Not everyone can sell

Apr 28, 2003

It’s popular to say that everyone in the firm needs to be able to sell the firm’s services. Heck, I’ve even said it myself at times. The problem is that not everyone can sell. It’s kind of like taking someone who doesn’t have any math aptitude whatsoever and forcing them to solve differential equations. They aren’t going to be able to do it and are probably going to feel bad about failing at it. Yet, the majority of design and environmental firms are hell-bent on this idea that everyone can (and should) sell. In this business we also have a basic belief that to be a principal you have to sell. We take our best design and technical people and make them principals. Do you see the disconnect? Sometimes we get lucky and these outstanding design and technical people can sell. They are so passionate about what they do that it transcends all bounds. On the other hand, many times we aren’t lucky and these outstanding design and technical people can do great work but cannot communicate why it’s great to a client, so they are ineffective at selling. Even more common is the inability of either of these groups to initiate selling activities. So what’s the answer? Here are my thoughts: Acknowledge the fact that the ability to sell, and especially the ability to initiate, is a rare quality and that not everyone in the firm now or in the future will have it. With the acknowledgement of point #1 above, recognize that to hire and keep those who can sell you will have to pay a significant premium over what someone who has a similar background but who cannot sell would get paid (20% to 100% or more). If you don’t want to pay the premium described in point #2 to get these outstanding sellers, acknowledge the fact that you will instead have significantly higher marketing costs than comparable firms for direct mail, PR, and other non-sales related marketing activities that will produce the leads that your sellers would have produced (if you had them). With the vast majority of geographic and client group markets for firms in our business being depressed at the present time, it is now more important than ever for firms to pay attention to their marketing. I would discourage any firm from a get-well-fast scheme that calls for everyone in the firm or everyone at a certain level to make so many sales calls per week or per month. All you are doing is delaying the inevitable—either hiring people who can sell or spending the money on other marketing activities that will generate the leads— and you probably can’t afford this kind of delay. That said, I would encourage all principals and project managers to be talking with their current clients about what needs for the firm’s services they might have in the coming months under the auspices that the firm “wants to be sure to be in a position to serve them.” This is an easy discussion to have and may help identify some future projects that the firm can immediately begin to work on developing further. It’s a non-threatening, legitimate discussion to have with any current client. But my guess is that as important as it is to serve your existing clients, the typical firm will still need new clients to sustain itself or, more importantly, grow. That’s going to take some real investment in marketing— not just the lip service of making everyone in the firm a seller. Originally published 04/28/2003.

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