The secret to successful selling: See it from the buyer’s perspective


I know my body language said it all when a potential supplier patently ignored me in a meeting where he was outlining his offering.  My boss laughed afterwards and said “I knew he was doomed from your expression!”


I was the learning and development manager of a global professional services firm at the time, and I was leading the introduction of a new employee engagement survey.  As such I had thoroughly project-managed the process, and organised and facilitated the meeting.  The potential supplier seemed to be more impressed by the male participants in the meeting, all of whose names he mentioned in turn.  I was, quite frankly, staggered!  Even if his offering had been among the best, he would have struggled to make up ground for such blatant assumptions about my relevance in that meeting.  I was left, rightly or wrongly, with the feeling that this was because I was the only female there.


On another occasion, a female potential supplier made the same mistake when my boss sat in on a pitch meeting, simply because I was the expert on the subject and he wanted to learn more.  This woman, despite only ever having contact with me up until then, spoke for 95% of the time towards my boss and then, to cap it all, sent her proposal only to him.  She didn’t get the business either.


Now I understand that a person’s body language, tone of voice and volume of contributions can lead people to make assumptions about status.  However, no-one, in my entire career, has ever described me as a shrinking violet!  I am quite clear that, on both those occasions, the individuals were making assumptions, based on their maps of the world, on who had the real power and buying authority.  They got it wrong.


If you are developing business, be very aware of your own assumptions!  If you are dealing with potential clients, EVERYONE deserves, as a minimum, to be treated with respect, from the receptionist to the person who signs the contract.   That might seem like common sense, but it isn’t common practice.


There were many occasions when I was sold to successfully.   Now that I am involved in  business development myself, I can reflect on this from both sides of the process.  So what went well?


I realise now that I bought from people who did some or all of the following:


  • They took time to ask me questions about my business, it’s priorities and what environment we found ourselves in.
  • They really questioned and understood the outcomes we wanted to achieve from a particular intervention.  Quite often this helped me clarify what could be achieved.
  • They showed interest in me, my role and what my priorities were. 



As a buyer of professional services, there is a lot to consider beyond the actual project.  Will the supplier be credible?  Will they deliver everything they say they will?  How is my reputation going to be enhanced (or not) after this intervention?


As business developers, the more we can understand about these factors, the more likely we are to win and keep business.   The savvy business developer takes time to research individuals before they meet them, and thinks about what might be important to them.  A financial director is likely to be concerned about cost and return on investment.  A managing partner is likely to want to know how it will help his or her business grow.   Taking time to consider this in a structured way may help you position your services to best effect.


Some of our most successful clients take time to plot clients against some sort of model to help predict what will be important to them.  This Decision-Making Model is one example.




  • Gatekeeper
  • Can say no based on conforming information
  • Can not give the final approval
  • Judgment on specific quantifiable elements of your proposal



Q: Does it meet specifications?



  • Financial/economic buyer
  • Control expenditure
  • Authority to release funds
  • Discretionary use of budget
  • The power to veto


Q: How will this impact on our organisations ROI?



  • Coach/Spy
  • Guide around the business
  • Provides and helps interpret information
  • Wants your proposal to be successful
  • Credibility


Q: How can we win this together?



  • ‘Users’/supervise use
  • Judgment about impact on job performance
  • Will have to live with you solution


Q: How will it affect me and my team?


It allows you to think about what is going to appeal to different people within your client organisation.


Once we are in front of potential clients, the most valuable thing we can do is ask questions!  Check out your research.  Build relationships.  Truly understand each and every individual you come across.  This will help you know what to offer, and just as importantly, how to offer it.

As a learning and development manager in a professional services firm, I was looking for any potential supplier to be highly credible.  My internal clients were world-class experts in their field.  If an external person didn’t know their stuff, they quite frankly got torn to pieces in front of my internal audience.  More than that, they had to understand our values, be confident but not arrogant and be prepared for intense questioning and challenge.   I didn’t put this stuff in my invitations to tender.  The suppliers who came and built relationships, got the inside track, and reassured me of their ability to deliver were the ones who went on to have long-lasting and mutually profitable relationships.


So – don’t let your assumptions and prejudices get in the way of business development activity.   Take time to research your potential clients, ask lots of questions and make them feel like you are really on their side.    Many of the suppliers I worked with became friends.  Some were in my business for many years.  I was so impressed by one of them, I joined them!

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