Consultative Selling for Professional Services – Book

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The Essential Sales Manual for Consultants and Other Trusted Advisers

Do you remember a moment in your career that altered the course of your professional journey? For Richard White, that moment was the 14th of July, 1997—the day he unexpectedly found himself thrust into the world of sales. Little did he know that this pivotal moment would lead to a transformative journey from reluctant salesman to a seasoned consultant with an enviable clientele, including giants like Unilever and British Airways. This post features the first five chapters of this book Consultative Selling for Professional Services.

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I – Introduction

Male salesman using Consultative Selling for Professional Services to sell a car
Talk about an unplanned salesman shift


It was 14th July, 1997. I remember the day vividly as it was the day I became an accidental salesman. I had been a technical consultant working for the software giant, Oracle, and I wanted to be a principal consultant. And I wanted the extra money. I thought my technical skills were good enough, and my clients liked me and gave me extra work. I was what I now know to be a trusted adviser. However, I did not get a promotion, and when a friend called me saying that he was working in a medium-sized IT consultancy and wanted to develop an Oracle practice, I grasped the opportunity to become a principal consultant.

Unfortunately, I had not anticipated how much sales would be involved. Most of their existing Oracle business was coming directly from Oracle on a sub-contracted basis, and they wanted me to help them gain more direct clients. On 14th July, 1997 I discovered that ‘business development’ is what consultants call ‘sales’ to make themselves feel better about it. I had fallen in the deep end, and on top of having to do sales, I was also expected to cover my rather large salary by doing my own consulting work— which I had to find!

A Hate Relationship

I really hated the idea of sales, and I managed to get my company to pay for some sales training and sales coaching. In fact, they were very generous with the training; but unfortunately, it just made things worse. It all just seemed so manipulative, and the trainers were proper salespeople rather than technical consultants. I enjoyed the trust of clients, and I could see that using these tactics with my clients would go down like a lead balloon and blow the trust they placed in me.

They would stop seeing me as a trusted adviser and start treating me like any other salesperson. When I was at Oracle, I used to be on-site working with clients who would tell me what they thought about the salespeople. I did not want to be one of those people. Besides, I doubted they would ever give me consulting work for myself unless they liked and trusted me.

I actually nearly gave up on more than one occasion, but fortunately, my ambition kept me going—along with the thought of having to return to being a senior consultant or follow the life of an independent contractor. My fortunes began to turn when I managed to persuade a colleague who was very successful at sales to mentor me on an unofficial basis.

From Hating Selling to Loving It

What I liked about his style was that it was very professional, and it did not even seem like he was selling when he spoke to clients. He helped me to change the way I thought about certain aspects of sales. At the same time, I was reading a lot of books around subjects like people skills, communication, and influence, as well as more straightforward sales books. My mentor recommended some of those to me.

Eventually, I found other mentors, and over a three-year period I was able to win and build up some significant ‘blue chip’ clients, including Unilever, British Airways, and First Choice. The income stream from my clients became an important part of the consulting business, continuing long after I had left the company. More importantly, I went from hating selling to loving it. I enjoyed the learning and personal development and the challenge of developing my own style of selling. I knew that I wanted to run my own consulting business one day, although at that point I had assumed it would be an IT consulting business.

As it happened, friends running their own businesses saw the improvements and started asking for my advice and help. I started mentoring them in a similar way that I had been mentored, and they started to make big improvements too. They said that when I explained things to them it all made sense. Then I started to be recommended to their friends, until one day someone asked me how much I charged! I had never seen it as a business prior to this. To me it was just giving back what had been kindly given to me by my various mentors. So I made up a number, and the rest is history!

Eleven Years of Giving Back

Closeup shot of a blue sign with the number 11 on the blurry background
It takes years in sales to expose pushy sales myths


Over the last eleven years as a sales consultant, I have worked with a whole variety of different businesses, from one-man-bands struggling to find their first client to blue chip organisations wanting their sales people to adopt a consultative approach. I have been fortunate to have worked with some very successful sales people, who I have found do not tend to fit the normal ‘pushy’ sales person stereotype. I have continued to learn and develop through research into best practice, and I love being able to share that research in a simple and straightforward manner.

What I learned from all my research is that consultants can be great at business development if they focus on applying their consulting skills to sales rather than thinking they need to be a pushy sales person. Taking a systematic and strategic approach to sales and developing the right mindset will mean that you can become very successful at business development over time without having to lose your integrity and resort to pushy and manipulative tactics. Indeed, if you want to make selling easy, this is the right book for you.

For Trusted Advisors

This is not just another book on consultative selling. This is a book specifically for trusted advisers who want to quickly master sales and feel comfortable with selling so that they can spend more time being a trusted adviser. Consultative selling is a subject that is taught widely, although not necessarily taught well; many clients come to me having had a lot of training in consultative selling and yet they do not seem to understand the basics.

When you master the basics of consultative selling and you develop the right mindset, then it is incredibly easy. In this book, I start with the absolute fundamentals and focus on helping you understand why they are important. My aim is to provide the essence of the learning gained from mentors over the years combined with many years’ experience of making consultative selling work for myself, team members, and clients.

This book is about understanding the basics of consultative selling and the consultative selling mindset. It does not matter how many years’ experience you have, if your sales results are not where you want them to be or you do not feel comfortable and in control of your sales the answers will be in those fundamentals rather than with ‘clever’ and manipulative tactics. Moreover, I truly believe that anyone with the motivation to learn and develop can follow the teachings in this book and be successful at consultative selling.

Not Just for the Newbies

If you are reading this and you have already had lots of training in consultative selling, I believe you will still get some great new ideas. Perhaps it will be on how to find new clients or get existing clients to spend more money with you. Perhaps it will be how to feel much better about sales and boost your activity. And most likely you will get to understand why your clients really buy from you and how to use that knowledge in winning even more sales.

Chapters One and Two give a high-level introduction to the consultative sales approach and the mechanics of selling. Then, in Chapters Three and Four, I cover a critical element of sales that is so often neglected: understanding who your clients are and why they buy from you. Chapters Five and Six are related to finding and winning more business; Chapters Seven to Nine cover the process of consultative selling in more detail. Finally, Chapter Ten is about developing your skill through to mastery.

You’ll Read it More Than Once

Consultative Selling for Professional Services Book cover image by Richard White
How many times will you read this book?


I recommend you read this book with an open mind and that where you see exercises you have a go at doing them. This is probably a book that you will read more than once. If you are not getting the results you want, the answer you need will be in one of the chapters and so you may need to come back and look at the relevant one(s) in more detail. Please also check out the resources section where, in addition to recommended further reading, you will get a link to where you can get free online video mini-courses which will build upon what you learn in this book.

This is the book I wish I had back in 1997. Although I was not that enthusiastic about sales back then, I have now learnt to love it and it has impacted positively all areas of my life. I wish the same for you.

Best wishes,

Richard White.

II – Chapter One: A Professional Way to Sell Services

Woman reaching to buy plant item after successful Consultative Selling
Let’s get into some practical takeaways to start consultative selling today



It was Peter’s sixth birthday, and as a special treat his father had taken him to the local park to feed the pigeons. Peter had heard from his school friends that it was possible to have pigeons eat from your hand and that is what Peter intended to do today. His father handed him a few slices of bread, and clutching them tightly, Peter began to run towards a group of hungry looking pigeons, shouting, “‘Dinnertime! Dinnertime! Come and get some lovely bread!”

As Peter approached, all the pigeons flew away. The more he tried, the more pigeons left the park. Peter finally bowed his head, bit his lip and began to sob. His father came over and put his arm around the little boy and said, “Here, Peter, let me show you how it’s done.”

As Peter watched, his father broke off a few pieces of bread and slowly began sprinkling them on the ground. Peter saw that his father just ignored the pigeons. After a little while, a coupleof curious birds came forward and began to peck cautiously at the bread, all the time checking to make sure it was safe.

Get clients to come to you

Gradually, the birds sensed it was safe and came a little closer, eating the crumbs as they advanced; all the time they were checking for danger, poised to fly at any moment. The father gently lowered his hand and very carefully opened his palm to display the crumbs within. Before long one pigeon eased forward and began to peck at the crumbs in his hand. Then another pigeon came forward, followed by another and another. Soon the whole area around the father and son was covered in pigeons, all flying in from the local neighbourhood.

In this chapter, I will reveal the secret of finding clients who want to buy from you rather than you having to chase after them. You will see how easy business development can be if you go with human nature rather than work against it. You will learn why there is no need to be pushy and manipulative, and indeed, why selling with integrity and using a consultative approach is much more effective.

Push Selling vs Pull Selling

infographic of the Pusher versus puller for consultative selling
Understand these two concepts to start winning clients


Some people wonder what the difference is between business development and sales. When I landed my first business development role, I quickly discovered that there is no difference. The common joke around business development is that it’s the label you use for people who dislike the idea of selling!

I hope that by the time you finish reading this book you will feel more comfortable about the idea of sales. It took me many years to develop an approach that I felt comfortable with, and business developers I shared the approach with also became more comfortable. I refer to it as ‘soft selling’, but essentially, it’s a style of what’s known as ‘consultative selling’.

It’s All About Attitude

From my research into the different selling styles and strategies around, there are effectively two different approaches, which are really down to the attitude of the person doing the selling; they are ‘push’ selling and ‘pull’ selling.

‘Push’ selling is the approach that I see everywhere and that causes us to think a salesperson is being pushy. In push selling, the focus is the product or service that we are seeking to sell and we push it onto the market. I know this, because it is how I once sold. I copied everyone else around me, and even some of my best mentors did this. The attitude is that we sell the product and the skill is getting someone to buy.

You can do push selling without being pushy. Push selling is where our approach to selling is to just talk about our services and how great they are. This style of selling might work if you are selling a commodity to an educated buyer, but I am assuming that you and your colleagues know more about your area of expertise than your clients and prospects. Talking about our services and how great they are is important, but it has to be done at the right point in the sales process.

Sell Like a Doctor

Doctor selling medication to female patient during Consultative Selling
Sales is like medicine, in that it prescribes solutions, so understand before recommending


The best way to sell professional services is using an approach called ‘consultative selling’. The good news is that consultants find it much easier to do than do normal salespeople. People who are really good at consultative selling are doctors selling a patient a solution to their medical problem.

Imagine going to a doctor with a medical problem. You would expect the doctor to ask some questions and maybe do some tests in order to diagnose your condition. Then the doctor would prescribe a course of treatment that they believed would solve your problem.

The process is similar to the consultative sales process, where you look for prospects with problems you are able to solve. You then find out more so that you can correctly understand the problem before recommending a solution.

Order Taking

Push selling is like a doctor deciding what drugs they want to prescribe even before they get to meet patients. The patient is likely to get suspicious when the doctor makes their diagnosis without asking any questions or doing any tests.

Even when people come to you asking about your services, you should still take a step back and take them through a similar process to the one the doctor follows, just to ensure that anything you recommend is going to work for them. Otherwise, it would be like a doctor writing a prescription for powerful drugs just because a patient thinks they need them. In sales this is referred to as ‘order taking’.

Be a Trusted Adviser

The ‘Holy Grail’ in sales is for your clients to see you as their trusted adviser, and consultative selling when done well, will deliver this for you. Your clients will want to come to you to discuss their problems, which will give you an advantage over your competitors. However, you are unlikely to be the first person they call if they think you are more interested in the sale than in helping them solve their problems. Consultative selling engenders trust when you take prospects through the process before making your recommendation. The good news is that it is also easier to do, especially for those people who hate the idea of being pushy or manipulative.

A trusted adviser has the benefit that prospects and clients are happy to talk openly to them about their problems. They will reveal things they would never reveal to a normal salesperson. They will also be happy to take your calls and be honest about what is going on. Whilst you may not always win every project, you are more likely to win work where there is a good fit, and you will not have to do all the chasing that regular pushy salespeople end up doing when their prospect goes quiet.

Think Differently

We need to change the way we think about sales. Instead of looking for people who want our services, we need to look for people who have problems in achieving the results they want.

Problems we can fix. We attract them by showing that we may be able to solve their problems. Once they step forward and start to ask questions, we will have a process for helping them to gain confidence in our ability to solve their problems, and they will happily engage our services.

What’s the Problem?

Woman showing body language to ask Whats your problem with pink background
Understand your target customer’s needs to sell effectively


A simple example of the contrast between push selling and pull selling happened one day a few years ago, when I went shopping for a new flat screen TV. Close to where I live, there are two large electrical retailers within a five-minute walk of each other. I walked into the first shop and told the assistant that I was looking for a flat screen TV. He immediately started raving about the latest TV on the market. I could see the price quite clearly on display and said it was a little bit out of my price range. Instead of finding out what I was looking for, he just started raving about another TV. This is push selling.

Contrast this with my experience at the other shop. The assistant was very similar, but in this case he asked me if I wanted a particular screen size, and whether I had a particular price range. He also asked me if I had a colour preference. (Most of the TVs looked similar—kind of black—but there were some that were in a silver frame.) When I answered his questions, he gave me the options. I made my decision, paid the money, and left.

This was a much better example of consultative selling. The assistant found out what I wanted and sold it to me. Yet it would have been even better if he had asked me why I wanted the new TV. If he had taken the trouble to discover my buying motivation, it is possible that that he could have recommended some additional products as well.

Mind the Gap

As a good consultant, you are probably used to asking questions and gathering information before giving your best advice. ‘Consultative selling’ requires you to act like a consultant during the sales process. Being a good consultant, you want first to discover your client’s problems and then give your best advice. In sales you need to do exactly the same.

First, you need to attract people who have problems you can solve. Then you find out more about the problems. Only then can you present a credible solution. Where people often go wrong in consultative selling is that they have already decided what the solution is, and then they work hard to convince the prospect to buy the solution. This is just push selling.

In consultancy we have a tool called ‘gap analysis’, which is used to determine the gap between where the client wants to be and where they currently are. I will go into this in much detail in Chapter Eight, but for now I will just say that we are seeking to find the gap between the results the client wants and their current situation.

Motivation to Change

The gap shows us how much value we are able to add with our services. If there is no gap between what they want and their current situation, then there is no real motivation to change, and a sale is highly unlikely.

Going back to the flat screen TV example, what the first salesperson did not know is that the TV was to go into a new cabinet and there was a specific size restriction. There was definitely a budget restriction, and also, as it happened, a colour preference. The second salesperson discovered this because he asked the appropriate questions and let my wife and I do the talking.

When we take the focus away from ourselves and what we will get from the sale and instead focus on the client and learning how we can help them solve their problems, it all becomes so much easier. We do not sell anything until we know why they have expressed an interest in speaking to us and why they may be interested in buying our services. We have a number of stages to go through before we even know exactly what we are selling, and at any one of those stages we, or the prospective client, may decide not to proceed any further.

When we follow this selling style properly we do not feel like we are selling and the client does not feel like they are being sold to. The prospective client knows we have their best interests at heart and as a result they begin to place their trust in us; we are then on our way to developing the status of trusted adviser rather than being seen as a pushy salesperson who cannot be trusted.

Negotiation Skills Training Course banner with green button and carton
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Buying Motives

If we want to be successful in selling business-to-business professional services, we need to come from the mindset that our clients are not interested in buying our services and would rather save the expense. They engage our services because they believe these services will deliver more benefit to the business than they cost. However, when people contact us about our services they are probably not thinking directly about how we can help them increase profits. They are more likely to be thinking about something more specific they want help with.

It’s only when we are trying to gain a commitment from them to spend money that the need for a return on investment will become essential. However, we do need to be aware of it at all times to ensure we do not waste too much time pursuing sales opportunities where we are unable to add enough value to justify the client in going ahead.

So while increasing profits or minimising losses will be motivators, there will be more specific motivation. Using outsourced HR consultancy as an example, there may be many different motivations for potential clients to want to engage in a sales conversation.

Motivators such as:
  • They already buy HR support services, but their existing supplier is not responsive enough.
  • The organisation may be growing and experiencing people problems that they are unable to deal with.
  • They may be bidding for government contracts and have compliance issues that need to be resolved.
  • They may be experiencing a specific HR issue that they need some professional input to resolve.
  • They may be downsizing and need help in handling the HR-related consequences.
  • They may want to make sure they are doing everything properly so that they keep staff happy and do not expose themselves to any risks of expensive employment tribunals.
It all comes down to this

When we understand the specific buying motive that has caused a client or potential client to want to talk to us, it becomes easier to know how to handle the sale. We do not have to push anything. All we have to do is to use our consulting skills to discover more about the problem and then present a viable solution, whilst recognising that we need to be able to show a return on investment and demonstrate why working with us is their best option.

With consultative selling, there is no need to push provided you know there is a strong motivation to buy. And if there is no buying motivation then you can be sure there will not be a sale, and so pushing will be futile anyway!

There is a specific process for taking a sales opportunity from an initial expression of interest all the way through to closing the sale. We will be covering the process in Chapter Two, and for the remainder of the book, buying motivation will be a major theme. It is a key component of what I call the business development ‘groundwork’.

Doing the Groundwork

If we want to build a solid house, it is important that we first lay solid foundations. The same is true for business development. The foundations for successful business development for professional services are to gain clarity as to the following key areas:

  • Who are your ideal clients?
  • Why do they buy the services you provide?
  • How do your services add value?
  • Why would they buy from you rather than a competitor?
  • How can you prove you can deliver?
Who are your ideal clients?

There will be certain clients where there is a very good mutual fit. These are what I call your 5-Star Clients. These clients will be easier to win and they are more likely to provide you with a regular stream of work and referrals. Being clear as to who are your 5-Star Clients will make selling easier and more time-efficient for you. We will be identifying your 5-Star Clients in Chapter Three.

Why do they buy the services you provide?

We have seen above that buying motivation is an important aspect in consultative selling, and we will be covering it in greater detail in Chapter Four.

How do your services add value?

To be successful at consultative selling we need to have a very clear sense of how we add value to our clients. This will help us to determine whether a particular sales opportunity is worth pursuing and it will also help us to better justify charging higher rates than our clients might be expecting. We will be dealing with value propositions in Chapter Four.

Why would they buy from you rather than a competitor?

As a consultant, you may find that you are competing with some large brands who field very well-trained salespeople. However, you can still win easily when you are clear as to what your competitive edge is with your ideal clients, and we will also be dealing with this in Chapter Four.

How can you prove you can deliver?

It is possible to generate a lot of interest in your services, but without credibility, it is unlikely you will close the sale. In Chapter Four we will be covering how you can make the most of, and build on, your existing credibility.


There is no need to be pushy or manipulative to be successful at selling professional services. Indeed, the total opposite is required if we want to be regarded as a trusted adviser by our clients. Rather than trying to push our services onto clients and prospects, we need to be getting into a position where our clients and prospects are coming to us to buy our services. We do this by working with their buying motivation and taking them through the consultative sales process, which involves taking time to understand their problem and then proposing a solution. To make the consultative sales process work, we need to have clarity about our ideal clients, why they buy from us, and how they benefit from working with us.

III – Chapter Two: The Mechanics of Consultative Selling

Hand bulding an item with mechanic gears in the background for Consultative Selling
Now it’s time for the technical aspects for your selling machine



Now that you are involved with business development, you have a need to generate a consistent stream of client work for yourself and your colleagues. It is, therefore, critical that you take a systematic approach to business development rather than leaving it to chance. This is especially important if you need time for delivering client work, so that you avoid the ‘feast and famine’ cycle, where you only get involved in business development activity out of desperation.

In this chapter I will show you how to build a sales machine that will deliver you quality business, month in and month out. You will learn the various components of your sales machine and what it takes to make it all work.

The Sales Sausage Machine

Have you ever seen one of those old-fashioned cast iron sausage machines? They have a long barrel, a hopper on the top, and a big handle on the side. You put the sausage meat in the hopper, turn the handle, and out the end of the barrel comes a string of sausages. If you keep the hopper well supplied with sausage meat and keep turning the handle, the sausages will keep on coming.

As the sausage meat travels through the machine, it undergoes a process in order to be transformed into a sausage. The sausage meat is equivalent to a sales opportunity and your sales sausage machine is there to convert sales opportunities into confirmed project work. Just like the sausage meat, a sales opportunity is taken through a series of stages whereby it is transformed and becomes ready to move on to the next stage.

Feast and famine syndrome

You can have the best sales sausage machine in the world, but unless you replenish the sausage meat that has been processed, you will eventually run out and your supply of new sausages will cease. Many consulting firms suffer from the ‘feast and famine’ syndrome. They are short of work, and in a state of mad panic and desperation they look for sales opportunities.

It takes time for sales opportunities to go through the transformation process, and everyone is praying that they will turn into firm consulting work. Eventually, some of them do and now all the focus switches to delivering the consulting work. The business development activity slows down and ceases, and the firm is doomed to repeat the same process all over again once the current consulting projects have been completed.

It is much better for the heart and the bank balance to get in the habit of continually filling the sausage machine, especially when you are very busy. Rather than stop seeking leads, you can be much more effective by being better targeted and very fussy about the sales opportunities you pursue. When a business is suffering a sales famine they tend to pursue opportunities that they would not even consider if they had plenty of work. It gets very time effective if you target your new business activities toward your ideal clients and focus on the type of sales opportunities that do not take a lot of time initially, but that will grow into a source of regular work in the future.

The Components of Your Sales Sausage Machine

Sausages coming out of a sausage machine
Like making sausages, sales requires a process of inputs to get outputs


Continuing with the analogy of the sales sausage machine, there are various components that make the sausage-making process work. These are:

  • The hopper—the mechanism through which the sausage meat is fed into the machine (sales lead generation).
  • The barrel—the mechanism for transforming the sausage meat into sausages (sales process).
  • The handle—the mechanism for moving the sausage meat through the barrel (sales activity).

The great thing is that when business development is done correctly it becomes easier to fill the sales sausage machine because a good proportion of the sales leads should come from your existing clients in the form of project extensions, additional projects, and referrals.

Your ideal clients should be a major source of new business, and so it is important to understand how each stage works and the role buying motivation plays at each stage.

The Consultative Sales Process

A sale should naturally go through each of the following stages:

  1. Generate Interest
  2. Qualify Interest
  3. Discover Wants and Needs
  4. Propose Solution
  5. Negotiate Solution
  6. Ask for the Business
  7. Deliver the Promise

It is critically important that you take the sale through each of the stages one by one in the right order to maximise the chances of winning the sale and creating follow-on sales opportunities. The stages in the sales process all build on each other, and a sales opportunity only passes to the next stage once it has satisfied specific ‘exit’ criteria.

Rather than push an opportunity through the sales process, the prospect’s buying motivation gives the sales opportunity its own momentum, and you just need to be able to help guide the sales opportunity through the process.

Generate Interest

The first stage of the sales process is to generate some kind of interest in having a sales conversation, even if it is just a spark of interest. You are looking for businesses with problems that you can fix by providing your services. Your lead generation activity should result in people putting up their hand and letting you know that they have such a problem and would like to talk to you about how you can potentially help them. They are not asking to buy your services at this stage, but they are interested in solving their problem. With any luck, they have already allocated a budget to solve the problem, but there again, they may not have done so yet. You will discover why not having a budget is not necessarily a problem in Chapter Four.

Interest could manifest itself in a variety of ways.

For example:
  • An existing client mentions a problem during a conversation.
  • An introducer makes an introduction following a discussion.
  • A potential client makes a website enquiry asking about prices.
  • You get an email enquiry asking for more information.
  • You have a conversation where you are asked about a particular service.

These are all expressions of interest, and they should alert you to the fact that the person may be in buying mode. However, there is a big difference between being in buying mode and being ready to buy. We cannot sell at this stage because we do not know what we are selling. We just want our clients and potential clients to be interested in talking to us about what we can do to help them solve their problems.

The criteria for moving from Generate Interest to Qualify Interest will be where contact has been made and they have agreed to speak with you. You should be aiming to have a brief conversation on the telephone as soon as possible. A lot of opportunities are lost by relying on email correspondence, and you should seek to get a commitment to a telephone call.

Qualify Interest

stamps and letters of the word qualified on green background for Consultative Selling
It’s all about reaching out to the right persons


Once you have an expression of interest, the next stage is to make sure that there is actually a sales opportunity and there is a good fit with what your organisation is able to offer. This is a stage that business developers rarely do well. They are so excited at getting some interest in their services that they do not take the time to check whether there is a proper sales opportunity.

As we proceed during the various stages of the sales process we need to continually question whether there is a real sales opportunity for us or whether we are wasting our time. The ‘Qualify Interest’ stage is an initial check before investing time in a sales meeting.

When you are busy with billable project work, it is easy to attach a cost to attending sales meetings—but you also need to consider what else you could be using the time for. When you include travelling, you may spend half a day or more on the meeting, and so it is vitally important that you qualify interest.

The need to qaualify

I can remember vividly the day I learnt my lesson as to the value of this stage in the sales process. It was back in my IT consulting days. Like many other people, I had heard about the need to qualify but given I did not have many sales opportunities, I would not bother. Then one day I drove five hours for a ‘hot sales appointment’ my telemarketing company had generated for me, only to discover that the person was on holiday! I felt sickened, and on my five-hour journey back I vowed never to do that again.

Imagine what would have happened if the sales meeting had gone ahead. He obviously did not have much interest, and it probably would have ended with him asking me to send him a proposal. I would have spent half a day writing a proposal, only to find that he had disappeared off the planet. Just imagine all the time I would have wasted.

Time is the key reason why you need to qualify interest. You want to make sure you are not going to be wasting either your time or the prospect’s time by getting into a sales conversation. A great test is to imagine you are so busy that you are unable to take on much more business. Would you still progress with this sales conversation or would it be a waste of time?

And there’s much more…

Other information you may also want to glean includes whether they have a budget, the timescales they are looking at, and— critically—who else would be involved in making the ultimate decision. The wording you use to find out this information should be scripted, tested, and evolved to become what works best for what you are selling.

For example, getting a prospect to specify their budget early in the sales process can be a struggle. However, all you need to know is that they have one or that getting a budget is not going to be a problem. One of the many ways of achieving this is to give a range that matches the typical budget requirement:

“Our client projects normally come out somewhere between £5,000 and £50,000—will that be an issue for you?”

Find the real boss

I was taught to always ask who was the decision maker and almost always got the answer, “That’s me!” only to find that there was someone else who had to approve the expenditure. The level of authority will change depending on the size of sale, and as we will see later, our first sale is going to be relatively small. Nevertheless, we should get the information by asking, “Who else will need to be involved in the decision to go ahead with a project like this?”

It is critical to find out this information at this stage or else you risk getting in a situation later down the line where you are getting information second-hand and relying on someone else to get the decision maker to decide to go ahead. We should never rely on someone else to put our solutions across in the best light.

Testing the water

In reality, this stage is an initial qualification, and you will need to continually sense-check as you proceed through later stages of the sales process to ensure you are not wasting your time. It’s about ‘testing the water’ and going into the discovery phase of the sales process with your eyes open and the confidence that your time will be well spent. I find that busy people prefer to have a ten minute telephone conversation prior to arranging a sales meeting because they do not want to waste their time either.

Discovering the buying motivation at this stage not only ensures that there is a potential sale, but also opens out the conversation. In Chapter Four we will explore buying motivation in depth and consider how to find it. For now I will just say that we check for buying motivation by asking a simple question to determine why they are interested in having a sales conversation. The question will be simple, but the answer will speak volumes and provide clues about how best to handle the sale or, indeed, whether it is worth continuing to the next phase.

You may have lower qualification criteria with existing clients, but to proceed to the ‘Discover Wants and Needs’ stage you should be confident that there is a suitable potential sales opportunity there. You do not have to be precise, but you do need to be sure that you are not wasting your time. As you progress through this book and complete the exercises you will begin to gain clarity as to what is a good sales opportunity for you, and so this section should make a lot more sense the second time around.

Discover Wants and Needs

Children reaching for new mini gadget they want and need during Consultative Selling
Find out the main drivers of your clients for successful Consultative Selling


The discovery phase of the sales process is often viewed as a sales meeting, and with smaller projects it can be a meeting with just one person. It could alternatively be a meeting with several people, or it may not be a physical meeting at all; it could instead be a conference call or even a series of meetings and calls. We are still not selling at this stage; instead we are gathering the information we need and probing to find out more. I will look at this stage in depth in Chapter Eight.

For now I will say that, for new business, we are looking to establish trust and credibility, and to discover all we need to make a very compelling proposal. Addressing their buying motivation as well as other important buying criteria is what will make the proposal compelling, and so it is important that we not only discover what they need, but also what they want. Indeed, it is quite likely that they will be unclear of what they actually need to solve their problem, but they may have an idea of the result they are seeking.

Critical elements of selling services

Relationships and trust are critical elements of selling services, and we need to show our prospects and clients that we care about their problems and want to help them find a solution. Having said that, you should resist offering solutions at this stage and instead say that you would like to go away and give the matter some thought before giving your recommendations. You could give some initial thoughts if you are being pressed, but make sure that your prospect is clear that is what they are.

Even though prospects often want to get answers quickly they will respect you more if you say you will go away and think about it. If you come up with answers too quickly there is the risk that they will think they are getting another client’s solution.

You can imagine that it takes some effort to discover this information, and so this stage is really about asking questions and probing. The mistake a lot of novices make is that they spend all the precious time talking about their company and their services. They are selling too early and missing the opportunity to discover the information that will help to close the sale.

Test for the proposed solution

The test of whether you can move to the ‘Propose Solution’ stage of the consultative sales process is whether you have enough information to understand the issues and produce a proposal. One thing to bear in mind is that you do not have to take the sales opportunity to the next stage if you do not feel that there is a real sales opportunity for you or you do not think you would be able to provide a suitable solution. You will get more respect by being honest about it, and they may be more willing to talk to you about other problems if they believe that you will be straight with them. What’s more, you will have saved yourself the work involved in producing a good proposal.

In most cases, however, it will be time to finish the discovery phase and start the phase of proposing a solution.

Propose Solution

By this stage you have all the information you need to be able to present a compelling solution and you are able to start putting together your ‘pitch’, which should be written. Even if you are going to present your solution face-to-face, you should have a written summary of the details. The reason is that your proposal is a sales document. It will contain some details of the proposed solution, but it must also sell your solution, too.

This is because, despite all your best efforts, there will be some people—such as the finance director, perhaps—who you will not have managed to speak to, but who may get involved in the decision. For smaller businesses it could be a spouse, mentor, or accountant.

A written proposal not only covers the bases, but when done properly, is a good discipline to confirm understanding of the sale. Sometimes I am not totally sure where the return on investment will come from and it reveals itself when I’m writing out the proposal. The important thing to remember is that a proposal does not need to be a thick document. For smaller projects, it could be a one-page letter.

What is crucial is to include various key pieces of information so that someone who has not been involved in the sales conversations can read it and see that it is a good deal. For more detailed proposals I recommend that there is a one-page executive summary that excludes the technical details and covers the essential points for making a decision.

We cover proposals in more depth in Chapter Seven, but for now the criteria for moving to the ‘Negotiate Solution’ stage is that the proposal has been delivered and acknowledged.

Negotiate Solution

Once you’ve proposed your solution, your prospects may have reservations and they will sometimes actually want to negotiate the makeup of the solution. For example, I recently gave a proposal to help a client set up a new sales team, which included liaising with the sales recruitment company and doing the first interviews on his behalf.

Then I was to work with the salesperson during the first 90 days to ensure they got off to a good start. This was due to his being very busy and also feeling that he was not a good judge as to whether someone could sell or not. By the time I had delivered the proposal, he had decided he wanted to give a family member a shot at the sales role and so the proposal needed to be reworked.

When I do a proposal I normally agree with the client that I will put forward a draft proposal and set expectations that we will shape (negotiate) the final proposal together. This allows me to suggest some optional extras. In some competitive situations it may not be possible to take this approach, but in many cases I co-create the final solution with the client.

During this stage there could be what are commonly referred to in sales speak as ‘objections’, which I like to think of as ‘reservations’. I rarely get objections due to price because of the way I manage the sales process, and I will explain this in Chapter Nine, along with offering some tips on negotiating.

Prepare for the objections

If you are going to get any price objections, they will come out at this stage and it is important you prepare as to how you are going to handle them. If such objections come up regularly, you would be wise to look at the earlier stages of your sales process and identify what you can do to stop price objections from arising further down the line. They are often due to things like not qualifying the opportunity, talking about price too early, and not putting enough emphasis on the value the project will deliver.

If you do find that your client wants to negotiate a lower price, make sure, if at all possible, you do not drop your rates—and never do it without getting something in return that is worth at least as much to you. It is much better to put effort into deciding the rate in advance and then sticking to it.

When you are putting together your proposal you should be fairly clear as to what the client’s next best alternative is. This could impact on pricing and even on your proposed solution. I remember one particular opportunity where I knew that I had a few competitors who would probably be offering similar solutions. I took the time to emphasise the benefits of working with me and explained exactly what was in it for them.

Many people needlessly give in to requests to lower costs, especially when confronted with professional buyers. I did so in my early days of sales, only to discover that the client would have paid the full price if I had kept my nerve. If you get to negotiating price, you can be pretty sure that the client wants to work with you and it is just down to ‘horse trading’.

Ask for the Business

Blue sign with ask for what you need in Consultative Selling
Is it really this simple?


Closing the sale is something that people often find a bit tricky when they follow more traditional approaches to sales. If you approach the early stages of the consultative sales process correctly, you will understand how the decision will be made, and you are prepared to walk away from unsuitable opportunities that you do not think can be won. In these circumstances, closing the sale becomes more of a natural progression rather than a process in which you need to use pushy tactics.

This stage of the sales process is where a decision needs to be made, one way or another, and if you have covered all the bases earlier on in, this stage should be very quick and a bit of a formality.

Getting a ‘No’ is better than not knowing where you stand. The trick is to get your ‘No’s’ early in the sales process, with good qualification. One thing I have learnt is that you will increase your chances of getting a ‘Yes’ by asking for the business, which can be as simple as saying:

I would really like to work with you on this project, would you like to go ahead?”


I am looking forward to us working together, when would you like to get started?”

If the person starts coming back with issues and reservations, it is an indication that you are actually still at the ‘Negotiate Solution’ stage and more work needs to be done.

The criteria for leaving this stage are more than just getting a verbal ‘Yes’. The sale is not closed until you have the appropriate documentation, such as a purchase order. For most of my services, I am paid in advance and so, for me, I know the sale is definitely closed when the cash is in the company bank account!

Deliver the Promise

This is the last stage of the consultative sales process, but if we do this important stage well, we will increase the chances of follow-on work, referrals, and testimonials. The follow-on work could be in the form of a project extension or it could be additional projects. It could even be internal recommendations for similar work with other parts of the same organisation. Delivering on your promises turns a sales process into a sales cycle, and after you have successfully delivered on a few projects, you will find that you may get multiple sales opportunities for new projects at the same time.

Hopefully, you can see that when you have delivered, or indeed exceeded your promises, you will start to be seen as a trusted adviser who not only has useful and reliable information and insights but can also be trusted to deliver what they say they will.


In order to feel in control of sales and to be able to generate a regular flow of sales billable projects, it is important we understand the mechanics of sales and the various stages a sales opportunity needs to go through from an initial expression of interest to closing the sale.

There are seven stages of the sales process:
  1. Generate Interest
  2. Qualify Interest
  3. Discover Wants and Needs
  4. Propose Solution
  5. Negotiate Solution
  6. Ask for the Business
  7. Deliver the Promise

For each sales opportunity, we need to be clear what stage it is at and what we need to do to get it to the next stage. The process becomes a cycle leading to further new sales opportunities when you deliver your promises.

IV – Chapter Three: Your 5-Star Clients

Hand comparing five star client to one star client for Consultative Selling
Not all clients are equal



One thing that makes sales much easier, especially for business developers who also need to do billable work, is to have a very clear sense of what constitutes an ideal client. When you have clarity as to who your ideal clients are, finding and winning business with them becomes so much easier. In this chapter we will define the top criteria for your ideal clients and how to use this information in the sales process.

Clients From Hell and How to Avoid Them

Julian was incredibly frustrated. His business was able to build incredibly complex websites using cutting-edge technology and yet all his marketing efforts seemed to attract clients with no money, no manners, and no idea what they wanted. It had been fun in the early years, but now he was finding business a bit of a chore. If only he could get more of the right kind of clients he would be making more money and his staff would stop complaining about rude clients.

Julian’s problem is quite common. He did not have a clear sense of his ideal clients and their buying motivations, and as a result, his marketing messages were very generic. His website was designed to appeal to the masses, and when networking, he was quite unspecific. To make matters worse, he did not have any process to qualify and weed out unsuitable prospects; he was trying to win them all without realising that some would become ‘Clients from Hell’ and he would wish he’d never started working with them.

Get better clients

Once Julian had clarity with regard to his ideal clients, he was able to put out stronger marketing messages that were highly attractive to them and then use the ‘Qualify Interest’ stage of the consultative sales process to identify and eliminate the ‘Clients from Hell’.

As a consequence, he started winning clients who spent more money with his business and so were more profitable, and with whom his staff enjoyed working. He also avoided wasting huge amounts of time on unprofitable clients. His ideal clients also made sales easier for Julian by making referrals to their own clients and contacts.

Rate Your Prospects

Everywhere you go online these days you are asked to rate things. On TripAdvisor you rate hotels and accommodation, on Amazon you rate books and a lot more, and on eBay you rate suppliers. A common way to rate both things and people is to award them between one and five stars. The greater the number of stars awarded, the higher the approval rating. Whilst rating in this way is very subjective, it does help other people to gauge your opinions. What if you were able to rate your clients? Who would you give five stars to and who would get one star? Would any get no stars?

Whilst many people tell me that all their clients are important to them, if I ask them which specific client they like the best they will always have one or two that they prefer; and yet they are often unable to say just why they prefer them other than offering quite vague statements like, “They are nicer to deal with”, or “They spend more money”. We need something a little more objective.

In the example above, the top five criteria for Julian’s ideal clients at that time were:
  • They are located in London, England.
  • They have an entrepreneurial mindset.
  • They have sales of at least £0.5m.
  • Their workforce is based in multiple locations.
  • They are looking for cloud-based solutions.

I call these 5-Star Qualities, and when you have them defined, you can use them both in your qualification criteria and in making your marketing more targeted. When combined with what we will be covering in the next few chapters, your sales and marketing messages will also be much more attractive to your ideal clients and you will stand out from the crowd.

You can rate your prospects by giving them one star for each of the 5-star Qualities. The ones with all five stars will be your 5-star Prospects. If you have identified and listed your qualities correctly, then in my view, if they do not have any stars you should seriously consider qualifying out the opportunity. One star or more is okay, but normally you are looking for at least three stars.

For Julian, three of the criteria became non-negotiable:
  • They have sales of at least £0.5m.
  • Their workforce is based in multiple locations.
  • They are looking for cloud-based solutions.

Rate Your Existing Clients

In addition to rating your prospects, your 5-star Qualities will help you to prioritise which of your existing clients you should be spending more time with in order to grow the business you do with them. Clients with five stars will be especially important for you to spend time with to explore new sales opportunities and referrals. You will also want to defend the account against competition in the best way possible—by strengthening the relationship and being seen as the trusted adviser.

If you have existing clients with zero stars, you may want to examine whether they are worth pursuing for any future business. If they are, then you may want to refine your 5-star Qualities, as it would suggest that there is some adjustment to be made. At the very least you will probably want to do business development on a more reactive basis with that client, rather than investing prime business development time with them.

Defining Your 5-star Qualities

Hand of man ranking stars of clients for consultative selling
Face it, not all clients are the same


I would now like to lead you through a process for selecting your 5-Star Qualities and meeting your 5-Star Clients. We will do it in a number of logical steps. There will be exercises for you to do at each step, and in order to help you to fully understand the steps and apply the principle to your business, I thought it would be useful to give you a working example as we go through them, as that will make it more meaningful to you. Just for clarity, your list should not include a specific budget to do with the current opportunity, but it could well include a typical annual spend.

In this example, I will focus on an IT support client who came to me because they had certain sales that they were struggling to close. The first thing we needed to do was to get them to identify what made an ideal client. Coming straight out with your top five qualities is very difficult, so to get started, I recommend you first produce a ‘laundry list’. Perhaps by getting together with your colleagues and having a brainstorming session.

Step 1: Brainstorm a list of the qualities of an ideal client

IT support example—Here is the initial list of qualities we produced in the order given:

  1. The company needs to have between 15 and 100 PCs.
  2. Head Office based in London and within the M25.
  3. They need to collect payments by direct debit.
  4. They value their time and know the cost of their down time.
  5. They are not IT savvy and need ‘hand-holding’.
  6. They have someone responsible for IT (e.g. Finance Director).
  7. They have old equipment.
  8. They already have an IT support contract in place.
  9. They have multiple sites.
  10. They want a full-service (one-stop-shop).
  11. They have fallen out with their IT Suppliers who have let them down.
  12. Their prospects don’t like being sold to by pushy sales people.
  13. They have an entrepreneurial mindset.


Get a piece of paper and write out a long list of all the different qualities you look for in an ideal client. Just keep listing at this stage rather than judging. You will get to do that next!

Step 2: Select the most important 5-Star Quality

From your long list now choose the one quality that is so important that without it you would not do business with a potential client.

IT Support Example:

1. The company needs to have between 15 and 100 PCs.

Step 3: Select the rest of your 5-Star Qualities in order of importance

IT Support Example: Here are the 5-Star Qualities:

  1. The company needs to have between 15 and 100 PCs.
  2. Head Office based in London and within the M25.
  3. They have fallen out with their IT Suppliers who have let them down.
  4. They value their time and know the cost of their downtime.
  5. They want a full-service (one-stop-shop).

Meet Your 5-star Clients

Now that you have your 5-Star Qualities, it’s time for you to actually meet your existing 5-Star Clients and put names to them. Get a list of all your clients, ideally, in a spreadsheet. If you do not have many clients, you can add names of clients you have nearly won or those you would like to win.

This is not as good, as you have not actually worked with them and they have not spent money with you; however, it is a start and it’s better than having no focus. Now go through the list, line by line, and each time a client has one of the 5-Star Qualities, give them a star. When you have finished, each client on your list will have anything from zero stars to five stars against it. Your 5-star Clients are the ones who have all five stars. It’s as simple as that!

Try these exercises:

Exercise 1:

Go through your client list and allocate a star for each of the 5-star Qualities they have.

Now sort your list so that clients with five stars are at the top of the list and clients with zero stars are at the bottom. Write out your 5Star Clients on a separate list. If do not have any with five Stars, that is okay. It is useful to know and it is exciting that you now know what to look for.

If you have clients on your list with no stars at all I would suggest that either you need to review your 5-Star Qualities or make a decision to not invest any more sales and marketing activity in winning that type of client. Indeed, you should be focusing your sales and marketing activity on your 5-Star Clients. You will inevitably get people who respond who do not have all five stars, but I would be cautious of taking on a client who does not merit any stars.

You may also find that your 5-Star Clients are not the ones that currently produce the most sales. This is not a problem. During the course of this book you will learn how you can earn significantly more money from your 5-Star Clients by focusing on finding additional problems you can solve for them or providing a fuller solution to what you currently offer.

You should just sense-check the list by making sure that all the clients on it are the type of client you would like to attract and also would like to be doing even more business with. If there are any on the list that should not be there, you will need to review and fine-tune your 5-Star Qualities and redo the exercise.

Exercise 2:

Create a prioritised list of clients based on the number of stars awarded and meet your 5-star Clients! Do a quick sense-check to make sure these are the clients you would most like to attract and win.

What to Do When You Don’t Yet Have Any Paying Clients

Retired man thinking about consultative selling
Is having clients the requirement for conslutlative selling?


Whilst the ultimate test for 5-star Clients is them paying cash for your services, there are lots of clues as to who could be your 5-star Clients. For example, do you have specialist knowledge or experience in a particular industry? Does your business serve people with a problem like you once had? If you have been working with clients who should have been able to afford to pay but have not done so to date, it could just be related to your inexperience at making a sales approach or that perhaps you have not yet felt comfortable charging but intend to do so.

When I am working with start-up companies I get them to tell me their story of how they started in business, why they started in business, and what they were doing before. There are always clues which will point to who would make an ideal client.

You do have to be able to see things in terms of how the client will benefit. Your story could reveal some clues as to what would make an ideal client for where you are now in your business. It may change in the future as your business grows, but it is important that you start with your current situation and recent past.

What to Do if You Do Not Yet Have Any 5-star Clients

One of the benefits of meeting your 5-Star Clients is that you can start to identify with those types of clients. They will be a great source of stories that will help you with your marketing and sales processes, as you will see in later chapters.

Near misses

If you do not yet have any 5-star Clients, you may want to add to your list what I call ‘near misses’. These are sales that you wanted to win, and should have won, but narrowly missed out on. Check to see if any of those fit your 5-star criteria and then look at the reasons why you lost the sale. If you did not get that information from your prospect at the time, then consider going back to them and asking. What were the main objections?

If it was anything to do with price or issues that can be overcome with better selling skills, then add them to your list of 5-star Clients. If it was something structural, like they were looking for an international presence and you cannot currently provide that, then you should go back and check your 5-Star Qualities to see if you need to make any changes.

Just to be clear, we are looking to identify examples of 5-star Clients so you can get more of them, rather than adding these near misses to your actual clients list. It’s all about gaining clarity with regard to the type(s) of clients you should be aiming for.

What about 4-stars?

If you have a lot of clients with 4-star Qualities, look to see if there is any consistency with regard to the missing star. Anf if there is, it could be that you need to change things so that you will be more appealing to clients with that quality or it could mean you need to review your 5-Star Qualities. If there is no consistency with regard to the missing star, my recommendation is to proceed with the rest of the book based on your 4-star Clients. It is probably just a matter of time before you acquire 5-Star Clients and when you apply the insights of the book, you will be more likely to speed up the process of finding clients with all 5-Star Qualities.

If you have only 3-star Clients or less, and you have a good number of clients, then review your 5-star Qualities and make sure you are happy with them. If you still have only clients with three stars or less, it just means we will need to be more creative when it comes to being able to answer the ‘why you?’ question that we will cover in the next chapter.


In this chapter, we went through the process of meeting your 5Star Clients. We identified the five most important qualities that clients require to qualify as an ideal client. We then went through your client list and allocated a star for each of the qualities your clients possess and we prioritised them according to the number of stars they have. The clients possessing all five stars are your 5-star Clients, and now you know them by name!

V – Chapter Four: The ‘Why’ Factor

female saleperson pointing to why sign for Consultative Selling
Finally, uncover clients’ unique buying motives now!



In Chapter One we have seen the importance of buying motivation in sales, and in this chapter we are going to delve much deeper into the subject. Now that you know who your 5-Star Clients are, we need to discover their different buying motives. We will also discover why your 5-Star Clients will want to buy from you and not your competitors. Gaining these insights will make it easier to generate more interest from existing and potential 5-Star Clients and it will make it easier to win the sale.

There Are Many Reasons Why People Buy

One of the biggest insights I got into sales was that people can be motivated to buy a specific product or service for a number of possible reasons rather than there just being one single reason. Moreover, that motivation is totally different as to why they decide to buy from us and not our competitors. In addition, the motivation to continue to buy from us may be different from the motivation to make the first purchase.

Like many people, I used to assume that the reason my best clients bought from me was the quality of service and the relationship. Whilst it was true, that would only be attractive to people who wanted a better level of service. Moreover, there are few service companies that do not claim to offer a superior level of service, and the fact of the matter is that it is all very subjective.

Discover them all!

If we want to attract more 5-star Clients and get them to start to buy from us, we need to understand what originally motivated our existing 5-star Clients to seek a supplier of our services—then we can find other businesses that currently have similar motivations. From my research of working with almost a thousand small and medium-sized service businesses, I have discovered that, rather than just one, there are normally five or six different buying motivations for any value proposition.

Different companies have different reasons for being interested in buying our services, and we want to find the one that is the best fit with what we offer.

Knowing why they buy is important in order to attract them to us. Then, once they have decided what they are buying, we need to know why they would buy from us and not from one of our competitors.

In other words, we need to discover:
  • Why do our 5-star Clients start buying?
  • Why do our 5-star Clients decide to buy from us?

These are two very different buying motives and each impacts different stages of the sales process. To generate buying interest from a 5-star Client we need, through our communication, to appeal to their primary reason for buying a particular proposition. To get them to decide to buy from us so that we win the sale is a completely different matter, and it is important that we are clear about the difference. We also need to be clear about when, during the sales process, we address each of these two buying motivations.

If your 5-star Clients are educated buyers of your services, then telling them about how you are different from your competitors may be important at the ‘Generate Interest’ stage. For most of us, however, it is much easier to engage prospects in a sales conversation by appealing to their primary buying motivation.

A Practical Example

One of the stories I use to help people understand the concept of buying motivation is the work I did with an international sewing machine company. I tell this story because it is a simple illustration of buying motivation with something very tangible. I find that once people understand the concepts using this simple example, it is easy for them to apply the principles to more complex professional services.

The marketing manager of this sewing machine company was organising a conference for their resellers and wanted me to be their keynote speaker. He was worried about the impact the Internet was having on the sales coming from resellers, and he wanted me to help them win more local business from people walking into their stores, rather than them relying on the Internet.

The resellers are all small and medium-sized businesses that typically own one or more high street stores selling sewing machines, haberdashery, and services such as training and servicing. The impact of people buying their sewing machines online was driving a lot of resellers out of business. People were researching sewing machines online in the first instance, then they would go into a local store to look at the sewing machine and ask the people in the shop questions, then they would go back home and buy it online—a practice known as ‘showrooming’.

What’s the deal with showrooming?

This buyer activity was leading to the resellers competing with each other online based on price, and as a result, they were not making much money. Many resellers had to move away from the high street into cheaper premises, which meant they were also missing out on any passing trade. The marketing manager could see that the resellers’ lack of selling skill was threatening the whole existence of their reseller network. They wanted me to show them how they could get people coming into their store, not only to buy whilst they were in the store, but also to pay a higher price than buying exactly the same machine online.

I proposed that my keynote speech should focus on helping them understand the buying motivations of people entering the shop and how to use value-added services to increase the perceived value of buying their sewing machine locally. The marketing manager told me that their ideal clients were locally-based women, aged 45 to 55 years old, who are interested in sewing and embroidery. When I asked him why they wanted to buy a sewing machine in the first place, his only answer was that they wanted to do things like make curtains, make clothes, repair clothes, and make crafts.

Client Archetypes

Five types of items in hands on light blue background
Let’s explore the five in more detail


I have developed a technique I call ‘Client Archetypes’ to help businesses quickly distinguish different buying motivations for a particular service. It basically involves identifying different primary buying motivations and giving them a name. There are normally five or six Client Archetypes for any product or service, and in the case of the sewing machine company, I managed to come up with five. I am going to go through these five Client Archetypes with you, and as you read through the descriptions I would like you to start thinking what the Client Archetypes for your services might look like.

An important aspect of Client Archetypes is the name we associate with each buying motive. It should be one or two words that sum up the buying motivation. Once you have done this for your business you should be able to list specific clients against each Client Archetype. This will then make it easier to understand with whom we are communicating, what questions to ask, and what they will find attractive.

The five Client Archetypes for this sewing machine company are:

  • The Money-savers
  • The Fashionistas
  • The Crafties
  • The Part-time Entrepreneurs
  • The Professionals
#1- The Money-savers

Money-savers, as the name suggests, are interested in saving money. Not just saving money on the sewing machine, but also saving money with the sewing machine. Their primary buying motivation for walking in the store was because they wanted to save money by making things like curtains, soft furnishings and clothes.

They wanted the sewing machine as a means of saving money rather than having to buy those things ready-made. As a Money-saver, their whole mindset when buying a sewing machine was to save money, and of course, they would also want to spend as little as possible on the sewing machine. They would potentially be interested in reconditioned sewing machines if the store was able to sell them.

#2- The Fashionistas

Whilst the Fashionistas would probably like to get a sewing machine at the lowest price, that is not their primary buying motivation. The Fashionistas love fashion and clothes. They want to look stylish, and their primary motivation for buying a sewing machine is to look good. They want to make their own clothes and make alterations to clothes. Their buying behaviour is being driven by the desire to make their own clothes in order to look fashionable.

Fashionistas may be interested in attending local workshops where they can learn dressmaking skills and how to design their own clothes. They may also be interested in meeting other Fashionistas and swapping ideas and patterns. A local store could use this to attract Fashionistas to the store and give them a reason to buy the sewing machine from them rather than buying it online.

#3- The Crafties

Crafties are interested in buying a sewing machine for a completely different reason: they like to make things like crafts as a creative outlet. They probably have a desk job and make things as a hobby. The thing about Crafties is that they are always thinking of their next project and trying new things. Perhaps they are currently doing a cross-stitch pattern and thinking about a project that requires a sewing machine. So the primary buying motivation for the Crafties is to use a sewing machine for their hobby of making crafts. I could have named them the Hobbyists, but at the time I felt Crafties would be more memorable.

As Crafties are always looking to do new things, they might be interested in workshops and training in sewing and embroidery techniques. They might also like to meet and share ideas with other local Crafties. The resellers could probably use the training events to get them interested in more sophisticated machines, and I suggested they may want to consider introducing a part-exchange policy, meaning they could then sell the reconditioned sewing machines to the Money-savers.

Again, you can see that if you made these events exclusive to Crafties, they’d have good potential reasons for buying locally rather than on the Internet.

#4- The Part-time Entrepreneurs

This group of people is motivated to buy a sewing machine so that they can make money in their spare time. Just like the other Client Archetypes, they may use their sewing machine to make curtains, clothes, soft furnishings, and crafts, but their motivation to do so is to earn extra money. Their reason for buying local would be servicing. If their sewing machine was to break down they would not be able to use it to make money. It would be far more convenient to be able to drop their sewing machine into their local store rather than having to post it to another part of the country.

#5- The Professionals

This group is similar to the Part-time Entrepreneurs, but their primary motivation for buying a sewing machine is to use it to earn a full-time living. As a consequence, they would need a fast turnaround on servicing because it would affect their ability to earn their living. All the more reason for buying local.


I hope you can see that for every Client Archetype except the Money-savers, there is a good reason for the resellers to use to get people to buy locally rather than go for the lowest price on the Internet. From a sales perspective, they were advised to spend as little time as possible with the Money-savers as there would be a high probability that no matter what was said they would still go for the lowest price they could pay.


  • Money-savers –> Save money by making things
  • Fashionistas –> Make their own stylish clothes
  • Crafties –> Creative outlet
  • Part-time –> Entrepreneurs Earn extra money
  • Professionals –> Earn a living

IT Services Example

Here are the Client Archetypes for the IT services company I featured in the previous chapter:


  • Annoyed –>  Their IT support company has let them down and they are looking for an alternative supplier.
  • Upgraders –> They are looking for a fuller service than their current IT support company is able to provide.
  • Problem Solvers –> They have a problem that has been ongoing and which their existing support company has not been able to fix.
  • Buyers –> They are looking for a particular type of software or service not supplied by their existing IT support company; for example, second line support.
  • Advice Seekers –> They are seeking advice on an issue, and they have not had a satisfactory answer from their existing IT support company.
  • Comparers –> They are looking to reduce the cost of their IT support, and they are checking the market to see how their existing IT support company compares.


Man taking notes on notepad
Let’s not forget these crucial tidbits


There is a natural inertia towards making change. The top three Client Archetypes are likely to have the strongest motivation or potential motivation to change their providers of IT support. At the very least it will be enough motivation to enable the IT support company to provide a product or service as a stepping stone towards selling an IT support contract.


This will be the strongest motivation. Find out more about why they are annoyed and what impact that has had on the business. Also, ask whether it was a one-off or if it is likely to happen again in the future. You want them to tell you that they have lost confidence in their current IT support company.

2. Upgraders

The company is probably growing and they have outgrown their current IT support company, who is unable to give them the attention and support they now need. They want a ‘one stop shop’ and a much more responsive support. They are probably taking a more cool-headed and cautious approach to selecting their IT support company than the Annoyed.

3. Problem Solvers

The buying motivation will be driven by the desire to solve a specific problem rather than thinking about switching suppliers. The fact that their existing IT support company has not been able to solve the problem does open the door to potentially win the contract on renewal—if they can solve the problem and nurture the relationship.

4. Buyers

Find out why the prospect wants to buy the product or service and focus on that sale, whilst finding out as much as possible about their existing IT support arrangements for any future sales pitch. If there is something that should be offered as standard (for example back up or telephone support), then follow a similar strategy to the one you’d use for the Problem Solvers Client Archetype.

5. Advice Seekers

This IT services supply company attracts quite a few people who have an existing IT services contract and whose primary interest when making contact is to get some free advice. The danger is that these people may have no current desire to change their IT services company and a lot of time could be wasted on them. However, with the right questioning, it could be possible to turn an Advice Seeker into an Upgrader.

If they are the right profile of client, but only currently looking for advice, then it could be worth giving the advice and nurturing the relationship until they are ready to buy something specific or talk about changing their IT support company. Knowing that they are an Advice Seeker will mean that you can respond appropriately.

6. Comparers

The primary buying motivation is driven by the desire to save money. We could have called them the Money-savers, but my client felt that Comparers was a better fit for them. It is important to understand from a prospect why they are comparing the market and whether there are any service issues with their current supplier. The danger is that they are just trying to get competitors to quote lower prices so that they can negotiate a lower price with their existing supplier. People rarely change service providers based on price alone because, unlike products, humans are not identical.

Switching from the status quo is a big risk and there normally needs to be another reason as well as price. If you offer an IT audit you could potentially uncover problems that could change the nature of the conversation to an Upgrader, but given the high service levels this IT services company provide, I would not advise selling on price.

Although it’s not always possible, in this case the buying motivations for the top two Client Archetypes were related, and we were able to share a similar message about the IT Support company’s higher levels of responsiveness and proactive approach to IT support.

It is worth noting that these Client Archetypes are specific to this particular IT Support company even though other IT support companies may recognise similar buying motivations. We could also do a Client Archetype exercise on other areas of their business, such as telephony and bespoke software development.

Primary Buying Motivation

A final point to note about primary motivation is that it is not the only motivation a client or potential client has when buying. It is the one that is most important to them. Going back to the sewing machine example, you can take it for granted that almost every customer wanted to pay the lowest price possible. Some, however, would pay extra and buy locally so that they could get access to the local classes and networking events where they could learn and exchange ideas—provided that this was made exclusive to customers.

Discovering Why Your 5-star Clients Buy

Now it is your turn to discover the primary motivators for your 5-star Clients and give them each a Client Archetype name.


Against each of your 5-star Clients write the primary motivation for them making contact and expressing an interest. If you have less than five primary motivators or you don’t yet have any 5-star Clients, then work down the other clients on your list. Otherwise, just think about why someone might be interested in talking to you about your services.


Now turn each of the primary motivators into a Client Archetype by giving them a name.


Prioritise your list of Client Archetypes, putting the strongest buying motivation at the top.

Why They Buy From You and No One Else

In the Internet age, it has never been easier to find alternative suppliers to meet almost any need. It is also very telling how similar many businesses seem to be to their competitors. Services are becoming commodities. If you want to stand out from the crowd and you want to charge premium rates for your services, then you need to be different. Whilst having a point of difference for the whole range of services you offer may be a struggle, it is quite easy to have a significant point of difference for the first service you sell to your 5-Star Clients if you focus on your area of maximum credibility.

Once you have used the primary sale to become a trusted adviser to a client, then you will find the need to be dramatically different is reduced, too. The trusted adviser status will increasingly become your competitive advantage. However, to win the account in the first place you do need to be different from your competitors, especially if your prospective client is already working with a competitor.

Be a Specialist

Doctor in a conversation with specialist
There’s a reason they’re called specialists


If you needed brain surgery, who would you rather have do the operation:

a. A specialist, who only does brain surgery? or

b. A generalist, who occasionally does brain surgery?

Would you be prepared to pay more for a specialist? I am confident that you would. When something is important to get right we want to make sure we get results the first time. This is a massive difference between products and services. We can test a product before we buy, and normally a product will have predictable results. The trouble with services is that they typically involve humans, and we cannot be sure of the results we are going to get.

If you can show your target audience that you have specialist experience that is relevant to them, it could give them more comfort when choosing you over their other alternatives, including doing it themselves and not doing anything at all.

Here’s an idea

My recommendation is for you to specialise in your area of maximum credibility and focus on specialisation for your first sale; then, once you have delivered on your promises and won the trust of your client, you will be able to more easily sell services where there is less difference between what you offer compared to what your competitors offer.

A good example of how you can use specialisation to gain a competitive edge is one of my first clients. Before setting up a meeting effectiveness consultancy, he had been a senior buyer for a major supermarket in the UK. He had been in business for six months and was struggling to get any interest. He was very knowledgeable about meetings, but he had no success stories to point to. In short, he could not prove that he could deliver what he promised, and despite lots of discussions with former suppliers to the supermarket who he knew really well, he was not winning any business.

Change focus and see the results

His fortunes changed when we changed the focus to his area of maximum credibility. He told me about the requests he was getting from his former supermarket supplier contacts for advice as to how they could win more business with the supermarket. They were not interested in general meeting advice, but they were very interested in being more effective in having sales meetings with the supermarket chain. This was an area of massive credibility, especially as many of those contacts had tried to sell more products to him in the past without success.

By framing his service in terms of where he has maximum credibility and targeting companies with a compelling motivation to buy he was able to transform the nature of the sales conversations. Within three months his business was transformed, and he had to start taking on associates and employing people. In addition, once he had won the initial work based around effective buyer meetings, he was able to generate interest in his other meeting services.

I find that most professional services businesses have at least one area of maximum credibility, and often it is revealed through the story of how and why the business or a particular service arose in the first place. Finding that specialisation and having the confidence to use it will make a massive difference in answering the “why you?” question, because people like to know they are working with a specialist.

Here are some examples of potential specialisation:
  • Ultra-high levels of responsiveness.
  • Solving extremely technically challenging problems.
  • Working in a very specific part of an industry when domain knowledge is important.
  • Working with a specialist product.
  • Working on international projects.

Specialising in Nothing

The point about being a specialist is about building credibility. You can often get an edge over generalists and command higher rates where the buying motivation is strong enough. I see many businesses that refuse to really specialise and yet claim to be specialists in a long list of areas. This can actually damage credibility as it shows that you are just trying to appear to be different when in actual fact you are just a generalist.

I believe it is possible to have more than one specialist area, but I would keep it to as few as possible. The important thing is to make sure your specialisation is attractive to your 5-star Clients and gives you an edge over your competitors in winning your first piece of work. Once you are tried, tested, and trusted you will often be able to win work over a specialist, but you must first develop a track record of delivering results.

Aim to Be a Hyper-specialist

Being a specialist is better than being a generalist, but if the benefits of your specialisation are not apparent then it will not help you win business. For example, you may specialise in a particular product, but if there are hundreds of other companies that specialise in that product too, then there will need to be some other reason for choosing your business rather than your hundreds of direct competitors.
Working in the charity sector would be a specialist area. Working with mental health charities would be a hyper-specialist area.

In our IT services example, they realised that although their fast response times were impressive, there were lots of competitors also offering the same. One thing that was different was their offering second line support for bespoke software, which for their target audience was a particular requirement and actually a reason why many of their 5-Star Clients first started talking to them.

Here are some more examples of hyper-specialisms:

Specialism –> Hyper-Specialism
  • Business intelligence consulting –> Data quality consulting
  • Bespoke software development –> Bespoke software development for accountants
  • Website testing –> Website testing on mobile devices
  • IT support for small businesses –> Secure backup for independent financial advisers (IFAs)
  • Website development –> Websites for wine wholesalers


Go through your client list and think about what services you have provided for them to see if there are any obvious areas of hyper-specialism or reasons why your 5-star Clients would choose to work with you over your competitors—at least for a specific service.

Prove It!

Credibility is an important part of the sales process, especially once you have presented your solution and you are hoping to get your proposal approved. A prospect may happily speak to you up to that point, but when it comes to making a decision, they tend to play safe, especially where there are large sums of money involved, or in the case of corporates, their own personal credibility is on the line.

People in companies do not like taking risks, and given the choice of two or more options, they will almost always play it safe. You need to expect to have to prove your expertise by providing a contact to an existing client as a reference. This is normally just on the first sale, and if you focus on your area of maximum credibility it should be easy to do. You can give testimonials and case studies, but without names they are worthless, and if you include names you need to expect that someone may call them!

This may seem tedious, but once you have proven your expertise, you will have given your prospective 5-star Client comfort that they are in safe hands. And when you deliver on your promise, you will be well on your way to becoming a trusted adviser. You will find you will win against competitors even if there are no real differences in your services. Furthermore, when you tailor your services specifically to the buying motivations of your 5-Star Clients, you will find you start to put blue water between your company and your nearest competitors because you give your clients peace of mind.


When you understand why your 5-Star Clients buy from you it makes it easier to both attract and win more of them. Why they start to talk to you will be driven by their buying motivation. When we understand what motivates a 5-Star Client to want to talk to us, we can communicate messages that tap into that buying motivation and initiate the first stage of the sales process: ‘Generate Interest’.

There are normally five or six different motivators for any service proposition, and we did an exercise called Client Archetypes where we identified the primary buying motivations and gave them a name. Whilst the buying motivation will get a sales conversation started, there needs to be a reason why your potential new client will buy from you rather than your competition. Once you are seen as a trusted adviser you will be at a competitive advantage, but until then your best strategy is likely to focus your first sale on an area where you have demonstrable specialist expertise that makes you a safe choice.

You do need to be prepared to prove that you have the technical expertise that you claim, especially when working with larger companies who tend to play safe and take more care over buying decisions.

VI – Chapter Five: Start Small and Grow

Hand holding a growing plant
Gain trust before winning large projects and you will grow



Many small and medium-sized consulting firms have one or two very large client accounts. These client accounts will have probably began as a small account and grown over time. As the consultancy grows they often try to win larger projects, and they end up spending a lot of time and effort trying to win against stiff competition.

People in larger companies like to play it safe, and until you are tried, tested, and trusted in winning large projects— especially against big consulting firms—it is a challenge. With larger projects, your prospects will tend to go with the low-risk option and use an existing supplier they trust, or a major brand, even if it means paying more.

In this chapter I will show you how to use this aspect of human nature to your advantage so that you are able to make sales easier for yourself, and over time, build very large client accounts.

Think Big but Start Small

The temptation in sales is to make the sale as big as possible. The problem is that when you make your first sale you are not tried, tested, and trusted. Being recommended by a trusted contact helps, and so does being able to allow the prospect to speak to some of your existing clients. However, when it comes to the crunch, the fear of taking risks means that unless you are working for a major consulting brand or you have proven specialist experience, you will probably be in a weak competitive position.

Yet once you become a trusted adviser, winning large projects against major brands will be much easier and often projects will be awarded without having to compete at all! I remember in my IT consulting days I helped a major police force to write a bid document, knowing that it was our project to lose. The other companies competing did not really stand much chance of winning. If you are bidding for large projects, you should be wondering who is helping them write the request for a proposal.

Let’s look at it from your prospect’s perspective

Imagine you have a very important delivery to make. It absolutely has to arrive on time or there will be serious consequences. You can use your usual supplier, who has never let you down, but is very expensive, or a local company you have been introduced to who looks very impressive and is significantly cheaper. So you want to start saving money, but the time to test a new company out is not when it really matters.

You would probably give them some smaller jobs first to see how reliable they are before trusting them with a career defining assignment. The same happens with professional services. A potential client will want to test you out before handing over a very large project. So my recommendation is to make it easy for them to do so by always starting off with a small sale.

Primary Sale, Subsequent Sale

Not only should the first sale be relatively small, it should be addressing an unresolved problem that your prospective client has. Trying to compete by offering the same services as your competitors is hard work. If they have already worked with a competitor, there is the risk that after all your hard work in getting them interested, they will end up buying the service from the competitor. It is much easier to win work in a highly focused specialist area. Once you have won your first project you now have a bridgehead to start winning more work, even though the client might have a working relationship with a competitor. Your area of specialisation should make you an obvious choice, and that is why I advise clients to use that specialism strategically to win the first sale.

Example 1

A small and growing plastics company is based in the UK, with a factory in Eastern Europe. The IT infrastructure in both locations is nice and stable and the company is doing well. The company is building a sales team in both locations, and there is a need to make changes to their bespoke quoting software and to also install a new CRM module to their accounting software.

Although the IT support company is very good at resolving support calls, they have been dragging their feet over installing the software and do not seem to want to get involved in supporting the quoting software. The plastics company is in the middle of a contract and is also happy with the general support they receive. All they want is to get some changes made and get a package installed.

Without success, an IT support client had been targeting this company to win their general support contact each time it came up for renewal. We identified that supporting bespoke software was a major point of difference and an area of maximum credibility. Rather than waiting for the time when the IT support contract would be renewed, they seized the opportunity to win the small piece of work.

They did a great job and spent time nurturing the relationship. Within six months they had won the entire support contract of both the UK and the site in Eastern Europe. They then went on to strategically use unsupported bespoke software as a way of breaking into other accounts which already had an existing supplier.

Example 2

The finance department of an airline uses a particular business intelligence tool for planning and forecasting, as well as management reporting. The software company sold the system direct and it is performing well. The finance director gets a consultant from the software company to come in and make changes to the system. The airline is part of a very large tour operator and they are big customers of the software company.

They use many of their different software packages and buy a lot of consulting services, too. Indeed, the IT director used to work for the software company and has an excellent relationship with his account manager.

The finance department is always very busy, and the finance director is getting frustrated because one of his finance managers is supposed to be developing a cash flow forecast system and it does not seem to be progressing. The finance director has dropped a few hints to the consultant, but he is a product specialist rather than someone who fully understands finance.

A relatively small IT consultancy that worked with the software and specialised in hiring qualified accountants was able to win a small project to develop the cash flow forecast system. Then, through doing a good job and working on the relationship, they won more and more work away from the software company. The airline ended up spending over £100,000 per year in consulting revenues even though their client remained loyal to the software company.


Consider what would make an ideal primary sale for your business. Make sure it is an area where you have specialist expertise.

Designing Growth Into Your Sales Process

Growth spelled with wooden blocks
Never plan to stay in one spot, but instead pan to grow


It takes a fair amount of time and effort to win new clients, and so it is better to find clients that are able to produce project work on an ongoing basis. Indeed, a 5-Star Client should keep coming back for more and more services. If you focus on winning 5-star Clients and make sure you take care of them in the early days, they will see you as a trusted adviser and make sales very easy for you to achieve. They will not only contact you when they want to talk through a potential project, they will recommend you to colleagues and contacts.

I remember the biggest single sale I made when I was building my IT consulting practice arose as a result of an internal recommendation. There was no competition! This was a common feature in the second and third year of a relationship because of the hard work I had put into building the relationship in the first year.

Design to start small and grow

Since it is important to start small and grow, we should design this into our client acquisition strategy. We should focus our marketing and lead generation activity on attracting potential 5-star Clients with specific buying motivations and then have a standard first sale which we use to start each client off with. This is not because we are incapable of making a large sale; it’s because we want to give our new client the opportunity to feel comfortable working with us without taking a large risk. Although it is not guaranteed, we should then expect to make a follow-on sale to a good proportion of our clients.

It is not necessary to start every project with a small sale, just the very first project. Once we are well established within a client account we should then be in a good competitive position. You may decide to strategically start small with some projects with existing clients to get some momentum. For example, doing a small initial pilot project will help get the project started and minimise the risk. Once people can see that it is going to be a success they can then expand the project with confidence.

Different Ways to Grow a Client Account

There are three major ways to grow a client account on a proactive basis:

  • Project expansions
  • New projects
  • Client expansion
#1- Project expansions

In classic sales terminology, a project expansion is known as upselling. You start off with a small sale and then seek to expand the project once you have shown initial success. Your small primary sale should be designed to be capable of expanding a project. For example, a health check or audit will often find problems, and any one of those problems could lead to a project expansion. My advice is to design the deliverable of the small first sale so that it does not guarantee a project expansion.

Normally, you would sell it on the basis that they can use the information to do the work internally or with an alternative supplier. However, if you do a great job and you are working in your specialist area, there is a good chance that you will get the follow-on work. If it is obvious that the health check is just a vehicle for you to write a proposal it will take a lot more effort to get a client to be prepared to pay for the first sale.

I prefer to make the first sale an independent service product that has high-perceived value. The prospect of the client being able to do the work themselves makes it appealing, and it makes it seem much more independent and unbiased.

#2- New projects

A healthy way of growing a client account is by finding additional projects with your existing client contact. Whilst working at a client’s premises on consulting work, you can see opportunities everywhere if you know what to look and listen out for. Having done the work on Client Archetypes and buying motivation for your different propositions, you will be able to recognise the problems you are able to fix. The trick is to start a conversation with the client about the problem; we will be covering how to do this in the next chapter.

You will make it easier to talk about additional projects if you design regular account reviews into your way of doing business. During the account review, you will both review the delivery of the service since the last review and confirm actions. You will then look forward to the next period and identify what needs to happen. It’s during the conversation about the forthcoming period that you can discuss other problems.

If you are providing ongoing services like IT Support, you can schedule a review every three months. If you are doing a project like a software development, you will include regular reviews during the life of the project, with a formal review once the project has been completed. It will be much easier to gain agreement if you tell your new client that this is how you do business. It will make you look more professional, and even though there will be a time cost, you should see it as part of your business development activity.

#3- Client expansion

If you really want to build a client account and make sales easy for yourself, you should be looking to expand your client accounts beyond your current client contacts. To do this you need to network within your client account, developing relationships as you go. You can use your trusted relationship with your existing client contacts to get introduced to new client contacts that might require similar services.

For example, say you have been engaged to provide services to a company which is a subsidiary of a large group. You can ask your client contact to introduce you to their counterpart in one or more of the sister companies. It’s the same as a referral, except that it’s an internal referral and therefore much easier to ask for. Also, the fact that you have done some great work within the same company will make it an internal reference site. Your client contacts will become your champions.


Review your existing client accounts one-by-one and consider the growth potential for project expansion, new projects, and client expansion.

Prioritising Accounts for Growth

As business developers, we want to build our accounts but we have a limited time available, especially if we have responsibilities for delivering billable work. Some of our clients will have much bigger scope for sales growth than others, and the challenge is to know where best to spend our limited business development time. A big mistake is to spend all of our business development time with our largest accounts just because they are large.

Whilst they are no doubt important and we need to defend our most important accounts against competition, we should be allocating sufficient business development time on accounts where there is good growth potential. Our 5-star Clients should be the ones where there is the most business growth potential, although some will have more scope for growth than others.

Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand

Female Hand holding rocks and pebble at Sandcut Beach on the West Coast
Put first things first


In his excellent book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey uses the analogy of putting rocks, pebbles, and sand into a beer glass. The habit is called ‘Put first things first’ and it is about becoming more effective with your time management. I recommend reading the book to get the full value, but the essence of the analogy is that you will be able to get more rocks, pebbles, and sand into a beer glass if you put the rocks in first, then the pebbles, and finally the sand.

This is because the pebbles will fit into the spaces between the rocks and the sand will fill up the remaining space. Try doing it the other way around and the sand takes up a lot of space, leaving insufficient room for the rocks. In his book, Stephen Covey is using the rocks to symbolise tasks. The rocks are the most important tasks, and he suggests we focus on these first, then fit other tasks around them.

Apply this to account development too!

The same applies to client account development. The rocks are the clients with the biggest revenue potential. They tend to take a lot more time and effort to win and are worth the effort because of their potential for sales growth. However, if we only sought rock accounts we might not get our required sales results fast enough. At the other extreme, sand client accounts are quite easy to win in comparison, but the sales growth potential is limited.

If we spent our time focused just on winning sand client accounts, we would make a fast start but our sales would plateau because of the limited growth potential of sand client accounts. We would be spending all our time winning clients and not on growing them. Apart from being hard work, especially if we have the need to deliver client work, it will lead to much lower sales overall.

The answer is to take a leaf out of Steven Covey’s book and focus your business development activity around winning and developing the rocks. At the same time you seek to win and grow both pebble and sand client accounts. (Pebbles are halfway between sand and rocks.) A portfolio of all three will mean you balance short-term and longer-term needs.

Whilst you might travel for several hours for a sales meeting with a potential rock, you would not do so for a potential sand account. However, when you are travelling for a meeting with a potential rock client account, you might also seek to fit in some visits in the same area with pebble and sand-type clients and prospects.

Defining Your Rock, Pebble, and Sand Client Accounts

You may want to call your different categories of client account something different to rock, pebble, and sand. Many businesses refer to them instead as gold, silver, and bronze accounts to denote their value to the business. Whatever you decide to call them, you must not make the common mistake of classifying them based on existing revenue.

If you do that, you might not pay attention to accounts that do not currently yield a lot of existing revenue, but which with some focused activity, would grow into major client accounts. My recommendation is to assess the annual sales potential over the next two or three years and then have bands of annual sales revenue for each. For example:

Client type Minimum potential annual revenue

  • Rock £250,000
  • Pebble £100,000
  • Sand £50,000

Using the example above, the way this works is that you would not target any company that did not have the capacity to spend at least £50,000 a year on your company’s services. Extending this example, which of the following two sales enquiries would you go for, and which one would you qualify out?

Opportunity 1

You get an enquiry for a one-off project worth £40,000, with little scope for any follow-on work.

Opportunity 2

You get an enquiry for a small project you estimate to be worth £500, with the prospect of plenty of follow-on work which you estimate could be worth at least £75,000 a year. It could take a couple of years to reach its full potential.

If it was me and I had a choice, I would go for the second opportunity and I’d be very excited about it, even though it was currently just a small project. I would give it my all, because I would want the full £75,000. The first opportunity would be below the threshold of my minimum client size and so I would not pursue it.

Assuming I did not have an existing relationship with them, I would be at a competitive disadvantage, and the lack of potential follow-on work would mean that I would not be making the best use of my business development time. My aim is to create client accounts that grow over time and allow me to both deliver paid consultancy and also work on finding project work for myself and my team.

Assessing Potential

potential on blue background
Assessing client potential is vital for consultative selling


It is not easy to assess the potential of a client account as you can always increase potential by adding new services that you can offer to existing clients. It is very much down to the fit between the client organisation and your organisation.

A good place to start is with your 5-Star Clients. If you have correctly graded your clients and prospects, then the ones with five stars should naturally have more potential than those with one star. The fit between your two organisations is important, and it is possible that your 5-star Clients do not see you as five star a supplier! That is all down to fine-tuning your 5-Star Qualities.

Clues to help you

Having said that, when it comes to assessing potential there are a number of clues we can use, such as the current or predicted capacity for spending on your type of services. For example, if you are in the business of providing mergers and acquisitions consultancy, then a small but fast growing company could have much bigger potential over time than a large corporate who is already dominant and who historically has gone for organic growth. You never can tell exactly, so it is hard to do it scientifically, but what we can do is use our knowledge of our clients to see where there is a good fit between their anticipated future needs and the value we can add.

We need to periodically review the situation, too, as changes within a client account can change the potential quite dramatically. For example, if your company provides specialist consulting around a particular software platform and the client decides to switch to a different software platform, then your potential revenues can change quite significantly.


Decide on the potential revenue bands for Rock, Pebble, and Sand accounts. Go through your client list and identify those that fall within those revenue bands.

Defending Your Client Accounts

Just as you can start small to break into a large account and gradually push out your competitors, the same can happen to you, too. The risk is that you develop a relationship so much that you become complacent and assume that the client will only ever buy from you. The best way to defend an account from competition is to value the account and give it the attention it deserves.

I recommend that you design formal account reviews into your service, not just as a way to find new sales opportunities, but also as a method of ensuring that the client account gets sufficient attention. We want our clients to talk to us about their problems rather than to our competitors. If we are doing our job properly, even if a competitor starts talking to a client and giving them ideas, our client will tell us all about it and get us to do the work instead.


If you want to win very large client accounts, it is better to start your relationship with a small project and then grow the business rather than trying to compete for large opportunities when you are not yet tried, tested, and trusted. You can grow a small opportunity into a significant client account through project expansion, new projects, and client expansion. Prioritising your accounts by potential will allow you to put your business development effort where you will get the maximum results for your time.

Divide up your client accounts based on growth potential and set a minimum value so that you are clear as to the size of prospect you are pursuing. Give priority to 5-Star Client accounts with the highest growth potential and schedule the remainder of your client accounts around this core activity. Remember to not only focus on winning new business but also on defending your existing business against advances from your competition.

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