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January 11, 2017
Sales Process  |  10 min read

Decision-Based Selling for Service Professionals

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Dave Hiersekorn

Professional service providers—lawyers, doctors, accountants, and consultants of every stripe—generally don’t like to think of themselves as salesmen. That’s because there is a perception that selling involves trickery and persuasion intended to manipulate someone into making a decision that isn’t good for them.

And there are certainly a number of bad and unethical salesmen out there who engage in shady tactics. But the reality is that every business needs to bring in customers or clients, and there has to be some process for doing that.

For professionals, that process has traditionally involved the “consultation and recommendation” approach. In this model, the prospect calls the professional and requests a consultation. The professional may gather some basic information in advance. Then, after a brief meeting, the professional makes a recommendation. If the prospect accepts the recommendation, they become a client.

That system has worked fairly well since the dawn of time. However, it also has some significant drawbacks.

The drawbacks of the “consultation and recommendation”

First, it forces the prospect to wait days or weeks to get answers to all but the most basic questions. Before the internet, people didn’t have much of a choice. Unless you had access to a specialized library, a face-to-face meeting with a professional was pretty much the only way to get answers.

But that’s not the world we live in anymore. Today, people have always-on internet access in their pockets. They can ask their phones for a weather forecast, the latest sports scores, or the population of Wichita. Things that used to take days to research can now be learned in seconds. People expect to get answers immediately. And, in that world, making a person wait for answers is an anachronism, like traveling by horse and buggy.

From the professional’s perspective, it’s no picnic either. Prospects have no loyalty or obligation to you. They can cancel at the last minute. They may “play prospect” in order to pick your brain for free advice. They might be “tire kickers” willing to waste an hour of your time just to compare prices. Of course, if they don’t hire you, it’s a complete waste of your time.

These are not things that people willingly put up with—unless they have no choice. And, until the invention of the internet, there really wasn’t any other option. Like Churchill’s famous quote about democracy, the recommendation-based model is the worst possible system, except for all the others.

The rise of “decision-based selling”

Thanks to the internet and marketing automation, there is a better approach. I call it “decision-based selling” or “DBS” for short.

At the core, DBS is about recognizing that the prospect isn’t looking for a recommendation. They aren’t even looking for a professional. What they really want is to make their situation better. To borrow from an old saying, they don’t want a drill; they want a hole. You and your services, like the drill, are just a means to achieving their desired results.

So, in the DBS model, instead of using your marketing to sell the conversation, you use your marketing to have the conversation. You walk them through the process of defining their goals; setting expectations; explaining the cost in terms of money, time, and opportunity; and so forth. You tell them every reason they might want to hire you—and every reason they would not. You want to attract the good and repel the bad. If you do it properly, the prospect has already decided to hire you before they come in for the first meeting.

With one exception I’ll point out below, all of this can be done in the lead stage as part of an automated follow-up campaign. You do not need to wait until they are in your conference room to go through this process. Here’s how it works.

1. Speak to their identity

The first step in the process it to get the prospect to identify who they are. Say, for example, that you help small business owners retire by prepping their business for an exit. And let’s say you have two different solutions depending on how long it is until the anticipated retirement date.

You would want to design your website so that those two groups choose distinctly different content. You could use a call-out that says, “If you’re planning on retiring in the next two years, click here.” Or you could have a call-to-action that offers visitors a choice between two guides: (1) “How to run your business so you can retire in style” or (2) “The two-year pre-retirement guidebook and checklist.”

The trick is to figure out the information that would only appeal to a particular identity. When they opt-in, they are telling you something about themselves.

2. Focus on outcomes, not methods

The next step is to engage in a dialog about the possible outcomes the prospect might achieve by working with you.

Now, this is where many professionals will object and say they can’t possibly know what results they can get someone until after they’ve had a chance to interview them. But, in reality, people don’t need that level of specificity. To mangle my grammar a bit, you just need to know “what kind of better” they want. In other words, you don’t need to know that a business owner wants to sell his business for $6.53 million. You just need to know that he wants to maximize his net proceeds after taxes.

You can learn this information in several ways. You can ask it up front when they opt into your marketing. You can put it in a post opt-in survey. Or you can send them content and track which items they choose to read.

Now, this is where a powerful marketing automation tool like Infusionsoft is worth its weight in gold. You should be progressively profiling your prospect based on the information they share, and you adjust your conversation accordingly. Think about it like a real conversation. As you learn more about them, you change your message to suit what you know. You can and should do that in your marketing as well.

3. Get to their “why”

This one is tricky, and it’s the only one where you can break the rules a bit. It would be incredibly helpful if you knew your prospects’ reasons why they want to hire you. But it’s actually more important that they know the reason why.

So, gather it if you can. But even if it’s impossible to get them to share their why, you still want to use your content to get them to think about it.

To continue the business exit example we’ve been using, the why statement might be “because I want to live a comfortable retirement.” Or it might be “because I’ve always dreamed of having my children continue on in the business.”

You want them to think about it during the lead stage because you absolutely must ask them to share their “why” before you make any recommendation of any kind. The reason is simple, although not obvious. You need to know the “why” in order to know the latitude you have in making a recommendation. Their why will limit or expand the scope of your recommendation.

To quote a dear friend and mentor, “Some clients want things they don’t want.” Knowing their reason why is how you identify those folks.

4. Identify their obstacles

If a person is considering hiring a professional to get a particular result, I promise you there is at least one thing standing in the way of them getting what they want. It might be a fear that they would screw it up if they did it on their own. It might be a belief that they aren’t allowed to have that result. Or something else. Whatever obstacles they face—real or perceived—you need to know them.

This is a good place to use a survey or a quiz. You can use their content choices, but in 10 years doing this, I have learned that obstacle-based content will trigger a lot of false positives. In other words, if you offer a report called “The Six Types of Employees That Will Sabotage Your Sale,” a lot of people will click that link just to see what it says.

So, take the easy route and survey them.

5. Tell them about the “ick”

Make a list of every reason someone might not hire you. Whether it’s price, quality, time, effort, etc., you want them to know what they’re giving up in order to get the results they want. You don’t have to be specific, especially if there is a range of possibilities. But you want them to deal with those things before they come in to meet with you. Besides, this approach puts you in charge of when and how your prospects learn about potential objections.

For example, you probably wouldn’t want to respond to their opt-in by sending them an email telling them that you’re expensive and hard to work with. Instead, you would tell them about the positives first. That way, they can put your price in context. In fact, if you follow the order laid out in this article, you will have done that already.

Putting it all together

Done properly, you will be able to take any prospect and complete the sentence, “You are an [identity] who is looking to accomplish [outcome] so you can [why]. You want me to help you avoid the [obstacles], and you are willing to pay and do the [ick].”

Gathering that kind of information before a consultation was impossible just 15 years ago. Today, it can be done with a properly-configured, automated marketing campaign. This approach renders the traditional recommendation-based model obsolete.

Knowing this information will help you sort the studs from the duds. But, more importantly, if they have shared this information and they know the “ick,” and they schedule an initial meeting, then they have already hired you in their minds. They’re just showing up to complete the transaction.  

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