysis
  • Packaging or summarizing for their boss.
  • Help with the budget deck.

Find anything the CEO says (YouTube interviews, etc.) - that is strategic stuff that they probably hare having a hard time executing on in reality. Goldmine of opportunities there.

Use SHELIE to wow clients:

  • Set goals with them. During that first meeting you go over the SOW - “our goal is to delight you. If there are ways we could improve this draft, let’s make sure it’s in there.” Do the same thing in the second meeting.
  • Hit our marks. Always on time.  Never charge more than you say you will. Move mountains for clients.
  • Enthusiastic about wins. Celebrate the milestones along the way. Third meeting is first milestone meeting. “Just to review, we said we’d recruit 25 CIOs in the first 90 days and interview half. We’ve done that, and according to the schedule we’re going to take a week to synthesize that feedback.” Meeting four - “this is great. We’re on a role, we love working with your team.”
  • Laok for opportunities to give a client delight. Offer to fly out and give their boss a briefing. Send a book on bizdev we were discussing. Etc.
  • Initiate feedback. “When we started this project, we said our goal was to delight you. We’ve hit our marks and tried to over deliver. Were you delighted with the project? What have we learned if we continue this program together?”
  • Elevate the conversation. “I’ve kept track of the nice to haves you’ve mentioned over the months. We do that work all the time and I’d love to share a couple dashboards we’ve done for other clients.”
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Make sure you scope metrics into your SOW that you know you can hit and create value for your client, so you can overcome objections any other division might throw at you.

Great case studies look like the assignment you hope to do, state the problem solved, include the challenges overcome, include endorsing quotes, and include an ROI claim.

Be their friend. Always be the one to buy celebratory drinks. Not just them, ask them to invite their friends or colleagues.

Remember who the hero is - brag about your client, not about yourself

Take good notes - use your CRM to track conversations. Want to be able to remember the conversation, especially if they brought up a potential pain point.

Whenever you meet someone at your client firm who isn’t your buyer but could be, always follow up. Note that you met them in the CRM. Wait a week and send an email. Not a pitch. “Great to meet you last week. I found what you said about ______ interesting. I just read this article with a tag on this. Here’s the link: _____. Next time I’m in NY, it would be fun to grab a cup of coffee. I’ll reach out next time I’m on a trip your way.”

When you head out, reply to this email chain so they remember the context. AT coffee ask “how’s business? What are you focused on these days?

Use scoping process as an opportunity to ask questions of stakeholders across the client. It’s change management best practice and also gives you an easy way to meet new people in the firm, so you can follow up after you’ve done good work.

Align incentives - “I’d like to get the price down for you next year. If we could bundle you inside a larger set of contracts, it would qualify you for our volume discount. Would you be open to talking through whether that would make sense for you?”

Create peer groups of your clients. Bring them together. This makes you the hub of a source of valuable insight you can draft off of. You aren’t the center of the conversation - they are. But they all associate those interactions with you.

Make sure your asks are things they really value. And strip away anything that makes it hard to say yes. Consider one hour by phone exchanges vs. dinners or in-person summits. Those are of course better but harder to get a yes.

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