Why is selling different for the professions?

Posted on: May 21, 2000

This topic is covered extensively in my book Dynamic practice development – Selling skills and techniques for the professions – here is an extract:

So why is selling different for the professions? There are many reasons:

Services not products

First, a professional person is selling an intangible service rather than a tangible product. In order to experience the service the buyer must commit to some element of purchase – so trust is a vital issue. Secondly, a professional service has a number of elements – there is the core expertise (in law, accountancy, property, technology etc) and there is the way that expertise is delivered. Often, the buyer will not be qualified to make a decision as to the quality of the expertise and most research shows that buyers of professional services either take the quality of expertise for granted or infer it on the basis of the quality of delivery.

Buying people

The quality of the service is based on the quality of the people providing that service. Therefore, in a professional service environment the buyer is trying to assess the quality of the individuals who will deliver that service. In effect, the salesman/woman is the service.

Fear of failure

The professions are taught not to fail. The professions are not expected to fail. Professional indemnity is there to protect those unfortunate professionals who make mistakes or fail. Most practices are intolerant of failure. Early failures or mistakes in a professional career can have long lasting impact. It is therefore not surprising that most professionals fear selling because they lack training in selling and also fear ridicule and failure. They see selling as a risky business with regards to their career and their reputation. Yet, it is impossible to win every sale that you seek – therefore, implied in effective selling is the occasional failure. This is an incredibly hard attitudinal and cultural transition to make.

Do it all

The professional has to undertake a multiplicity of roles. They have to do the marketing, the selling and then actually produce the goods and deliver them to the client as well as supervise the work and organise billing and payment. Each professional must therefore acquire and use a wide range of skills which in other types of companies would be focused in specialist units (e.g. sales, finance, quality control etc).

Ethics and integrity

Most professions still have professional rules about acting in the best interests of the clients and somehow selling still feels outside this definition. It is not until you see selling as a vital part of matching the clients needs against the services and advice you can offer that you start to see how a ‘professional’ could and should sell.

Training

As marketing and selling are relatively new in the professions (it was only in the 80s when the professional rules were relaxed for lawyers and accountants) few professionals have received proper sales training as part of their career development. In some respects, it is hoped that they will pick up the appropriate behaviours by observing their seniors and absorbing the correct approaches. This is a bit like expecting someone to learn how to drive by being an observant passenger. It can work but would be quicker, cheaper and less painful if some professional lessons were provided.

Ongoing relationship

Most professionals expect there to be an ongoing relationship with the client. A close and confidential relationship is not conducive to the perceived relative harshness of selling.

Attitude

For many years the prevalent feeling was that if a professional did a good job, their clients would be happy and would recommend them to other clients. During the heyday of professional services when demand outstripped supply, few professionals needed to do anything more than pick up the phone to take the constant stream of new instructions. This attitude prevails in some areas making professionals feel that if they have to sell then they have somehow failed in their professional endeavours.

Transactional

Some professionals (e.g. corporate finance specialists, architects, personal injury and probate litigators etc) are involved in work of a very transactional nature – where the opportunities to win business are difficult to predict and rare and where, therefore, the chances of developing an ongoing relationship with the client are minimal. This often requires a marketing and selling approach which is targeted at other intermediaries or carried out in conjunction with professionals in the same firm whose work is more likely to bring them in contact with clients on a day to day basis.

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As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.

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