It was the first day of my dream job, fresh out of grad school.
I reported to the office promptly at 8am. I asked my boss, “So where should I start?”
“I don’t know?” he replied. “Go look at our old projects. Read our marketing materials.”
“Haven’t we done over 2,000 projects?” I pointed out.
“Yeah, I don’t know. You’ll figure it out."
I had a newly-minted master’s degree in environmental science and management, and I’d landed my dream job as director of marketing and business development at an environmental consulting firm. The title sounded fancy, but I wasn’t sure what I was expected to do. I knew I’d be evaluated based on how much additional revenue I could drive to the firm, but that was about it. My boss, the president of the company, had the same basic understanding. He also didn't know how, exactly, to achieve the goal.
In the first week on the job I learned that there was no program or process to win new clients. No instructions, no guidance, no documented strategy. They’d always run a profitable business before, so why have a system to guide sales? What they had done in the past had always worked—even if they didn’t know exactly how or why.
I was excited to be there and believed in the work we did, so I started doing my own research. I interviewed the founder and other principals at the company. I was looking for ways to predictably generate new clients, revenue, and growth for the company. No path forward was obvious.
As a company, we were great at consulting and employed advanced experts in our field. But I couldn’t say the same about our sales acumen. Our founder was the best salesperson we had, but he hadn’t formalized his process or trained others. His idea of training was to tell everyone at the company to go out to more work lunches with prospects.
We had a problem.
To address the issue, we brought in a “traditional” sales trainer. He was a product sales guy who drove a blue Porsche. He spoke with authority and conviction. The first thing he did was have every staff member take a personality assessment that, somehow, was supposed to reveal the future rainmakers at the company. Ten years on, I know that the insights from the personality test were wrong. Still, learning from him changed my understanding of sales, but my colleagues didn’t feel comfortable with his methods. I was able to separate his wisdom from his style. I understood so many things that I’d never done that I should be doing, like focusing on what our clients wanted, understanding the difference between features and benefits, and the importance of permission and agendas. Still, none of my colleagues wanted to be the slick-talking salesperson pulling up in a Porsche. It didn’t play well in a room full of scientists. Go figure. He just wasn’t one of us.
So there we were, experts in our field, prepared to deliver extraordinary value to our clients, and yet our lack of sales experience and a well-established sales system meant we weren’t helping as many clients as we could. We lost business to firms with spotty track records because they had better sales systems and strategies. The quality of our product and service alone was not sufficient to beat out the competition.
Selling Is About Understanding People
My science background left me wanting a lot more than the available sales training literature had to offer. What struck me most about formal sales training was how dated and unscientific it was. So I started digging into how people make decisions, and how systems influence those decisions. These two key areas, I quickly realized, were essential to selling anything, and particularly important for selling services.
Luckily, there have been leaps and bounds in our understanding of how the human brain functions. I devoured every resource I could find on the subject: books about marketing and how to reach and influence people; psychology papers about personal relationships and decision-making; books on behavioral economics and neuroscience; and archives of academic journals. I was surprised that these disciplines rarely made their way into sales literature, even though sales is fundamentally about how people make decisions.
I noticed something else about the existing sales training literature. It’s focused primarily on the seller. Yet I had always felt—especially in client services—that sales is simply an extension of the service we provide to our clients. It’s a system that both sides participate in. Sales isn’t about how to be a master manipulator, it’s about good communication and helping clients make well-informed decisions.
Surely by now you may be wondering what a trained environmental scientist can tell you about selling. In a word, systems. If I have learned anything from all of my research, it’s that the right sales system can guide any company to meet the imperative of serving their clients and the goal of selling more services without compromising their integrity. The right system guides the behavior you want to see more of, and discourages the behavior you don’t want to see at all. The right system can facilitate business growth while delivering a world-class buying experience. The right sales system should guide professional services companies through each step of the sales process. I couldn’t find a sales system that did this, so I built it myself. But it took years to get there.
Putting Theory into Practice
I eventually left my day job to strike out and run my own agency. My firm provided marketing services to startups and professional services firms. Although I wasn’t the most experienced, I sold well enough to win clients from more experienced competitors. As I worked with and learned from other firms, I noticed they also had problems selling — no different from the environmental consulting firm.
Even the most advanced and well-developed firms suffered from the same problem: they had no repeatable, scalable sales process. They couldn’t articulate how they won new clients. They didn’t know which of their actions or initiatives contributed to better or worse sales experiences, or what led to wins and losses.
John Wanamaker, the American retailer, once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” That’s how selling works at most agencies, too. They know that some things work in their sales process, and some don’t, but they can’t pinpoint which is which.
As I was running my own firm, I encountered the same problem my boss felt on my first day. I didn’t have a sales process that I knew worked, and I certainly didn’t understand how to instruct my partner to be a meaningful participant in our sales program. Even though I was good at sales, I never took the time to reflect on why or what specifically was working.
I continued to develop my own understanding of sales, borrowing what I learned from other people and other disciplines. As I got better at it, people began asking me for my sales techniques and tips. I began to write about the topic, coach firm owners, and eventually dedicated myself to answering the question of how people buy services, and therefore how they should be sold.
The result of all these efforts is a sales system I’ve developed called the Serve Don’t Sell Method. I’ve trained hundreds of business owners, salespeople, and individuals at companies of all sizes, most with no prior training or sales experience, and some with over thirty years of experience. This book will teach you the ins and outs of the SDS method and sales process for selling services, which I have found works just as well for business owners, experts, and advanced salespeople as it does for those who are only starting out.
The Difference Between Selling Services and Products
Selling services is a lot different than selling products. However, I’ve found that most of the how-to manuals and advice books on sales focus on selling products, not services. Historically products drove the economy. Now the economy is driven by creatives, marketers, developers, advisors, consultants, and more.
The biggest difference between selling products and services is that products are tangible, physical goods — things you use or consume, things you can hold in your hands and examine with your own eyes — whereas services are intangible goods — more conceptual and difficult to define. Services are delivered in private, products are public-facing. As a result, services are much harder to sell because they’re less tangible. There are steps you can take to increase the tangible results of your services, but the fact remains that people have a hard time buying something they can’t see with their own eyes. Buying your service requires your prospects to believe what you say about it, so there’s a lot more trust required in your services sale.
As a quick exercise, try describing your services in one sentence. Then pick a product you love and describe it. Services can be a real mess to describe, while products can be described succinctly (if they’re marketed well).
Products don’t require much imagination to understand. Services require plenty. Since your services require a bit of imagination, your client must trust that you can deliver. Which leads us to a fundamental fact of professional services sales:
The professional services sale must be built around increasing trust and decreasing client risk.
Why Your Business Needs a Sales Process
Why do people buy products and services? To improve their condition in some way. It’s as simple as that. Maybe they’re experiencing a problem and need your help to solve it. Maybe they have an unfulfilled aspiration or goal and don’t know which steps to take to get it. Your service can fill in the gap.
It’s also true that there are multiple ways your client can solve their problems. In order for them to buy from you, they must first trust you and accept the risk of doing business with you. Let’s face it: your service may not work for them. No matter how good your firm’s track record, it’s not perfect.
Trust and risk need to be managed, and that’s why it’s imperative for businesses to establish a sales process. It helps you systematically account for the risk both you and your client face, and minimize the chances of getting into a client relationship that’s not good for either party. It also helps you win more and better deals. With this in mind, a sales process is simply:
A way to help buyers make more informed decisions about if and how they should hire you.
Any process can be optimized, altered, and changed. A process should also be repeatable. A process can have targeted outcomes built right into its design. And a sales process can be built in consideration of how you want to treat and interact with your clients—a kind of code of conduct.
A sale should be mutually beneficial for all parties. That’s the fundamental theory of trade, so let’s apply it to what you sell, too. If both sides don’t win, then both sides lose. Playing a zero-sum game is a surefire way to rack up costly client support issues and leave a stream of pissed-off clients in your wake, not to mention a depressing look at yourself in the mirror every morning.
The insights, advice, and exercises that follow in this book are the result of years of experience selling agency and consulting services, working with clients to help them sell theirs, and training business owners and individual contributors. While the SDS method works for any relationship-driven sale, it’s especially suited for agency services, consulting, IT, software development, marketing, accounting, coaching, and training.
Remember, this system will only work for you if you view sales as a way to enable mutual gains for your firm and your clients, and if you actually respect your clients. The SDS Method is most effective when you approach sales as an entire system, rather than a series of quick tips and tricks to magically change a client’s mind. Finally, this system works best if you truly believe in what you’re selling. If not, you'll put Sisyphus to shame.
The book is designed to help you establish a workable, repeatable, and improvable sales process for selling services. It’s both a how-to book and a reference guide with specifics about how to create and run your sales process from first contact to close.
We’ll start with a short chapter on the type of mindset you should cultivate if you want to succeed at sales, and then jump right into the specific stages of the sales process—fit, explore, offer, agreement, and transition—according to the SDS Method. This section of the book, which includes chapters one through five, is filled with research, example scripts, and charts and graphs to illustrate the how-to as well as the thinking behind it.
The final chapter is all about improvement. This book isn’t about sales management, but I’ll give you the key metrics to track in your agency and ways to improve your performance individually, with a peer, or with your entire team.
Ultimately, my hope is that reading this book spurs you to take action. Each chapter ends with key takeaways that make it easy to refer back to the most important ideas in the book. Practical exercises, training scripts, and other additional resources are sprinkled throughout and in the appendix. All of these resources are also available to you at liston.io/sds.
I’m excited you’re here. Now there’s nothing left to do but get started.
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