Not all startups are based on a unique product or gizmo that would feel at home on the set of “Shark Tank.” In fact, most startups are purveyors of expert services and do not sell products at all. Think web designer, freelance editor, attorney or architect. Key to their success is finding and bringing on a steady stream of new clients. Unlike products, where buyers choose to buy based on attributes like speed, capability or price, buyers of expert business services buy on reputation, relationships and referral.
Along the journey from not knowing you to engagement, they ask these seven questions.
Who are you?
If potential clients are not aware of your company, you can neither scope nor engage with them. Think websites, social media and signage. Being known in advance, of course, is not a necessity. Sometimes awareness first comes when you send an email or introduce yourself over the phone.
Do I understand what you do?
Potential clients need to have an understanding of your capabilities. This is not a trivial point in a world where many firms offer a wide range of capacity. Here is the rule: specificity attracts.
For example, “We sift through retail register data and are able to pinpoint which customers and which offers will help you optimize your marketing spend” is more compelling than “We drive digital transformation and strategy in a full range of industries across the globe.”
Boil down what your startup offers to no more than a handful of value propositions where you have a) some form of competitive advantage, b) a data-rich track record of success and c) a statement that is easily understood by a parent or a neighbor.
This is your elevator pitch and is the definition of your niche.
Do I have a problem for which you have an answer?
In order to sell consulting services, your client must have a felt need, an interest. They should at least be open to the idea of improvement. Create distinctions which illuminate challenges or opportunities to which you are the answer.
This is why so many write on thought leadership, speak at conferences and more generally work to articulate the kind of “burning platforms” on which urgency and engagement are built.
Do I think you can do the job?
Potential clients might know you, know you are active in a vertical and have a problem they need to solve, but they need to have a belief that you can do the work effectively.
The secret to creating “belief” is to clearly describe the promise of your service (“we lower costs,” “we drive revenues,” “we position you for future success”), while at the same time highlighting your track record of doing “the same thing for companies in your similar situation.” Think case studies and references.
Related: StartupNation Business Services
Do I trust you?
For professional business services, reputation is the Holy Grail. When you hear, “I’ve worked with her before; she’s a solid player,” you know someone is about to ink a new engagement.
Here is the formula for creating trust: (Your effectiveness) x (Your “fit” with the client) x (The amount of time you have known the client) = trust.
If you are super-smart and have been calling on a client for five years, you will not win an engagement if the client feels “she just doesn’t get us.” Ask yourself, “How can I demonstrate value to a potential client in advance of the sale, provide evidence of my fit with the buyer, and do this repeatedly over a long period of time?”
Working shoulder-to-shoulder with executives builds trust, but so does staying continuously connected over time, so long as you add value when you do. This is why people travel, offer free audits and distribute research.
Do I have the ability to pull the trigger?
Is the company able to afford your services? Are you talking to a decision-maker? This is not about pining after those hard-to-get CFO appointments; it is about being thoughtful about where the preponderance of decision-making lies.
Here is a clue: mostly, you are selling to the “head of retail operations” or the “director of compliance,” the problem solvers in an organization. Target those with budget, authority and for whom your services move the needle on their objectives. Understand their mandates and responsibilities. Do your homework. What does the world look like from their perspective, not yours? Care enough to walk a mile in their shoes.
Is the timing right?
Often, you have convinced the decision-maker, but for reasons beyond her control, she cannot make it happen. Be patient. You are selling to organizations with their own planning and budget cycles. Be attuned to timing, and never write off a potential client. No one ever needs a consultant, until they do, and then when they do, it is the professional who has invested in a relationship and who is most proximate to the opportunity who wins the day. Stay in touch.
Service-based startups rise or fall on business development. Success requires a sound business development strategy – one that supports all seven elements of an expert services sale.