Deconstructed strawberry cheesecake

What do consultancy based selling and strawberry cheesecake have in common?

Well, apart from the fact that I love both, the image above is of a "deconstructed" cheesecake, in that it has all the elements of a strawberry cheesecake and yet, it is not immediately recognisable as such… until perhaps you taste/experience the constituent parts together. I believe this is the best way to approach consultancy based selling. To deconstruct the components of the sales process so that the consultant who may feel too research focussed to have comfort with the term "selling" can view the process with fresh eyes that make it feel more accessible.

That is the goal of my sales training. To make "selling" accessible, comfortable and effective for all members of the team. I believe there is a place for business development and lead generators who have sales as their sole focus, particularly in avoiding the lull in sales that can happen when project focussed individuals get consumed with project work (see, for example, the business development service I offer on a freelance basis). However, it is my conviction, after 15 years in a Health Economic and Market Access consultancy, and in a variety of roles that comes with such a tenure, that consultants make excellent sellers.

I hold this conviction because it has been my experience. I entered the world of consultancy as an ex-nurse into a Medical Writing/Researcher role in the days when the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) was being established. I considered myself a bit of an academic with a nursing background and, as such, it was to my great surprise that I ended up consistently achieving the higher end of the sales figures for the company and putting myself forward for sales focussed roles, which latterly took the shape of Sales Directorships.

It started with being asked to attend pitches with the Directors. My role, back then, was to be wheeled out from the back room of desk-based research to give a few slides mid-pitch regarding the potential health economic arguments for the client’s drug/intervention. We quickly found this to be a winning combination, because even when my scant research had missed some unpublished nuances, it showed that we went the extra mile to understand the client’s situation and, in so doing, we found ourselves not only understanding but also believing in the value arguments for the product as much as our client did. This belief and passion for the clients project is a very effective sales aid.

I remember once, en route to such a meeting, asking my Director if she enjoyed attending such meetings. Back in those days, I was still filled with nerves before client appointments, which have disappeared with time and experience, except for a healthy dose of nervous energy at each new public speaking engagement. As time went on, I began to feel that not only did I belong in those discussions, but often I was part of the clincher in securing the deal. I began to relish the investigative component of exploring a product and bringing to light its value for our team as we entered our client’s domain.

This is my first point on deconstructing. I never viewed this as sales in the early days. For me it was finding answers to research questions, solving problems and helping people achieve their goals, underpinned by a genuine empathy and belief in what they were trying to achieve. If we reframe sales in this way, it is something that every researcher, consultant and even ex-nurses self-claimed academics like me can get passionate about. For the person who has a dual role of working on projects as well as selling, we find that mid conversation, we can pull from the memory banks and generate ideas from past projects, which also serves to illustrate experience and credibility to the listener.

Then came the conferences. I have lost count of the number of ISPOR’s I have attended! I learned quickly how to strike up a conversation with complete strangers. Is this nature or nurture?…I am not sure. I once had a brief stint in the USA where I sold men’s fragrance in a department store while awaiting my USA nursing license on transitioning from the UK. To my slight bemusement I had the highest sales on the counter and when we met for the morning pep rally by the escalator ("what are we going to do today?!"…."SELL" we shouted… or in my case awkwardly mouthed) I was consistently having badges pinned to me for achieving the highest sales, to the point that I started distributing my commission throughout the team for justice’s sake. Ok, part of it was no doubt my British accent, which had a slight Brummy twang after University in Birmingham, but which local’s recognised as the Queen’s English and had some kind of unexplainable appeal (the effects of which I missed on returning home). The other part?… a genuine interest in people.

I remember this genuine interest following me into those early consultancy meetings. For some reason, I have the kind of memory that lays dormant until I see someone’s face and then it immediately reminds me of our last conversation. This quite naturally led to me asking a lady in a meeting about her daughter’s birthday and how she managed the proximity to Christmas (I had suddenly remembered that she had been on maternity leave the Christmas before). In another case, I remembered our contact talking excitedly about the fact he was going to pick up a new motorbike after our first meeting, so it came naturally to me to ask him how it was working out for him on our next encounter. These weren’t things that I rehearsed in the car or made notes about, they sprang up naturally. Funnily enough, I remember a colleague asking me "where did you learn to act interested in people?!"… I replied without a hint of irony : "I just AM interested!" I have been told since that this is a fundamental principle often quoted in business books. It is a happy experience of mine that often my experience led practice has been backed up by sales theory rather than shaped by it in a contrived way. Authenticity in life, let alone sales, is a real core value of mine, which is why the word "genuine" as in "a genuine belief that you can help the client"; "a genuine belief in their goals" and a "genuine interest in people" may be overused in this piece.

This is the second part of deconstructing sales. Let’s reframe the customer as a simply a "person". I have referred to this before in a separate blog, but Tish Harrison Warren[i] so vividly reminds us that as the day dawns and we open our eyes from sleep, we all find ourselves in a state of vulnerable half consciousness, with bad breath and messy hair, before we don our roles for the day. For me, a great opening conversation at a conference is to appeal to someone’s humanity, to ask them if they travelled in that day and if they came far, ask them if the lunch buffet is out or make a joke out of the need for the caffeine break. This quickly leads on to building a rapport on a personal level where it is comfortable to discuss the infamous "what do you do?" question. I like to ask people attending my workshops to define the needs, goals, pressures and challenges that might be impacting the person before them and to remind ourselves what it "feels" like to walk into an exhibition hall of a conference. In our workshops, we use body language cues to understand that actually person before us may feel nervous, awkward or wary in this setting and how to put them at ease. I believe that study of body language is useful in this way, but if it becomes contrived, it loses authenticity and effectiveness.

Another part of deconstructing sales for me, is to reframe the seller. If the seller is you, then who are you? What is your story? What are your core values and how are these brought into your work life? Why do you genuinely (there it is again!) love working for your company? What is it about what you do, that you believe will genuinely (I am not even going to apologise!) interest, enthuse, help or delight the person in front of you? I like to teach consultants to be confident in who they are and who they are not. This avoids the trap of pretence that one can fall into, in order to try to secure a sale, which can only lead to disappointment. That being said, I am a huge advocate for solution-focussed selling, which does not disregard potentially new service offerings which make perfectly good use of your existing skills and experience. In this way, we can even reframe the service offering away from the siloed product driven approach. This insight into solution-focussed services came from a customer insight advisory board I set up for a health economic and market access consultancy. I currently provide these or market research interviews among the customer base to garner further company specific insights regarding the value of consultancy offerings.

My ½ day workshop is a joy to deliver because I see people come out of their reserved shells and sparks of passion ignite as they realise they have a story to tell, that people will want to hear and the penny drops that they are indeed the best person to tell it.

[Gatehouse ICS] delivered a very focused training session (Consultancy Based Selling), tailored directly to our selling situation and our group. Providing information that was relevant, in an engaging way and bringing out the human side of selling. I feel confident that I will be able to use everything I was taught in a real environment.

[i]Harrison Warren, T. Liturgy of the Ordinary. Inter-Varsity Press, US (1 Dec. 2016)