A Good Consultant Is Always Selling

by Seth Petry-Johnson 16. May 2012 19:24

When I was just starting out as a consultant, a friend and co-worker commented that "a good consultant is always selling". Three and a half years later I've come to agree, and in fact I think an appreciation of this concept is critical to becoming a truly effective consultant.

In consulting, like many industries, attracting new business is time consuming and sometimes expensive. It's hard to stay fully utilized during project transitions and gaps in the work schedule can quickly eat away at your profit margin. Good consultants understand that adopting a sales mindset allows them to convert existing engagements into larger ones, and one-time customers into repeat clients.

Done right, this is a service to the customer, not a sleazy "sales technique" to increase billed hours. I'm not talking about artificially inflating schedules or gold-plating unnecessary features, but rather caring enough about the customer's end goals that you can help them identify opportunities they might otherwise miss.

To set the stage, a quick example

My team recently spent a week making changes to an existing feature for a customer. During the iteration demo, I realized that the changes we'd made were going to interact awkwardly with a feature coming in the next iteration. Though it was implemented "per the spec", the combination of the two features was going to be confusing and hard to use.

At the same time, I realized that by re-designing an existing feature of the site we could not only improve that feature, but also improve the feature we'd just built and completely avoid the need for the upcoming changes that were going to be so difficult. In short, by totally re-envisioning a section of the site we could radically simplify some key functionality.

This re-design was totally out of scope for the project goals and would cost the customer at least a week of additional work, but they were thrilled to add it to the backlog anyway! 

Why? Because I had found an idea that was worth more to them than the cash they would trade for it. I had successfully "sold" them a concept for improving their software. 

To sell successfully, you must understand what your customer values

I'd been working with this customer long enough to know what they consider "valuable". In this example, I knew that they cared deeply about their public UI and that the improvements I suggested would significantly simplify it. Making suggestions that are aligned with your customer's values increases your chances of success and avoids coming across as "that guy who is always trying to sell us work we don't need".

Conversely, I know that they have very different values regarding their administrative interfaces. Suggestions to spend money simplifying the admin UI would likely fall on deaf ears; they generally favor more powerful and complex admin features that allow their staff to be more productive.

Key point: spend time understanding why your customers value the features they build. The deeper your understanding of their business model, the personas of their users, and their core strategic values, the better the chance you'll have of spotting sales opportunities. It doesn't feel like "selling" when you're aligned with your customer's needs.

To sell successfully, you must be creative

"Selling" in this context means coming up with new and valuable ideas on your own. I find that thinking about my software from the user's (or customer's) perspective often yields valuable results.

In the example above, I was trying to determine how an end user would use a new feature in combination with an existing one, rather than testing it in isolation. Once I put myself in the user's shoes I immediately noticed some issues that the entire team had overlooked, and once I had identified the problem the creative juices kicked in and the solution became very clear.

It also helps to practice wearing your analyst hat. Don't assume that just because the client asks for a specific interface that they considered other (better) options. Clients, especially non-technical ones, lack your sophisticated understanding of software systems. They may have ruled out the best solution because it seemed "too hard", when in fact it might be totally doable. 

Key points: innovation comes from creativity, and creativity comes from considering different viewpoints. Try "thinking like a user" to identify sales opportunities, and look at requirements from multiple angles. Practice those BA skills!

To sell successfully, you must have a "customer service" mindset

Let's be clear: I'm not talking about extending contracts to "milk" a budget or convincing customers they need something they don't. There's a big difference between being motivated to serve the client and being motivated to increase billing revenues; in my experience, if you focus on the customer service the revenue will follow.

In fact, being motivated by customer service sometimes means you will identify a less expensive solution then the client asked for and/or approved. Don't be afraid to share those cost-saving ideas! In many cases the customer will just swap in additional "nice-to-haves" rather than reduce the budget, but even if they do reduce the budget you've demonstrated integrity and built trust. More often than not, that customer will come back.

Key point: truly care about the customer. Focus on what's good for them, and you'll benefit as well.

In conclusion: always be selling offering

Perhaps a better way to think of this is that "a good consultant is always offering additional value". Done right there's really no selling involved; show your customers ideas that are clearly aligned with their values and worth the development cost and they will often do the rest.

And if they say no, that's cool. Offer something else of value. As long as you're properly motivated you'll find most customers are grateful for the suggestions and come back to you for additional work many times over.


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Seth Petry-Johnson

I'm a software architect and consultant for Heuristic Solutions.

I value clean code, malleable designs, short feedback cycles, usable interfaces and balance in all things.

I am a Pisces.

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