Improve your face-to-face selling skills

Doing business without sales and marketing is like winking at someone in the dark. You know you’re doing it, but no-one else does.

Typical SalesmanIt can be frustrating, can’t it, to find you’ve spent years studying for professional qualifications, only to be told that now you need to be able to sell as well. In this article, we explore how to sell face-to-face, without have to turn into anything like our friend below.  

We have asked lots of professionals over the years what they think of selling. There are some who love it but more usually they find it intimidating or, at worst, rather grubby and beneath them. This is often because selling is associated with lack of substance, manipulation or the need to be an outgoing ‘patter merchant’. None of those perceptions would motivate a professional to engage with selling. Indeed, there is an even subtler process going on, driven by the way our brains are wired. We tend to react badly to situations that we perceive as threats. It’s a function of the older parts of our brain and not always conscious. When we were evolving as humans, a threat ignored could mean we died. Nowadays, even though the risk is unlikely to be so extreme, we subconsciously avoid situations which might undermine our credibility, our standing among our peers and our perceived success. We engage the more modern, rational parts of our brain to come up with ‘logical’ excuses for our avoidance behaviour. Professionals have spent years becoming experts, getting things right. Business development is a much less precise process, and that’s why it can seem threatening.

Therefore we need to find ways to make selling more acceptable in the firm. One of the best ways of doing this is to look at what selling is (and is not) in the professional services world.

Behaving like what we might regard as a ‘typical’ salesperson is likely to be counter-productive in a world where we typically want to build trust-based, long-term relationships with our clients. Our experience at PACE tells us that building business is less about ‘selling’ to others and more about motivating others to buy. It is also about being authentic and honest, and thinking about the selling process as adding value to clients (and prospects) right from the start.

Why people buy

People buy based on their personal and organisational needs and wants. The iceberg below illustrates the difference between information, which is factual and easily communicated, and insight, which is much less visible, and takes time to understand.

The Iceberg Principle

Buying decisions are influenced to a large degree by the stuff underneath the waterline. Things like personality, previous experience, confidence and personal ambition. If we think about it, we can probably all identify differences in these things in our individual clients (and even ourselves), which might make them more or less likely to engage with us. If we want to sell to these clients, we must understand and accept this. They are not ‘stupid clients’, they are simply clients that have not yet understood the benefits of what we can offer, in a way that is meaningful to them.

When you’re ‘face to face’

So how can we add value and make ourselves ‘easy to buy’? Well, one way is to follow the PACES process – see opposite.


We need to position ourselves snappily and credibly, using outcome language that the people we are engaging with will understand. We’ve probably all been on the end of an ‘introduction’ that lasts about 20 minutes, and is entirely focused on sharing as much as possible about the speaker and their organisation. Many professionals say something like “well, clients need to understand our experience and knowledge and feel confident that we can do the job.” The truth is clients wouldn’t even be speaking to us if they didn’t have some confidence in our ability already. What they want to know now is if we could work with them. Practically the worst thing we can do in this situation is talk at them! Start adding value right away by not doing this.

To do this, we need to prove that we are in our client’s world, and articulate the benefits that will be achieved from working with us. Using a legal example:


I work for a full-service law firm and we have 10 offices across the UK and have been in existence for over 100 years. I’m an employment lawyer and I can help both employers and employees with employment matters.


We are a national law firm with an office in all the major UK business hubs. We focus on helping SMEs who want to grow and who have to deal with all the legal and administrative burdens that this can involve. As an employment lawyer, I help employers get their people strategies sorted right from the start.

Next, we need to spend most of our time ascertaining, in detail, our clients’ needs and wants. While it’s easy to think of clients as homogenous organisations, the actual buyers are individuals. And as individuals, it’s the below the line on the iceberg that largely informs buying decisions, and we need to get as much insight as possible into those if we are to offer credible (and attractive) solutions to individuals.

There are three, apparently simple skills that are essential to good selling. Apparently simple, because most of us think we’re quite good, but actually they take real commitment and practice to achieve excellence. They are:

  • Questioning
  • Listening
  • Summarising
How to ask really great questions

Is this an open question? Well – no – because it can be answered with a yes or no. Most of us could answer this correctly without thinking. We also know, intellectually, that asking open questions is more likely to get us lots of information. However, just take a minute to listen to any radio or TV presenter – presumably trained in questioning – to hear how difficult it is to do. Listen to your colleagues for a while. How many ask really good, open questions?

Remember the iceberg? Most of us make buying decisions based on the factors underneath the waterline. The ONLY way to find out more about our clients’ icebergs is to ask questions.

“I keep six honest serving-men

(They taught me all I knew);

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who”

                                                    Rudyard Kipling,
                                                    Just So Stories (for children!)

Be child-like in your quest for knowledge. Children tend to be uninhibited about asking ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ We tend to get bogged down in our own internal analysis of what is going on, or are busy thinking of the next ‘clever’ question. Relax, and show genuine interest in your client’s world by asking open questions. The easiest way to do this is to start with one of the words in the poem above.

Another way – remember the TED acronym:

  • Tell me about…
  • Explain…
  • Describe…

Of course closed questions have a role, but they should be limited to clarifying single points, or perhaps bringing a conversation to a close if needed.

We can actually add huge value to clients at this stage by asking insightful questions. The whole basis of coaching is being able to ask questions that lead to self-discovery. We should aim, in every business development meeting we run, to have clients say, “that’s a great question”. In this way we can help clients, and of course ourselves, uncover real and meaningful needs that we could potentially meet.

There is an integrity alert here! If your questions appear at all manipulative or only geared towards your own ends, it will show. Be authentic and genuinely interested in your client’s responses.


What should we do after asking a great question?

“I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

Have you ever been in a discussion where it became obvious that the person you are talking to isn’t really listening? It’s quite uncomfortable at best, and really quite insulting at worst. In brain science, it has now been proven that multi-tasking is a myth. We simply cannot do more than one conscious thing at a time. If we are to listen properly, it must be the only thing we are doing. When we feel like we are multi-tasking – driving and listening for example, it’s just because one of these processes has become sub-conscious and hard-wired. We don’t need to consciously think about doing it (even if we should!). If we are truly listening, it is a whole body experience and it requires focus and effort. The benefits are huge. Try it with a significant other and you’ll find out.

If this seems like common sense, it is – but it’s not often practised. How will our clients know if we’re truly listening?

Next we need to confirm our understanding of those needs and wants and to get agreement that we’ve understood the whole picture. Confirming our understanding, by summarising for example, does two things: it confirms we’ve really been listening, and secondly allows the client to correct us if we’ve got it wrong. Quite often it leads to even more insight. All valuable stuff!

Then, and only then, can we explore a way forward that might be credible to both parties, and seek commitment to that path. This may take time, and take place over several meetings. In fact, it is unproductive to try and push or persuade a client to go faster than they want to, but if we ‘sell’ effectively, focused on their needs and wants, we are more likely to motivate them to engage with us.

Various professionals over the years have asked us what to do when the client is ‘wrong’. And this is where we indeed might find ourselves in a situation where we cannot, if we are to add value, do what the client thinks he or she wants.

However, if we simply say no, we’re going to invoke that ‘threat’ response in their brains – nobody likes to be told they’re wrong. We need to have done enough questioning, listening and understanding to build the relationship – only then can we coach the client into a new way of thinking.

We have invested time in understanding what’s underneath the line in their ‘personal icebergs’. Forgive me if it’s stating the obvious, but we now need to use that insight in the solution that we propose! The essence of selling is finding out what motivates our clients then giving it to them. It’s not what we think that’s important. To give a very simple example – I have some plates left from a dinner service given as a wedding present 22 years ago and I hate them. When we got married, we made it very clear, to anyone who asked, what we wanted. My aunt, for some bizarre reason, decided to buy us an expensive dinner service she liked instead. This still annoys me! Due to family politics I was forbidden to exchange it. We must challenge ourselves on how often we’ve offered a solution that we like, rather than really respond to what the client is looking for. If we ever catch ourselves saying, “I know this probably isn’t relevant but.”, stop right away. ONLY offer what we know our client wants from our insightful questioning, and in the way that they want it.

So the final stage is to seek commitment to the proposed way forward. Very often inexperienced business developers think there is some secret to this – some snappy closing technique that they’ve not yet mastered. There isn’t, and if we look up closing techniques then try to apply them, we will come across as one of those ‘typical’ salespeople.

If we follow the PACES process, seeking commitment should be easy because our client will feel understood and respected, and we will have real insight into how to position our solution. The best form of commitment is an agreement to action from the client. They will hopefully agree to meet again, or come along to a talk or, of course, actually buy our services.

So in summary, selling in professional services should never be about being slick and salesy. The good news is that excellent selling is about being genuine, non-manipulative and professional at all times. It’s about adding value in every interaction so that clients willingly engage with us because they already trust that we have their goals at the forefront of our mind.

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