Chapter 6: Selling IT Services without Becoming a Free Consultant
Raise your hand if you hate selling.
Now put your hand down.
One of the toughest things about starting an IT business is selling your services to clients. Why? Because IT professionals tend to be great at what they do but not so great at sales. Kevin Hallenbeck , a 20-year veteran of sales training for IT professionals and the founder of New Hampshire-based Sandler Training Center , suggests that this is because of two things:
- IT professionals dread selling. This may be because they hear "no" a lot, which can be fixed (and which we'll give you some tips on fixing in just a minute).
- They end up in the classic trap of becoming "free consultants" to their potential clients. In other words, they spend lots of time and energy outlining recommendations only to find that the client isn't interested in paying them for their services.
The good news? According to Hallenbeck, selling doesn't have to be something you dread — and it doesn't have to be something that leaves you feeling drained or as if you've wasted your time. He offers a three-step strategy to help even the most reluctant technology consultants close the sale 90 percent of the time. (Note: that was a number he threw out during an interview. We're not offering this as any kind of guarantee, but it sounded really good, and, to this writer, offered evidence that Mr. Hallenbeck has certainly mastered the confidence part of selling well.)
“Do not undervalue yourself — there is temptation to take any work. When you need money ASAP, it is easy to think that anything is better than nothing. You may also be tempted to give away time as a way of marketing. In reality, doing the wrong work can be distracting when your time should be better spent identifying and nurturing better prospects.” — Nick Boris , owner, Pittsburgh Technology Management
Step 1: Identify the Prospect's Pain Points
As a technology professional, you understand the importance of investing in IT. But your prospective clients ("prospects") may not. Instead, they see pesky problems that they don't know how to solve and that they suspect can only be solved by an IT expert. For example: you might be talking with a potential client for less than five minutes when it becomes painfully obvious to you that they need to update their servers.
But to the client, updating servers is a waste of money — it's invisible and not particularly cheap. If you hold up your hand early in the conversation and announce that you can solve their problem very simply, there's a good chance you won't make the sale.
Instead, listen to the client talk for a while. Ask questions. What you want to find is their pain points — the underlying emotional reason that triggered them to look you up and call you.
Maybe it's that their computers run painfully slowly in the office. Maybe it's something else. The important thing to remember is this: no pain, no sale. If the potential client isn't suffering or worried about how the problem is affecting their business, they won't pay anyone money to fix it. If there's no pain, there's no incentive to pay, and any work you do for them will be unrewarded. If there's no pain point, walk away.
When you've figured out their main pain points, you can frame your services as the solution that will relieve their pain. And then move on to step two.
“Start selling immediately and learn about the process through reading anything that you can. Learn the concepts of prospecting and gaining referrals. Learn to identify a prospect's pain and how you can resolve it.” — Nick Boris , owner, Pittsburgh Technology Management
Step 2: Determine the Prospect's Budget and Willingness to Invest
At this point, you've identified the prospect's pain points. To determine whether they're a good match for the services you can offer, it's time to figure out what they're willing to invest in fixing the problem. This includes things like…
- Money: Obviously, if they're not willing to pay what it costs to fix their problem, it's time to walk away. Their pain is not great enough and you won't be able to earn what your services are worth.
- Time: Some problems can be fixed in a week and some take a year. Be sure to get a clear timeline of expectations and to communicate what you can realistically do.
- Disruption: Some fixes require downtime. Some require employees to learn a new way of doing things. There's often a period of growing pains when a business transitions from an old system to a new, and if your potential client isn't willing to put up with that, you may have to walk away.
If the client is willing to pay what the fix costs, give you adequate time to do your work, and accept temporary disruption on the way to improvement, move on to step three.
Step 3: Know the Prospect's Decision-Making Process
If you're like most of the clients insureon serves, you're the only person in your business. When it's time to make budget decisions, you don't exactly have to go through a chain of command. But if your potential client is a larger company, you'd better believe there's a system for getting approval on expenditures.
Once you've established that your client has a problem they're willing to invest time and money into solving, it's time to make sure you're talking to the people who have the authority to sign off on the investment. Hallenbeck suggests thinking of the information you need as "who, what when, why, how, and who else." Specifically:
- Identify decision makers (the "who"). The bigger the investment in your services, the more people are likely to be involved (hence the "who else").
- Determine when the decision will happen.
- Determine how the decision will be made. Does the client need an RFP? A capital request? Make sure you're familiar with the process so you can have a realistic idea of when the prospect might turn into a paying client.
So: in order to close a sale, your prospective client must have a need + money and willingness to spend it + the authority to make a decision.
“The number-one issue I wish I'd understood when starting my business is people's and companies' level of tolerance for poorly executed and implemented IT strategies and technology. While many potential clients had me in, I found not many of them are willing to pay to resolve their IT pain points proactively and instead told me that I had to wait until they had a catastrophe; then the budgets become available. Had I known that, my test phase would have included more than qualifying a need and consisted of the question: ‘Under what conditions would you be willing to provide the resources necessary to ease the pain?’” — Rich Silva , Pain Point IT Solutions Inc.
Until you've qualified your leads with these three steps, don't offer any consulting services, don't dig into their servers to see what's wrong, and don't do anything else that you'd usually charge money for. Until you're sure that you have a qualified lead on your hands, there's no way of knowing whether you'll be compensated for your services.
On the other hand, once you find prospects who meet all three of these criteria, you'll find that making the sale is simple and straightforward.
One final note: Hallenbeck noted during our conversation that, while these tips address the problem he sees most commonly among IT professionals, they are by no means a definitive guide to selling. If you're interested in investing some time and money in improving your selling skills, take a look at the training guides and courses available for sale through the Sandler Training Center .
Next: Chapter 7: Planning for Retirement