You Are Not a Consultant—You Are a Salesperson

A recent post I wrote on competing and cooperating drew a comment on LinkedIn. The comment suggested that as salespeople we should try to be valuable to our clients, even if it doesn’t include selling them whatever it is we sell. It also suggested that we should be more like consultants, ensuring that the client is the ultimate winner as we compete for their business.

These are noble ideas, but they aren’t exactly right. Following them causes serious sales problems.

First, in sales, we should find a way to create value for our dream clients before their buying cycle even begins, something I have written about here countless times. But once their buying cycle and our sales process begins, you had better be damned biased towards your own solution—if you were wrong for your dream client, why weren’t they disqualified?

Once the competition begins, it’s game on.

Second, in sales, we share a lot in common with consultants. But unless you are a consultant, you are not a consultant.

What Sales and Consultants Have In Common

Salespeople and consultants have much in common. Both salespeople and consultants need to have extraordinarily high business acumen. The more complex the sale or the business problems, the more business acumen is required.

Both salespeople and consultants improve their client’s business performance. Both need to have the experience and the situational knowledge to do so. And both can be trusted advisers, even though this isn’t always the case for either group (it is something that is earned over time, and your clients determine whether or not you are one; you only decide if you behave like one).

But before we get the main difference, let’s dispel a few incorrect beliefs about consultants.

Consultants Are Not Impartial

Salespeople talk about consultants as if they are completely impartial, simply providing the trusted advice of someone with the business experience and acumen with no particular bias. This is, quite simply, wrong.

Consultants are completely biased, perhaps even more than salespeople. The good folks at the McKinsey Group aren’t very interested in recommending that their clients hire Boston Consulting Group. Consultants are very partial to their solutions, so much so that they build consulting practices around their ability to help their clients improve their business.

They are anything but impartial.

Consultants Don’t Sell

I know dozens of people who have entered the consulting world only to fail miserably. They knew their subject matter as well as anyone in their field, and in some cases, they were probably far better than most. The problem that they encountered was that to be a consultant you have to have a client with whom to consult.

It’s true that consultants are thought leaders. It is true their publishing brings them some clients. But most spend time pursuing new business because without it, they are no longer consultants.

What You Believe Consultative Selling Means

Mack Hanan wrote the book on Consultative Selling. The purpose was to shift the focus of salespeople to selling the value that they created instead of the product or service. It has nothing whatsoever to do with not selling, not competing, or being impartial. Mack would have advised nothing of the sort.

Consulting doesn’t mean either being impartial or not selling. And here, finally, is the crux of my argument:

Consultants sell their advice. Unless you sell and are paid solely for your advice, you sell something else and you are a salesperson. Embrace it.

Embrace it and understand that none of this is mutually exclusive.

You can be a salesperson who knows how to create a business improvement for their client, just like a consultant—in fact, you had better be that kind of salesperson.

You can also be a salesperson and be a trusted adviser—in fact, you’d be well advised to try to earn that moniker.

You can be consultative and still be a salesperson (even though most salespeople never get close to Mack Hanan’s vision . . . where selling price disappears completely). These ideas aren’t in any way mutually exclusive. What you cannot do, however, if you are to succeed in sales, is behave as if you get paid for offering your impartial and unbiased advice. Compete! Embrace it!

Questions

Are you paid solely for your unbiased advice and recommendation?

Do you believe that you are expected to be unbiased? That your dream client doesn’t know why you are spending time with them? How you are paid? Do you believe they are offended? Are they offended any more than their clients are when they sell?

If you are not biased towards your own solution for a particular dream client, how do they qualify as a dream client and why are you pursuing them?

Consultative selling requires that you sell the business outcome and present those numbers. Do you give your client a price for your goods or services, or do you give them a price for creating an increase in their revenue, a decrease in their costs unrelated to price, and/or an increase in profit?

Comments

comments

  • Alen

    Anthony,
    I love this post! Many sales reps are calling themselves consultants just to avoid being seen as sales person. What a lie! If your role is to sell, then you are a salesperson, not a consultant.

    Thumbs up!

    Alen

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  • http://twitter.com/Juanbg Juan

    That’s right, at the end of the day either I feed my family or….no, no I don’t have options here. So we could be the best consultants, the best presenters, the most knowledged, etc, etc all of these is noise if at the end of the day —I do not close the sale, I do not bring the PO. That is what I really focus, results, either advancing on the complex sales, to closing the sale on the spot, but I have got to move forward all the time.

  • amigo

    Hi, a consultant is a professional in a specif area of expertise, and he sells, trades, exchanges, barter, bargains, receibes a salary for his trusted advise on a specific matter, he even might (at his loyal knowledge and belief) recommend an equipment, company, or else that has proven to work the best. while a salesman will always try to offer “his” equipment “as a part” of the solution, although is not completely neccessary. I´ve seen it many times, some sales guys do it conciously on purpose, to reach the quota, others just by plain ignorance.
    In my experience, most of solution are so unexpensive, that when customers discovers it , tends to replace his greedy vendor; A consultant best asset is his reliability.

  • Charles H. Green

    Terrific post, great issue, well stated.

    That said, I must respectfully disagree on two important issues you raise. The first is the idea that the once the sales processes are engaged, you must stop being impartial; the second is the idea that consultants are not selling.

    As to the first, you write:

    “…once their buying cycle and our sales process begins, you had better be damned biased towards your own solution—if you were wrong for your dream client, why weren’t they disqualified?”

    The answer is “because remarkably often, it turns out you didn’t know everything there was to know in advance.” As David Maister says, “the problem is never what the client said it was in the first meeting.” True dat, in my experience. And it’s rarely what the consultant thought it was, either.

    So a salesperson or a consultant who decides after the bell has rung that it’s everyman for himself, damn the torpedos, I’m in it to sell, is effectively saying, “I’m going to disregard any information that might help my client but hurt me. I’m no longer in it for the client, I’m in it for me.”

    That, I would suggest, is a consultant I would not trust, or a salesperson I would not trust. Same difference.

    And here’s the irony; a consultant, or a salesperson, who is big enough to immediately admit to and even bring to the attention of the prospective client an issue that is different from the assumptions both were making is a consultant, or a salesperson, who just gained tremendous trust. Because most clients expect consultants and salespeople to be greedy and self-interested, which is the spin most of them will put on your recommendation.

    Which leads to the second issue, consultants vs. salespeople. Your words again:

    “The good folks at the McKinsey Group aren’t very interested in recommending that their clients hire Boston Consulting Group.”

    Here’s a true story about McKinsey from my own book, Trust-based Selling:

    “Howard Schwartz was the head of the financial services practice at a consulting firm, when he got a call from his counterpart at McKinsey. “One of our clients has urgent need of a project. We have tried twice and failed to deliver satisfactorily. This work has to get done – would you folks do it?”

    “Howard couldn’t believe it—a front door invitation to a McKinsey client. He took the job and his team did great work. But when he asked the client to consider doing more work with them, the client said “Thanks very much, great job, but we would never leave the firm that was big enough to bring you in. We know they’ll always do what’s right for us.” “And,” Howard said, “I couldn’t blame them a bit.”

    McKinsey, I suggest, knows how to sell far, far more effectively than you suggest they do. They know they’re in it for the long, long haul; and the way you win in the long haul is you always do what’s right for the client, even if it means you lose the particular transaction–including referring to BCG!

    I suggest that is not only the right way for consultants to sell, it’s the right way for sellers to sell.

    So, I have to say: you are a consultant, and you are a salesperson. And if you’re really good at either of those, you do the same thing: play for the long haul, put customers’ interests first, be completely transparent, and work collaboratively, not competitively.

    The ultimate irony is: you end up making more sales, at higher hit rates, with lower costs, and higher profitability.

    • Anonymous

      I finally baited you, Charlie!

      Thanks for your thoughtful–and thought-provoking response. I am not sure we are far enough apart here to call this a disagreement. But, let’s have some fun with it anyway!

      Once you discover you are wrong for the client, you are wrong for the client and must disqualify them. That means bowing out gracefully. Most of us know who are dream clients are, and for most of us they are dream clients because we know enough to categorize them as such (this isn’t always true of consulting work, but it is true for a lot of us in goods and services).

      Alternatively, once you are right for the client, you have to act accordingly. That means “damn the torpedoes” and full speed ahead. As to being “in it for me,” I describe a dream client as one for whom we can do breath-taking, jaw-dropping, earth-shattering work. None of us succeed in sales without a laser-like focus on producing results for our clients. And that’s the argument I made in an earlier post: we compete for the privilege of cooperating and collaborating with our dream clients–it’s never we win and our clients lose (that would be criminal negligence, or perhaps and intentional tort; it would certainly shorten your career in sales).

      Second, I wasn’t suggesting that McKinsey doesn’t know how to sell. Far from it! You don’t get to be McKinsey (or BCG) without knowing how to sell. But I think you make my point: they took the financial services job and failed a second time! Clearly they are biased towards their firm getting the business and biased towards their solutions. Failing a second time may not be unforgivable; I am certain they gave it their best effort with every intention of succeeding for their client.

      Your point on McKinsey behaving properly when they realized they were wrong for the client is well taken; they eventually bowed out gracefully and allowed the competitor to take the project. I have done the same a number of times and have never regretted it.

      The point of my argument is this: salespeople believe that when they use words like “trusted advisor” and “consultative” that they no longer have to take the actions necessary to winning long term sales, like: prospecting for new business, asking for the commitments that they need to advance the sale, and competing like sales is a zero sum game.

      Competing for your dream clients business doesn’t preclude trust, a consultative approach, honesty, and integrity; they are necessary for competing and winning! But so is behaving like a salesperson.

      You end with this quote: “So, I have to say: you are a consultant, and you are a salesperson. And if you’re really good at either of those, you do the same thing: play for the long haul, put customers’ interests first, be completely transparent, and work collaboratively, not competitively.”

      I agree with the statement, minus the last two words. To work that way with our clients and dream clients, we do in fact have to compete for the opportunity to do so, and often against competitors who are equally playing for the long haul, putting the customer’s interest first, are completely transparent, and who work with them collaboratively.

      • Charles H. Green

        Tony,

        Wow, you just keep raising the quality ante here! Excellent, thank you so much, terrific clarifications, thanks for pushing the dialogue here.

        I think we’re in violent agreement here about nearly everything, and I have no trouble buying your suggestion of removing the last two words in my quote. Well said, in fact.

        I originally came from consulting and morphed to sales; most salespeople came from selling and morphed to consulting. So having surfed the territory between the two of them for a few decades now, here’s my attempt at ultimate wisdom:

        It is a matter of professional ethics for a consultant to sell. A consultant who doesn’t sell, in my view, is not truly professional. Here’s why.

        A good consultant is one who is always trying to envision how things can be better for his or her client. If you’re not trying to constantly envision new and better realities, you’re just an order-taker, turn out the lights when the project’s done.

        But it isn’t enough to just envision; to be a truly professional consultant, you have to engage the client in that same envisioning. It doesn’t matter how right you are if the client doesn’t get it, or accept it, or see it. So if you want to be professional, you have to be good at conveying ideas to your client in a way that the client ‘gets it,’ gets equally enthused, and ultimately is charged up enough to do something. So–in order to be professional, you have to talk about how great things can be, and how to get there.

        And I call that selling.

        So a consultant is not truly professional unless they are selling–all the time.

        I think it works the other way too. A salesperson who simply hustles to get the sale, whose final objective is beating the competition (or the customer) is simply a con man, and you tend to run out of leads after you run a con for too long. But a truly powerful salesperson knows that the way you get customers coming back, over and over, is by consistently doing the right thing for the customer. After a while (not that long, really), you get a reputation as being trusted and straightshooter, and you then get sole-sourced, short-listed, etc. Because the customer trusts you. So you end up selling more than the guys who still think 50s stereotype used car Glengarry Glen Ross–because you’re behaving as a consultant to your customer.

        And I call that consulting.

        So a salesperson is not truly a trusted advisor unless they are consulting–all the time.

        I increasingly see the two converging at the highest levels.

        I don’t know how that sounds to you, Tony, but I’m curious. And thank you for stimulating this wonderful conversation.

        Charlie

      • Anonymous

        What could I possibly add to this beautiful piece of work you were kind enough to post here, Charlie?

        This quote says it all (and a little bit more):

        “It is a matter of professional ethics for a consultant to sell. A consultant who doesn’t sell, in my view, is not truly professional. Here’s why.

        A good consultant is one who is always trying to envision how things can be better for his or her client. If you’re not trying to constantly envision new and better realities, you’re just an order-taker, turn out the lights when the project’s done.”

        This standard that you have laid out should also be used to measure oneself as a salesperson, if one is going to call himself “consultative!”

  • Irish Guy 13

    An absolutely excellent piece. You are so right that consultative selling is NOT the same as consulting. While there are hopefully many parallels in successful sales behaviors to what a consultant does, there is (and had better be) a very specific focus in selling.

  • Thedanieljsmith

    Sales and Consulting are two faces of the same coin. I have long considered myself more of a Consultant than a Salesperson, even when dealing in the cut-throat world of mass consumer electronics. To me, it was important that each client received my undivided attention and that all their concerns or questions were addressed before the “sales pitch” even begun. Did I want every sale? Absolutely. Did I close every client? Absolutely, even if it meant sending them away for a purchase/ or brand not represented by my company. Always Be Closing, but a long-term relationship with a client beats a quick buck each and every day. The Daniel J Smith

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comments, Daniel. Agree!

      I think the age of the quick buck came and past a long time ago for all but a very few of us in sales!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comments, Daniel. Agree!

      I think the age of the quick buck came and past a long time ago for all but a very few of us in sales!

  • http://www.teamdiscoveryonline.com/ Richard Pastor

    I think you make a lot of valid points here. Often times the line between the two gets blurred. You might think your a consultant when you need to be focusing on being a salesperson and visa versa.

  • Manoj Mohan

    Great article, I just switched positions from a purely sales role to a consultative sales role and you are absolutely right…consultants sell!

    • Anonymous

      Or they starve.

  • Arjunvasan Ambigapathy

    Excellent thoughts shared about sales and consulting. From my experience, I have a funny comparison between both, but interesting: Sales is like playing tennis or marathon. Consulting is like playing chess. Sales + Consulting is Golf.

    A small thought sharing, “A person sells when he knows that the advice he is giving with clients is not his. A person does Consulting when he knows the advice he sells to clients is his and not others.

    • Anonymous

      Not sure I agree. Salespeople have to have the business acumen and situational knowledge to know how to help their clients, much of which isn’t (and sometimes can’t be) provided by someone else.

  • Terri_campbell

    Sales Professional or Professional Consultant? I agree with some of the comments below, and I appreciate the points of view presented. I am a Professional Sales Person, with experience as a consultant. I have always taken the “win/win” approach with my clients/customers. You can call me a consultant, or you can call me a salesperson — either way I am the same person.
    I think ‘sales’ has had a bad rap for years; sort of like lawyers. Not all sales people are con artist; but unfortunately we’ve all met one or two like that. Not all consultants are above board either — but we’ve met very few who were deliberately dishonest. By the way, I did not ‘end up in sales’ because nothing else worked out — as many sales people do. I deliberately chose my profession, and I work very hard to keep improving my skills, relationships and craft.
    At the end of every day, I have to live with myself — I have to know that my word was kept and my relationships are healthy. The only way I can accomplish that is to be authentic; regardless of quotas, sales goals, internal pressures for me to ‘close’ that deal by the end of the week, month, quarter… etc.

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