How consultants can build a sales mindset and capabilities

02 June 2020 13 min. read
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As clients curb their consultancy spend, it is for consultants more important than ever to secure new business in order to navigate their way out of the crisis. Ian Price, a specialist in helping consultancies with building selling capabilities, explores how consultants can build the mental toughness needed to sell successfully in a challenging market.

It is common for consultants to regard sales – both the activity and the word – with a mixture of disdain and fear. “I’ve provided my partners with scores of very warm leads,” one marketing head told me, “but they’ve consistently been ‘too busy’ to pick up the phone and call a single one of them.”

While it is always possible to blame an overwhelming workload for not making time for selling, this is often a form of avoidance rather than poor time management. It is also less about sales skills in the traditional sense than it is about mindset.

I have often heard founders of consultancies described as “natural” sales people with an apparently divinely awarded gift of teasing out client needs and persuading them to sign on the bottom line. These people are rarely schooled in the techniques of selling; rather, they have developed the habits of successful selling out of necessity. How consultants can build a sales mindset and capabilitiesIf you start your own consultancy, you learn how to sell quickly or else fall by the wayside. Where consultancies have trained people in the traditional skills and techniques of selling, the results have been mixed at best.

That’s not to criticise the sales training. Since selling is already outside the consultants’ comfort zone, trying new techniques feels risky and when they do not appear to work at the first attempt – as is usually the case – the usual pattern is to revert to previous behaviours. 

I believe that developing the ability in consultants to sell is 10% to do with process and skills and 90% about mental toughness. In this context, mental toughness is primarily about building resilience, developing a growth mindset and learning the virtues of persistence, self-control and focus. Getting consultants into a selling mindset may seem an uphill struggle but it can be done. 

Getting started

The place to start is with attitudes to selling. If the word ‘sales’ itself provokes a negative reaction, then the chances are that the consultant will be reluctant to pursue the activity with enthusiasm. 

As part of the research for his book To Sell is Human, US journalist Dan Pink went online and asked his contacts to give him the first three words that came into their heads when they thought of “sales” or “selling”. The resultant word-cloud is very revealing when it comes to prevailing attitudes to sales with words such as “pushy”, ”sleazy”, “ugh” and “yuck” standing out.

For many consultants, the activity of selling is associated with manipulative purveyors of goods we either don’t want (“double-glazing”) or have hidden faults (“used cars”). In game theory parlance, these are zero-sum transactions. But when we ask consultants about the projects that they have sold, they cannot think of examples of where they’ve acted in a manipulative way. Indeed, all their work has added value to the client and met their needs. In other words, they have sold positive-sum transactions.

The zero-sum style of selling has more or less died in the business-to-business world although it remains in pockets of business-to-consumer. In the zero-sum selling world, every prospect can be turned into a customer with the right techniques – this is why you need objection handling, closing skills, influencing skills and all the other black arts that still get taught in sales training workshops.

Consultants needn't worry about these unattractive behaviours as they themselves are in the positive-sum world where it is all about establishing a potential fit. Can we deliver work of value to our client that can form the basis of an enduring and mutually valuable relationship? 

It is also worth confronting some other myths about selling. Many consultants see themselves as “not cut out” for selling since they are often introverted and analytical. The widespread assumption that high-performing sales people need to be extroverts is not borne out by science. 

Research by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania mapped sales performance for a sample of sales people against their position on the introversion-extroversion psychometric scale. High extroverts, it turns out, perform as badly as high introverts – they are less likely to listen to the customer about their genuine needs and more likely to try to impose a pre-ordained solution on them, often disliked by customers. 

The best sales performance is delivered by people in the middle of the scale – or “ambiverts”. In short, consultants are invariably better-placed in terms of personality and skills to grow business than they are inclined to think.

So let's look at some of the components of mental toughness that consultants need to build in order to grow their sales abilities: 

1. Resilience

Not every piece of sales activity results in a new client or piece of work. Follow-up emails or phone calls to new prospects may go unreturned; proposals that were about to be given the go-ahead drift for no apparent reason. The fact is, selling brings with it adversity in all its forms ranging from lack of response to messages to outright rejection. Learning resilience – the ability to bounce back from such adversity – is a fundamental component of growing confidence in selling. 

As for dealing with the inevitable adversity, evolutionary psychology tells us that we are wired to retain memories of bad experiences and to avoid exposing ourselves to similar ones. While consultants may not be entirely conscious that they are indulging in displacement activities, the likelihood is that they are in avoidant mode; having previously tried – and possible failed – to deliver on the sales part of their role, they are, as the old saying has it “once bitten, twice shy”. 

The good news is that is possible for consultants to be coached out of this negativity. The first step is to help them understand how their minds work, particularly with regards to risk and avoiding adversity. The second is to work on their optimism, something American psychologist Martin Seligman has shown to be a predictor of success in selling.

By optimism, Seligman means explanatory style or the way in which we explain events to ourselves. If, for example, a consultant has tried calling a recent contact to convert him or her into a prospect but not heard back, the internal explanation may be pessimistic: (“I’m not cut out for selling”, “that person doesn’t think me worthy enough of a response”, “our firm has such a poor reputation, they won’t even return my call”). 

These pessimistic explanations are invariably misplaced and consultants can learn to replace them with optimistic ones, usually revolving around the fact that the contact is, like everybody else, hopelessly busy and has forgotten the call in the first place. Cultivating a sense of learned optimism is possible through workshops and additional coaching and delivers proven results.

2. Growth mindset

Drawing on the work of American psychologist Carol Dweck and her book Mindset, I encourage consultants to develop a growth as opposed to a fixed mindset. Colleagues can keep an ear out for “fixed” language from consultants such as “it’s not in my DNA to sell”, or “calling prospects is futile and a waste of time”. With this mindset, consultants will see adversity as something confirming that they are ill-suited to selling. Those with a growth mindset however will embrace is as part of the learning curve. 

Consultancies can also help team members by establishing social norms that make selling an accepted part of the role. Having a charter or a set of values that explicitly covers the sales part of consultants' role – particularly where they themselves have been part of the process of devising them – can have a big impact on attitudes and behaviours.

Many consultants view sales people as born not made. Again, as with many other dimensions of achievement, it turns out that with a growth mindset it is possible to build the relevant skills. This requires a shift in attitude as well as the disciplined approach athletes, musicians and artists use to learn their craft. These tools are eminently transferrable to the business of sales. 

3. Persistence

While many consultants feel low in confidence when they approach selling, the simplest route to growing it is persistence. Just sticking with it may be easier said than done but any pursuit, from golf to learning a musical instrument, becomes easier to master with dedicated time for purposeful practice and clear and detailed goal-mapping structure. The act of carving out dedicated selling time and sticking with it will ultimately yield results. 

4. Self-control

Since the twenty-first century workplace is replete with distractions, there will always be something to pull consultants away from the frequently challenging task of selling. This is much less about "time-management" than "mind-management". 

Learning to shut out distractions, legitimising the right to be unavailable at key times and resisting the temptation to allow sales activity to be displaced by other "urgent" tasks are all components of the self-control needed to succeed. As with other dimensions of mental toughness, there are practical tools that can be brought to bear here. 

5. Focus

Consultants that I meet consistently explain lack of sales activity on delivery imperatives. A case or project needs attention and this inevitably displaces business development activities such as making phone calls or attending conferences. At first glance, this may appear to be about time management but my experience is that the causal driver of an apparent inability to make time for business development is lack of confidence. 

Without addressing the underlying confidence issue, working with consultants on time management is a little like treating the symptoms of a cough with cough medicine but ignoring the underlying lung infection. In addition to building confidence with the other dimensions of mental toughness there is also quite a lot that can be done to free up time for focused sales activity. 

Firstly, there is the habitual multi-tasking that I see in all twenty-first century workplaces. Far from being a necessary virtue of office life, research suggests that by multi-tasking we take 30% longer to complete our work than by doing one task at a time; we also make twice as many mistakes. 

Secondly, consultants that thrive at selling become good at delegating, trusting their team to take care of client issues rather than having to immerse themselves in unplanned client work. 

Thirdly, good sales performers in consulting firms carve out time for selling activity – whether for making phone calls or attending events – and stick to it, refusing to let it be displaced by other “urgent” work. They also approach these activities with a purpose and accept that the efforts may not yield an immediate return. 

These five dimensions of mental toughness determine success in selling for consultants. Common problems such as proposals that get stuck in the pipeline forever are generally symptoms of lack of mental toughness rather than poor sales skills. Many of these proposals have been poorly qualified in the first place. The 1-% to do with process and skills comprise the following:

  • a simple sales process with clearly identifiable stages from lead to closure
  • good pipeline management with an appropriate CRM tool
  • disciplined and purposeful prospecting
  • robust qualification
  • disciplined follow-up

Methodologies and meeting structures are less important than a) a clear articulation of the positive-sum opportunity and establishment of a fit between consultant and prospect (along with the willingness to acknowledge quickly when there is no fit) and b) clarity of where you are in the process. 

Ultimately, selling can – while initially forbidding and full of negativity – be a source of great personal satisfaction along the journey towards mastery; it can also, of course, be a an important contributor to professional success and advancement.

About the author: Ian Price is a performance psychologist and, through his company Recludo Consulting, a specialist in building mental toughness for selling in consultants. He is also the trainer of the program ‘Sales for Consultants’ and author of personal development book Head Start.