Occasionally, I meet professional service providers, such as doctors, lawyers, editors, or psychologists, who tell me they refuse to use selling skills to expand their practices. To them, the idea of selling their services is blatant self-aggrandizement. Their preference is to seek professional endorsement through peer referrals and patients’ word-of-mouth. To these elite service providers, the notion of selling their professional services has negative connotations.
For other highly educated professional-service providers (e.g., CPAs, financial advisors, engineers, architects, and forensic experts), the traditional industrial/consumer selling model is more readily accepted when adapted to promote these professional disciplines.
In the traditional industrial/consumer selling model, selling is a 4-step process that consists of establishing rapport, probing for needs, matching needs to benefits,and closing. The total process is extremely rational and quite effective. Notwithstanding its success in the industrial and consumer markets, there are some subtle barriers to its adaptation in selling professional services (e.g., health care, financial services, business consulting services). Selling professional services is more psychological and more personal. To be sure, it’s a rational process—but it cannot be described in rational terms alone.
To begin with, selling—versus delivering the arcane services of highly educated providers—tends to attract different personality types. Salespeople are typically assertive, gregarious, and eager to meet new people. They tend to be less detail-oriented. The typical service professional, on the other hand, is much more cautious and meticulous. Thus, selling immediately puts them in conflict with their natural behavior.
Because the seller is also the provider of the service, they must sell themselves. This challenges their innate reluctance to hype their skills. They want to be perceived (and, indeed, see themselves) as client-focused. They want to be valued for their talents without having to brag or personally solicit business.
Moreover, if they attempt to sell themselves, and the client refuses to buy, then it feels like a personal rejection. Unlike conventional product sales scenarios, because they are selling a service, one could say they are the product. They take personal responsibility for the results. Ergo, if the client doesn’t buy, the provider concludes the client must think there is something wrong with them. It feels very personal, because it assails one’sego and self-esteem.
Adding insult to injury, doing something they abhor in the first place—selling—something that offends their sense of humility and may even feel slightly unscrupulous, also exposes them to a very real possibility of personal humiliation.
Clients buy personality, interpersonal skill sets, and opinions, not just academic credentials and know-how. Accordingly, professional-service providers are faced with selling their capabilities and themselves, which means clients buy their personal appeal as much as their technical expertise. Professional-service providers are loath to believe that their selling success rests on their personality. They want to think clients buy their capabilities and knowledge. The dichotomy is hard to accept.
Most people prefer to do what they are good at. Highly educated professionals know they are often better at dealing with conceptual subject matter, even abstract thought, rather than at cultivating interpersonal relationships with complete strangers.
As the above figure shows, there are multiple levels in the hierarchy of selling paradigms. At the base is the industrial/consumer model, which stresses customer needs-identification and product benefit-matching.
Above that are the more technical products/services (e.g., crafting government legislation, selecting a cancer treatment, engineering an oil refinery, proposing a missile defense system) and the knowledge-based professional-service providers (e.g., engineers, scientists, attorneys, and CPAs) that provide them. Selling in these professions often involves a high level of technical knowledge and emphasizes trust-centered selling over the traditional selling model.
At the pinnacle are the highly educated professional-service providers (e.g., doctors, psychologists) that generally tend to avoid proactive selling models.
Choosing to buy or not to buy from a professional service provider is more than a rational problem-solving exercise—it’s also an emotional response to a perceived risk. The risk in buying professional services is very personal and can elude a clear definition. The stakes can be exceedingly high; the product, though intangible, is primarily people; and the range of outcomes is vastly uncertain. The seller has greater technical expertise than the buyer. There is certainly financial risk—and there can be even greater physical, emotional, and political risk.
Selling professional services requires a different paradigm than the traditional selling model. It supersedes rational decision-making in the broader context of trust development. It treats buyers and sellers as individuals seeking to define and address shared goals. It is also highly experiential. Trust is best created and nurtured through interactions involving concrete issues between individuals. It naturally integrates delivery into the selling process rather than isolating and separating the two.
Fortunately, selling professional services is good for both clients and providers. It’s also a lot easier and more natural to do than many providers fear.