The Ideal Sales Process For Professional Services Firms

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    Building the ideal sales process for professional services firms like yours isn't a mystery or an art. It comes down to strategy, planning, and execution. By the time you're done reading this article, you’ll know the basic process you can use, sales models that may or may not work for your firm, and how to start improving sales now.
    Building a sales process is one of the best things you can do at your firm to improve your client experience and grow your business. How to construct the process at your firm comes down to a few key questions about what you’d like the client experience to be, and how you plan to build your firm.

    In this article, I’ll walk you through the steps to build a sales process at your firm, and the questions you have to answer along the way.

    Here’s an outline of what you’ll learn in the article:

    • What It Takes to Drive Your Professional Services Sales Process
    • Defining a Basic Sales Process For Your Firm
    • Which Sales Model Is Best For You?
    • Should You Have a Standalone Salesperson?
    • Milestones and Objections: Catalysts for Your Sales Process
    • What to Do to Start Building the Sales Process at Your Firm

    What It Takes to Drive Your Professional Services Sales Process

    Sales isn’t a monolith. It’s just one link in the chain to developing new business, and landing new clients and projects.

    Let’s start with a bit of context. The typical client acquisition funnel looks something like this:

    sales-process-funnel-professional-services

    Notice that half of the client acquisition funnel is marketing, and half is sales. The two function quite differently, but both are needed in order to produce new clients.

    Marketing is the creation of demand for your services. It typically happens in a one-to-many setting. Think of any media channel that scales: blogs (like this one), webinars, books, public speaking, and more.

    A sale happens one-to-one or one-to-few, depending on your perfect fit client. Selling expensive services can’t be executed over broadcast channels – it’s conversational by definition. The goal of sales is to help an interested and engaged prospective client make an informed decision about whether to work with you.

    And in order to drive a healthy professional services sales process, you need a healthy marketing program and a healthy sales program. One can’t thrive without the other.

    With that in mind, let’s now turn toward your sales strategy.

    Defining a Basic Sales Process For Your Firm

    Your sales strategy begins with your client. Who you’re serving will have a large impact on the specifics of your sales process.

    Larger clients typically involve more stakeholders in the sale, which will dramatically change your process. Whereas selling to individuals – when the same person is both the economic buyer and decisionmaker – is less complicated.

    In both cases, the basics of your sales strategy are the same: your goal is to help prospective clients make informed decisions. That may include buying from you, and it may not. You don’t have control over whether someone buys, but you can control the specific steps you take them through on their path to a purchasing decision.

    This process begins when you get a sales qualified lead. I define that as a web form completion, and the person or company must be in my target market.

    I recommend a specific process for professional services firms called the SDS Method. The steps are as follows:

    1. Fit – through research and/or a short conversation, identify whether your prospective client is a high-level fit to work with you
    2. Discovery – understand your client’s core motivation to change by uncovering underlying pain, personal and business goals, and the value they’d get from changing (a tenet of value-based selling)
    3. Offer – invite your client to work with you by making an offer that directly aligns with their pain, goals, and value that you explored together in the discovery stage
    4. Agreement – reach an agreement that hashes out the details, which may include scope, payment terms, access to you, and more
    5. Transition – begin the transition from a prospective client to an actual client, including planning for the onboarding and delivery process

    The goal of this process is simply to meet your prospective clients where they are today, and how things could improve for them in the future. If they’re interested, your role is to help them realize their desired improvement.

    Now there’s the question of who will do all of this, which is highly dependent upon your sales model.

    Which Sales Model Is Best For Your Firm?

    One thing that comes up when building a sales process for professional services is how it’ll all work.

    Who’s doing what, why, and when. And it’ll come up because, as you lay out your sales process, you’ll begin to understand the enormity of your task if you’re running a traditional doer-seller model: one person is expected to do everything. Despite having specialized in a particular area of focus, this model lacks focus or specialization. More on that below.

    First, a quick definition of sales model as I intend to use it: a sales model is how your sales program is organized, with clear definitions of roles and responsibilities. 

    Your firm may be facing a common quandary: how can you increase sales if all of your selling is done by firm principals?

    You’re not alone. Most firms first encounter this problem when they think about growth or scaling, or simply want to remove firm principals from the sales process in order to maximize their client service time.

    You may be thinking “I can’t hire salespeople.” I’ve heard some variation of this from just about every client I’ve ever had, and most firm principals I’ve spoken to. The good news is that there are several different models that can work, each with varying degrees of involvement from firm principals.

    Doer-Seller Model

    This is the typical sales model for professional services firms because it’s the one that every firm begins with. In the doer-seller model, the same person delivering the service takes on every aspect of the sales process.

    Doer-seller model firms typically expect all marketing and lead gen to be done by the same person, too, which limits the success of each of these programs.

    Meeting Setter Plus Experts

    Meeting setters are not a new invention, but as sales has continued to professionalize, this role has become more and more common. Meeting setters are typically referred as BDRs (“business development representatives”) or SDRs (“sales development representatives”) or “Sales Associates.” I’ll just refer to them as BDRs.

    The job of the BDR is typically to generate leads and put meetings on the calendar for someone else. The BDR knows just enough to prospect, or contact email subscribers who appear to be viable prospects.

    If you were to outsource a portion of your sales process, this is the most likely model for you, though you must be clear on your value proposition, client target, and differentiator.

    Business Developers Plus Experts

    Hiring a business developer is usually the first step a firm takes toward a systematic sales process. The business developer usually has industry experience and contacts, and is often a “rolodex hire” brought in because of who they know rather than what they can do.

    This sales model works with a business developer taking on more marketing and lead generation responsibilities, while also running the early stage of the sales process. As soon as there appears to be a qualified sales opportunity, the expert is brought in to run the rest of the sales process.

    Salespeople Plus Experts

    This is the sales maturity model that I recommend most firms strive to achieve. Let’s turn to software to demonstrate the point.

    At the time of writing, Salesforce has over 6,000 people with the title “Account Executive” (AE).  These are pure salespeople. But they also have 535 solutions engineers whose job it is to assist with the more technical side of the sale – you know, technical experts. That’s about 11 AEs for every solutions engineer.

    The larger the target organization, the more likely an AE will need technical support to fully respond to client needs. That’s a higher salesperson-to-technical-expert ratio than you’re likely to ever have. Still, even a product firm as specialized as Salesforce – one with a world-class, fully mature sales organization – still relies on experts to win deals. More on the folly of trying to do it without experts in the next section.

    You can think of a mature professional services organization in the same way. Sales leads the charge, but it’s still a team sport. Experts play a critical role in establishing trust and authority during the sale, but both systems and intellectual property do the heavy lift during the sales process (led by dedicated salespeople).

    Standalone Sales Department

    This seems to be the prevailing fantasy of many firm owners who don’t like sales or want to scale quickly. A standalone sales department comes with the promise of plugging in dedicated salespeople to produce new clients, though it’s difficult for this work until:

    • You have a clear target client and
    • Repeatable messaging that consistently produces leads and meetings with
    • A highly structured sales process that can be run by average or slightly-above-average hires and
    • Your pricing and offer are standarized to the point of being an algorithm so
    • Negotiation is almost non-existent and can be done entirely by your sales team

    I’d also add that – just as in the last model – having intellectual property is a near-requirement if you’re selling an expert-level service. If you compete on price and convenience, it’s less important, and a standalone sales function may make sense for you.

    Should You Have a Standalone Salesperson?

    Now that you’ve seen the different sales models available to professional services firms, you may be wondering if you should have a dedicated salesperson.

    Here’s the answer: only if you have the infrastructure to support them.

    Typically that includes some amount of content, technology, and intellectual property that you can use to separate yourself and other experts from the process. Using the chart above that shows the different sales models, the level of infrastructure you need depends on the sale process you choose.

    If you choose the Meeting Setter Plus Expert model, then you’ll need some content to provide your meeting setter, along with training on typical client problems and client definitions. There isn’t a lot they need to know.

    Whereas if you plan to implement the Sales Plus Experts model, you’ll need much more infrastructure to support your sales team. Everything from marketing, to your sales process, to decision-making guidelines for proposals and negotiation.

    If you have no salespeople now, I recommend you prioritize the following:

    • Create your baseline marketing assets
    • Build out your documentation that includes the definition of your perfect client and details your sales process
    • Hone service packages and offerings so they’re easy to understand and train others on
    • Build the requisite sales skills necessary for you and other firm leaders to close business more predictably, and faster

    If you’ve done all of that, bring in a capable salesperson to set meetings, run business development, or run standalone sales, with the expectation that’ll it take months of ramp time and some trial-and-error for them to be successful

    Alternatively, talented marketers can bring in enough leads (i.e. web form completions) to keep firm leadership busy without overinvesting time in sales meetings. But again, they’ll need the infrastructure and support, just as salespeople will, because they’re not the experts – you are!

    Milestones and Objections: The Catalysts for Your Sales Process

    You need to anticipate the predictable when you build the sales process for professional services – your firm, or any firm. And there are two things that will certainly come up regularly: milestones and objections.

    Milestones are moments in the sale that, when complete, will propel the sale forward. Tyipically you can think of milestones as being directly related to your chances of winning an opportunity. Some example milestones may include:

    • Getting a signed NDA
    • Receiving client bills or documentation (in cost reduction engagements)
    • Presenting to the executive team
    • Having your contract reviewed by legal
    • Sending a proposal

    Whatever milestones you may have to complete with a particular client can be anticipated and planned for. You’ve sold your services much more than your clients have bought them, so informing them about potential milestones may serve to accelerate the sales process and help your client execute everything they need to do to buy.

    Just as completing a major milestone can improve your chances of winning a deal, unmet objections can serve to hinder your chances of winning. A sales objection is simply a potential issue that may prevent your client from working with you, but often amounts to a misunderstanding.

    Objections typically mean that your prospective client is interested in working with you. If you receive an objection, your client must be thinking about working with you, otherwise they wouldn’t think of reasons why they couldn’t work with you. Typical objections include:

    • Price / cost / budget
    • Too big of a commitment / too much risk
    • “I already have a vendor”
    • “How do I know this’ll work for me?”
    • “We’re too busy”

    If you’ve spoken to more than five prospective clients of the same type – and surely you have if you’re reading this – you’ve likely heard 80% or more of the objections you’ll ever hear. Anticipating and preempting those objections should be done at each stage of the sales process.

    The more fundamental the objection, the earlier you’d anticipate and address it in your sales process. For instance, the “we have a vendor” objection will only come up in the earliest part of the sale, whereas budget objections are typically objections related to value and come up later in the sale.

    How to Define a Sales Process For Your Firm

    Now you have more information than you started with, but the question is what to do about it?

    Here are the immediate steps you can take to begin to define a sales process at your firm:

    • Define your ideal client as well as the milestones and objections they’re likely to have through the process
    • Document your sales process from lead intake, to qualification, to potential dealbreakers, to your offer and presentation, to negotiating agreements and beginning your transition
    • As you mature, choose a sales model that best suits your firm
    • Once you’re ready and have the infrastructure in place, bring on sales and/or marketing hires who can help you accelerate your wins
    • And as a bonus, track your sales leads, wins and losses, revenue, and velocity (days to close of project) and update it monthly or quarterly to have a better understanding of how you can improve

    And if you’d like help building your sales process, I’d love to help. You can check out my sales program for professional services firms here.

    If you’d still like to learn more:

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