By Nancy Austin
to Sell Advice Like a Pro
There was a moment, in my very first hour as a consultant, or paid advice-peddler, when I thought seriously of packing it in and running off to join the Peace Corps instead. It was the autumn of 1977. My client, a big-name manufacturer of heavy farm equipment in the Midwest, had grown flabby, which is why a slew of dark-suited consultants now cavorted all over the place, turning over rocks and looking for ways to "trim the fat." Everybody knew that was code for slashing budgets and firing people, a sorry state of affairs that ignited stinky fear and loathing among the locals. That's where I came in. On the recommendation of another consultant, I was hired to sharpen management's team-building and collaboration skills, so that the new, slimmed down company would be fast, flexible, and perpetually "change-ready."
In the first hour of my first day, the CEO of the client company pulled me aside. He reared up like an angry raccoon and fired questions as if they were missiles. My comrades had warned me to pump up my experience if anybody asked, but I told the bald truth: this was indeed my first big gig with a manufacturer (except for one project in grad school), but I had written a dozen relevant articles and one book; I figured those must count for something. I'd worked with organizations more messed up than this one, and given the chance, I thought I could win support by delivering solid information and a fresh perspective. But as the CEO glowered at me, I read him loud and clear: You're a textbook with legswhat do you know? No one as green as you is going to be a paid consultant of mine. Depressed and discouraged, I was on a plane out of there that afternoon.
Even after the flaming ignominy of being booted off my first job, I went on to consult another day, with far happier results. But that initial consultation taught me a lesson I wouldn't trade: selling advice is never about having all the right answers and doling them out for a fee. It's about trust and credibility and respect and collaboration and passion. It's personal. It's more soap opera than science project.
Selling advice requires at least four things, working in combination. You need to: know what you're talking about; command your client's respect as an expert; have a down-to-earth, unpretentious manner; and have a knack for working smoothly with people while at the same time accomplishing an complex task. It's a tall order, but if you can fill it, you'll be an extremely valuable commodity. Why? Good consultants are incredibly important because in an age of unlimited information, people are starved for real advice. Here's what you need to know to give it to them.
Mastery. If you want a recommendation about what computer to buy, or, say, detailed guidance about how to improve your customer-retention rates, you'd ask an expert in the field. That's why rock-solid technical expertise is the first thing a client expects and the first professional hurdle a would-be consultant has to clear. You have to know a lota lotabout something to make the pro team, and you always have to keep beefing it up (advice-givers never outgrow homework), but here's the thing. Even when you've mastered your subject area, you're not off the hook, because you're selling a whole lot more than technical knowledge when you sell advice.
There are two things you should be able to promise with a perfectly clear conscience: that your special content knowledge (graphic design, accounting, landscaping, hair design) is always state-of-the-art, and that you know enough about a potential clients situation to deliver relevant advice, advice worth paying for. Now, Id love to tell you that theres a bunch of books or a battery of home-study courses that will tell you exactly how you measure up in every important aspect and what to spiff up, but alas, it doesnt work that way. I know only one real way to quell your fears about cutting it as a professional consultant, and thats by launching a pilot program.
The beauty of a pilot is that its a safe bet, a little taste. Your whole career and reputation are out of harms way, and you can play around in a protected space and try out your chops. So what you must do is inject a little consulting into one of your current projects and gauge the reaction. See how they like it, see whether you do, and decide if you can get along. Sometimes this begins with something as simple as a single question. When a future client asked me how my research in assertiveness training might be applied to his organization, my answer demonstrated: (1) a marrow-deep understanding of my field (assertiveness training and behavioral psychology), and (2) a genuine respect for and interest in his department (about 40 MDs who felt their patients would benefit from learning to assert themselves in common social situations). Of course, I was, to a certain extent, winging it. It was a real-time learning experience that kicked off my consulting career. Could I handle the pressure of being "the expert?" Did they believe me? Did I know what I was talking about? Did I like this kind of relationship? I could, they did, and I did.
Beyond testing out your know-how in the real world, mastery implies a genuine fascination with clients. If youre the type who gets miffed when challenged, do yourself a favor and bag consulting as a career of choice. Because one of the secrets of consulting is this: it runs on a kind of friendly dissent. People who will do anything to please are better suited to politics than consulting, where you have to be able to speak your mind, but not go too far. There are words for consultants who say whatever pretty words the client wants to hear, but good taste prevents me from using any of them now. The very best consultants I know have this unshakable interest in their clients thats as powerful as their own personal ambition. As a general rule of thumb, when youre starting an new engagement (or a consulting career), begin by digging deep into your clients industry and business. At the very least, devote two hours of research for every hour you spend on site.
Authority. You can turn be the world's greatest expert on toner cartridges or flower arranging or digital signal processing, but only a client can grant you the authority to use it.
That was my mistake with my first gig. Ability, I thought, conferred authority, sort of automatically. I've since learned that what sets good consultants apart from failures is not merely knowing a lot about something, but knowing that clients won't take your word for anything until they register the gut feeling that they can: (1) confide in you, and (2) count on you. You're nobody until somebody trusts you; then (and only then) do you have a realistic shot at selling advice.
Like love and chess, a trust-based client relationship can't be hurried or forced. It's no accident that consultants who work a lot are the ones who are attuned to the slightest hesitation on the part of the client, a small but hugely significant sign that will cause them to switch roles almost instantly from learned advisor to student. They ask questions: What do you think? How does this sound to you? Can you help me understand this ? Would you tell me more about that ? The reason is that good consultants go all-out to understand where the client is coming from and to respond gently and thoughtfully.
Authority, then, is a two-way street. If you're curious about what it's like to interact with a living, breathing client, consider signing on with ExpertCentral.com, a Web site that sells targeted expertiseadvice on everything from car repair and hot gossip to fine arts, legal issues, and stocks. As one of their online volunteer gurus, you help real people solve real problems and get feedback about how they put your advice to work. Think of it as a test drive, a virtual warm-up for the real thing.
Be Humble, Be Clear. The quickest way to wreck a consulting gig is to strut into your clients office and throw your weight around. Go ahead, make it obnoxiously clear that you know more than anyone on the planet and youre here to prove it to them. New kids on the advice-selling block often assume that king-sized content is everything, and so they flaunt their advanced knowledge every chance they get. But braggarts and know-it-alls don't last long in consulting because they're really only interested in parading their bona fides, not in improving their clients' businesses. If you insist on showing off, cautions communication expert and conflict-resolution consultant Peg Neuhauser, all it really shows is that you're boorish and unsure of yourself. "You've got to have the confidence to say, 'I'm an expert in my field but not in your industry, so I want to come in and do some research.' Clients love that, and it's the right thing to do," Neuhauser says. "A big reason clients don't trust consultants is that they won't admit what they don't know."
As any seasoned advice-seller can tell you, working up the nerve to say "I don't know" is the scariest part of selling advice, especially in the early stages of an engagement, when you're raring to go and you're looking for validation. "To this day, during the first hour of an engagement, I don't say much," Neuhauser says. "I can feel my anxiety rising: this voice inside me is going, 'They're paying you, what if the whole day goes by and you don't say anything useful?' But I've learned that it's better to keep your mouth shut and let people wonder if you're a fool rather than open it and confirm that you are."
Even with careful research and preparation, first-time advisors often feel like fakes: they're terrified that any minute the client will discover how clueless they really are and throw them out. This sense of insecurity can run deep, especially with neophytes, who try to cover it up by bombarding unsuspecting clients with important-sounding professional gobbledygook.
When a novice consultant piles on the jargon, it's usually because he hasn't had much practice in getting across what he knows in a way outsiders can grasp. Or maybe he hasn't yakked with anyone outside his own profession in a very long time, and he's a little rusty. One way to leave the lingo behind is to get to the point where you can explain what you do to a third- or fourth-grade kid. When she understands, you've got it.
The bigger problem, though, is that plenty of consultants drone on way too long. Listening bores them. Sometimes you chinwag to control a panicky feeling, but it might be a sign of something far worse: thinly disguised contempt for the client. If you catch yourself jumping to finish a client's sentences, always needing to be the one who's right, arrogantly blaming the "stupid client" for "not getting it," or pounding a client over the head with the "correct" answer"You've got to cut your dealers' commissions or you're hard cheese"now's the time to rethink your approach. "Clients know their world," Neuhauser says. "If you just shut up and listen, they'll tell you the whole thing! You bring five or ten percent to the table; it's a valuable five percent, but you've got to remember that."
The Knack. Being wonderfully prepared, self-effacing, and respected isn't all there is to selling advice. This is the hard part about understanding what makes a topnotch consultant so effective, because the source of those special skills is still something of a mystery. Call it The Knack. "I can tell in five minutes whether somebody's going to make it or not," Neuhauser says. "One key is this: if you spend all your time talking about the intellectual piece of what you want to do and you never address selling, forget it. You're not temperamentally suited for this kind of work." Neuhauser's own business grew like mad until her third year, when, she says, "I thought I was hot, and work was good, and I quit marketing [myself]. I quit selling. In six months, I was in big trouble. So I started calling past clients, and several said, 'It's funny you calledyou're hired!' Now I know that half of what a consultant does should have some selling in it, unless you're going into semi-retirement."
The image of the slick consultant foisting himself on clients makes most of us want to throw up. But if that image is retouched to mean convincing clients to trust you, then the picture changes radically. That's exactly how Denise Shields built her business. Shields, a Southern California consultant in the health spa industry who also sells a line of personal-care products, has spent time in the trenches, an experience that taught her how vital trust is. "Clients first got to know me through what I sold, and that's how I established myself as knowledgeable and trustworthy," she says. "I'm never a product pusher; I'm a true resource. That's when people would ask, 'How can I market my salon better?' I'm like a business partner who generates revenue from somewhere else."
Another way to sell is to give a client an advance taste of what it would feel like to work together. Early one recent morning in San Diego, a computer consultant named Steve Dente picked up the telephone in his office and spoke to a prospective client who happened to be calling from Kenya. The prospect wanted to talk about designing software that would speed up the process through which Kenyan travel visas are issued. What happened next clinched the deal and left the prospect flabbergasted: Dente continued the conversation in Swahili, the caller's native language. He'd picked it up years before, when he was mining gemstones in Africa.
Dente's considerable experience in custom software design suggested he could handle the Kenyan project, but it was the common language that convinced the prospect that Dente was the right consultant. If you're thinking that Swahili has nothing whatever to do with software, you're missing the point. The language forged an emotional bond. You can practically hear the prospect thinking, "Wow, this guy really understands me!" In consulting, you don't need to know everything, but you do need to connect. Always.
Selling advice turns out to be, in the end, an intensely personal and unpredictable thing. It's not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. But you already knew that.
Primary Editor: Ken Gordon
Production: Fletcher Moore
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Nancy K. Austin is a freelance writer who lives in California. If you like, we'd be happy to put you in touch with her, or with any of the other IPs named in this article.