What it Takes to Sell

Feb 07, 2005

Every single A/E or environmental firm in this country needs more people who can sell work. These people feed the rest of the firm, allow the owners to sleep at night, and are generally the “heroes of the day.” In my 25 years of working with and for A/E/P firms, here are some of the characteristics I have observed in those who are the most successful selling their firm’s services: Relentless optimism. You simply cannot sell if you are cynical. Selling takes an optimistic attitude to overcome the inevitable obstacles that will come your way. And clients can smell someone who doesn’t completely believe in what they are selling. It’s a “sixth sense” kind of thing— and they won’t buy your services if they think YOU have doubts about your ability to perform. Limitless energy. Selling A/E and environmental services will probably involve travel at some point and, if not, will certainly require late-night, early-morning, or weekend meetings. This requires a high energy level if you are going to be able to do what you need to sell the job plus take care of everything else that needs taking care of at the office and home. I just don’t see any way around having a high energy level if you want to succeed at selling! Creative team builder. The best sellers understand, particularly in any kind of government projects, how critical it is to put the right team together. This takes a thorough understanding of the client and the political factors involved in the selection process and the willingness to team with companies that you may not have prior experience with. Good problem-solver. Most selling involves some type of problem-solving— how to work within the fee constraints, how to meet the schedule, how to deal with bonding, how to minimize risks— besides the problems associated with the project itself, like a bad site, keeping an existing facility open during renovation, and more. Successful sellers realize the extent to which they can solve every problem that arises during project development will determine whether they ultimately land the job. Persistence. Good sellers keep calling back. They follow up. They show interest. They don’t give up. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a successful seller simply wear down their prospect over time until they are eventually given a chance to perform. It works! Comfortable interacting with others who are more successful. You can’t be effective as a seller in this business if you are afraid of others who have a higher position than your own or who make more money than you do. Nor can you be successful be being too deferential— you don’t want to look desperate or unsuccessful yourself. And speaking of unsuccessful, an effective seller would never get into details about their own personal situation that would make them look less than successful. That means no complaints about your credit card interest rate, the bill collectors calling, or downsizing to a cheaper house! Look/seem/act/appear honest and trustworthy. This means you have to watch what you say about other people because those you are saying it to will assume you will talk about them, also. The best sellers would never share a story about how they cheat on their taxes, get free cable TV, or abuse a supplier. All of these things would reflect poorly on the person saying them. Always responsive. This one is paramount. The best sellers return their phone calls promptly, answer letters, respond to RFPs (even if the response is, “We won’t be submitting a proposal on this one”), and return e-mails quickly on their Blackberry handheld devices. Care about their clients. The best sellers of A/E services show their clients that they care about them as individuals. This means that they take time to get to know the clients they want to do business with and convey to them that they are important. They learn about their hobbies, families, and careers, and help their clients achieve their own goals through the services their firms provide. The best sellers know that, once a client feels that they have a personal relationship with someone who cares about them, they can become a trusted service provider who does little or no fee negotiating. Protective of reputation. We work in a very ethical business, thankfully, and a good seller would never do anything that would hurt their firm’s reputation. Likewise, they would be very concerned if anyone else in their company or on their project team was doing anything that could be harmful to their reputation. A good seller thinks long-term and is always looking to the next job. I think it’s time A/E and environmental firm principals face up to the fact that not everyone in their firms has what it takes to be an effective seller. No employee selection process is perfect, but the good news is that these traits evidence themselves very quickly. It takes a lot of recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and trying out of folks in selling situations to end up with enough people with the talents required to keep any firm busy with profitable projects. Originally published 02/07/2005

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