Professional services firms face intense pressure to increase profit and productivity, with new client revenue declining to the lowest level in the past nine years, thanks to the global pandemic. From uncertain economic conditions to digital disruption to increased competition, professional services firms are facing mounting pressure, and in response, they have begun re-shaping the professional services industry, creating new challenges and expectations of firms.
Travel restrictions, temporary hiring freezes, changes in market demand, and remote teams all create new challenges and make it harder to sell. During this increasingly sensitive time, should you stop selling at your professional services firm?
No, don’t stop selling—because an empty pipeline will eventually put you out of business.
But the way you sell needs to shift, because these are extraordinary times—for a few months, and likely longer.
Let’s explore how to change how you sell at your professional services firm during the pandemic. This applies whether you’re the one selling (as a professional services firm owner) or if you have one or more team members doing sales for you.
Before You Read the 18-Step Plan
This won’t be easy, but there’s hope ahead. Not everyone will succeed, but you can secure your professional services firm’s future with a good plan—executed well—with support from your full team.
You may have heard snippets from Winston Churchill’s “we shall never surrender” speech. On the eve of an expected Nazi invasion in 1940, the British prime minister said:
“We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
Less well-known is what he allegedly said after that, off-mic to a colleague during the cheering and applause that followed:
“And we’ll fight them with the butt ends of broken beer bottles because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!”
Firms without strong cash reserves will find it hard to afford a long-term attitude on sales activity and managing a sales pipeline — your situation isn’t impossible, but you have a hard road ahead. Let’s review the sales checklist.
Sales Priorities for Firms: 18 Steps for Professional Services Firms During this Period of Recovery
Success today requires a mix of mindset, strategy, tactics, accountability, and iteration. I believe the strongest professional services firm leaders will encourage their teams to act with empathy, take a long-term perspective, and focus on serving their audience in everyone’s time of need.
1) Accept that this will be slow and hard.
No matter what you do, everyone’s distracted. Now more than ever, your professional services firm’s marketing and sales messages are low in the list of your prospects’ priorities. Your efforts may fail… but if you take no action, failure is guaranteed.
2) Recognize that your client is the Hero, and you’re the Helper.
We’re all the hero of our own lives… but right now more than ever, your job is to make your clients the Hero. As the Helper, your professional services firm is there to help your clients reach their goals… and this helps you reach your goals.
3) Commit to a long-term sales mindset.
Are you going to be helpful, long-term, and patient? Or are you going to be transactional, short-term, and desperate? Focus on a long-term approach. You may be tempted to compromise and take shortcuts—but is that aligned with your values? As they say, values aren’t values until following them costs you money.
4) Choose to practice compassion, empathy, and patience.
This is about clarifying your sales philosophy, and sharing with your team. Everyone’s distracted, anxious and dealing with new situations and circumstances, as they try to keep themselves, and their families, safe and healthy.
Ask and listen, before you tell. Now is not the time to send pushy or otherwise tone-deaf sales messages.
Consider whether to temporarily adjust your sales team’s commission and bonus incentives, to avoid putting pressure on your sales team that translates to pressure on prospects.
5) Understand (and secure) your immediate sales and marketing situation.
- Understand your current sales pipeline, including an inventory of active prospects (and the true status of each, now that the pandemic’s happening). This may require some adjustments.
- Inventory your marketing leads, to understand what future sales opportunities might look like.
- Review what’s in your marketing queue, to see what’s applicable (and not applicable) to helping clients today. Decide whether to increase your sales team’s base compensation (via a temporary draw or salary increase).
Decide whether it’s time to terminate chronically low-performing salespeople. You couldn’t really afford them before, but you definitely can’t afford them now.
6) Adjust your annual sales targets, including the impact on your P&L.
Other than those with strong cash positions (12+ months of expenses in reserves), most firms will not grow in 2020. If your clients are focused in hard-hit industries (tourism, hospitality, events), expect a minimum of a 50% decrease in revenues. For other firms, expect a minimum 10-30% decrease in revenues.
7) Create lower-commitment “bite-size” sales offerings.
These are things to generate revenue today, even if they’re smaller than your minimums in the past. The key is that the price range needs to appropriately reflect the scope and the value. Ideally, you’ll cut the scope rather than cut your rates.
Why? Because a rate cut sets a dangerous precedent that lasts the entire length of the relationship. To echo professional services firm owner Charles Kirkland, offer a “painkiller” instead of a “vitamin” — that is, something people urgently need rather than an optional or “nice-to-have” service.
This may include a shift toward “staple” services—like lead-gen, PPC advertising, or sales collateral design—versus “nice to have” optional services that clients will defer during economic uncertainty.
You’ll need to “test” different options to see what resonates for your target market today. As a starting point, consider one-off consulting calls, a “Paid Discovery” option, “Phase 1” project scopes, and shorter-than-usual retainers (as long as you frame things as a special deal).
8) Outline an iterative plan to create high-value marketing content, for sales support.
This will be a layered, multi-phase process that you continually “enhance” over time. For example:
- Start with a blog post with your advice on what to do to help your clients recover, faster. The goal is to have something to share. Then…
- Run a virtual event that expands on your points, and that includes Q&A. You want to be sure you understand your audience’s key questions and concerns, and you need to record it. Then…
- Create a COVID-19 Resource Center, to consolidate the earlier content and future additions into a single shareable URL. Finally…
- Offer an ongoing series of advice—perhaps a mix of video and text content, depending on your preferences and your audience’s needs—integrated into the Resource Center. Eventually…
- Consider shifting the Resource Center into a more-evergreen content hub, once the crisis has passed.
The key is that you need something high-value as “currency” to share with prospects, so your sales outreach and follow-ups don’t lead with “pay us money.” Beyond sales support, this marketing helps you attract inbound prospects. If you haven’t built (or strengthened) your personal brand, now might be the time for you to step up—because the world needs your thought leadership.
9) Show the love to your current clients.
Clients are more likely to spend money than entirely new prospective clients, so be sure you don’t ignore your current clients. Every account you retain is an account you don’t have to [immediately] replace.
Rather than leading with an upsell ask, ask about where they’re struggling, and then listen actively. Look for ways to use their current budget to help them solve problems.
10) Reconnect with all active sales prospects, leading with your high-value content.
This category includes pending prospects who’ve asked you to follow up in the future—for instance, “Check back in a month” or “Check back in two quarters.”
They may not buy—now or ever—but they’ve at least claimed they want to hear from you in the future. This gives you license to follow up a few times, until they respond.
11) Create a re-engagement campaign, to reach past prospects.
This category includes prospects who said “no” and prospects that disappeared. They aren’t likely to convert now, but it’s worth a try.
Why? Some of the “lost” prospects won’t be happy with their current professional services firm—and some of the prospects that disappeared before will suddenly have urgent needs today.
12) Craft a high-value offer for any cold sales outreach.
Now may be the time for you to start a program of cold sales outreach if your inbound pipeline isn’t strong enough. Remember Charles Kirkland’s point about the urgency of selling a “painkiller” instead of a “vitamin”.
What would that offer look like for your professional services firm… and how would you describe the value proposition to someone who hasn’t heard of your firm before?
13) Stay accountable, including your follow-up process.
If you aren’t doing weekly “sales management” meetings, now is the time to start.
They help you (or the salespeople, if you have a broader team) stay on track. If you’re doing sales as the owner and don’t have someone to hold you accountable, recruit a colleague. The ideal match as “sales manager” may not be a sales expert, but they’re comfortable asking you hard questions.
Consider whether to add new pipeline stages in your CRM, to acknowledge prospects’ distraction levels. Your old sales process might need some updates during the pandemic.
14) Build and strengthen referral partnerships.
If you don’t have partnerships (formal or informal), it’s time to start. Most firms accept referral fees —it’s like a bonus 5% or 10% on work you might otherwise decline altogether.
If you have partnerships but haven’t been in touch in a while… that’s not ideal, but now’s the time to reconnect.
If you’re top-of-mind when a partner hears about an opportunity, that’s one less sales opportunity you need to find via cold outreach. And to a point, more referral partners mean more opportunities.
15) Enlist your team to help.
You’ll need to find a balance on billable vs. non-billable work… but if client volume is down, use the time to support self-marketing. For example:
- Your strategists and other subject matter experts (SMEs) can support content marketing and other initiatives.
- Your project managers can help you stay on track.
- Your operations team can provide additional support and structure in your sales efforts.
Ask for help—even self-starter employees who are committed and motivated can’t read your mind.
16) Seek Business Development advice from a range of sources.
Cast a wide net to find the sales and business development advice that works for you and your professional services firm. With an eye toward other advisors who specialize in professional services firms, consider membership in Collective 54. Collective 54 provides members with a new way of thinking about the challenges and opportunities they face, offering the tools, resources and perspectives required to navigate leadership challenges—alongside peers who are on the same journey.
17) Find ways to take breaks.
If you don’t pause occasionally for self-care, you’ll burn out. You’ll need to find the right approach to handling sales during the pandemic, but working 100 hours a week likely won’t help. Why? Because you’ll see diminishing returns as you become exhausted… and you’ll make mistakes that actively hurt your results.
18) Recognize that you’ll likely survive this.
If you get through this, you can handle almost anything. You—personally—will likely survive and you’ll be able to manage the setback in 2020. It will be sad and difficult and expensive. But you will likely emerge again, to pursue new opportunities. Good luck!
Taking the Next Steps
What’s next? Block in a few hours to start your plan and get your team’s help making this happen. This won’t be easy, but you need to start sooner than later.
Want my one-on-one advice on navigating what’s ahead? Join Collective 54. Nowhere else will you find the kind of valuable information, authentic support, unbiased guidance, impactful collaboration and priceless insight provided by trusted advisors and inspiring peers that really understand your business.
Sakas, Karl l April 1, 2020, Sales during COVID-19? Advice on what to change about selling, Accessed May 27, 2020 <https://sakasandcompany.com/sales-advice-covid-19>