Alex is an entrepreneur and a business partner I have worked with for some years. I have always admired his ability to perceive clearly through noise and cut to the chase. That clear-sightedness and how he brings it to work is one of the reasons I look forward to speaking with him.
A couple of weeks ago we were sitting on a terrace - Alex was savouring the wine he had just ordered for himself, a smile illuminating his face. He was telling me about the pleasure of spending money again: he had just closed his company after five years in business and thanks to a freshly signed full-time contract, he could indulge again.
He shared how he had stopped feeling guilty because his family patiently tolerated his business endeavours while his wife carried most of the household’s financial burden. As he gazed over the river before him, glass of wine in his hand, his heart was finally light.
In the years in which he ran his business, Alex wrote and published a book, came up with clever training and skills development products and developed a network of well-known clients. Yet here he was, toasting his new full-time job.
He had said on more than one occasion that while he loved the entrepreneurial process and the creative freedom it brought, he did not enjoy the commercial side of the business and was not good at sales.
Alex is just one example: in the aftermath of the pandemic, a number of the entrepreneurs in my circle took the decision to close down. And most provided the same narrative as Alex to explain why they were going back to the type of jobs they had once left. As they see it, they are not good at selling.
Consequently, I’ve given the topic of ‘selling as a small business’ some thought.
The concept of sales needs to be reinvented for small businesses
After some time working as solo founder, it became clear to me that when it comes to small businesses like mine, two aspects are particularly valuable to clients: 1) ability to innovate and 2) attention to how the business is conducted with those clients.
In other words, the ability to come up with novel solutions and the quality of the experience of working with a provider are major differentiators when choosing a consulting partner.
Because of that, commercial excellence in a small business is achieved not when quotes are sent out, but when human beings on the provider and client side come together to interact with one another as a seamless team, focusing on the problem to solve and brushing aside their provider–client roles. And while the act of selling – negotiating, delivering and receiving payment – is important, it is secondary to the emergence of mutual trust.
This is what I mean by “wholeness”: the client and the provider act as true partners who trust each other, and who bring their whole creative selves to the partnership to come up with the best possible path to the objective they are working on.
The real currency in an intellectual service business is feedback
In my experience, sales targets are achieved once the client and service provider start giving feedback to one another. And this is transformational to both.
Giving feedback necessitates trust. It implies that the parties do not fear that they might lose opportunities or future contracts if they speak honestly. This also means that by the time feedback is shared, the value proposition for the client is clear and both parties are aligned on their intent to deliver that value together.
The interactions I have as part of my assignments are one of the best perks of my job. Ever since founding problem-solving.rocks, I have felt like I have been completing an experimental one-of-a-kind advanced degree that develops superpowers. This happens through positive and constructive feedback that my clients, partners, and suppliers provide. I also I feel that I could never have gotten that learning in different circumstances. Entrepreneurship, and the responsibility that comes with it, takes one to situations and experiences that would simply not be possible in another setting.
The objective is always transformation
Clients never just purchase a project or a coaching mission. They are not that interested in the theory of change management or the myriad of interactive tools that accompany presentations. What they really want is the change that will occur as the consequence of the intervention.
Therefore, each consulting mission must bring a new way of thinking, an inspiration. The leaders I speak with look for that transformation on multiple levels: the impact on the business but also the potential for transformation of their own role in it. The service provider is a lever in that process.
Sales efforts need to take the opportunity for transformation into account. Changing the structures, processes, culture or systems of an established business is one of the hardest assignments business leaders ever face. A consulting partner that can demonstrate experience and understanding in this field, and push the transformation agenda for the leader they work with, will be able to sell more effectively.