Serve Before You Sell!

ConsultingThis month’s tip:  Add value to to your team or client before worrying about how you will be compensated for that service.  Said another way, advise and serve as if you are independently wealthy.

It was winter in 1974 and I was on temporary duty in Kansas City, attending an advanced technical school for Air Force communications engineers. A buddy and I had noticed that Hewlett-Packard created a series of very impressive technical notes that would be helpful to the technicians that we supervised. We decided to go to the local HP office and raid their shelves of all the relevant notes we could find. While we were there, we met the local district manager, and talked to him about how HP salesmen plied their craft. Mind you, that was 42 years ago, but I still remember vividly something that district manager said. He told a story about how HP field engineers often helped their customers use a competitor’s piece of equipment to make complicated technical measurements. Those field engineers didn’t earn a dime off of that service they gave their clients. But it was part of the ethic of HP at the time, that you helped your customer with whatever task was in front of them – whether or not that act of service benefited you in any way. Of course, customers did repay it, in loyalty and future business.  (HP was the industry leader in electronic instrumentation for many decades.)  But in that moment, the service to the customer was selfless and came ahead of any idea of compensation.

That conversation made a huge impression on me and it was a key influence in my deciding later in my career to join HP as one of those field engineers.

Jagdish Sheth,  in his book, Clients for Life (Jagdish Sheth 2000) coins a term he calls “selfless independence”.  He says this: “It is a foundational attribute for anyone who aspires to become a trusted adviser to their clients.  Without selfless independence, you lack substance as a client adviser – you’re just another expert for hire. With it, you are able to inspire both respect and loyalty from your clients.”

What about the independence piece of the equation?

When we are independent, we take the position that is in the best interests of the client. Sometimes, that is not what the client wants. They may have seized on another approach which they love, but which we know from our expertise is not the right solution for them. We are much more persuasive in that discussion if we are courageous in our approach.  Patrick Lencioni, in Getting Naked (Lencioni 2010), talks about the debilitating impact on our effectiveness when we fear losing the business.  Someone who is independently wealthy does not fear the loss of an individual deal. Think about the last negotiation you were in.  When you knew you had another alternative, you could be more assertive in the bargaining, and your counterpart in the negotiation always seemed to sense that.

Acting from a spirit of financial independence frees us to “give away the business”, to consult first, and sell later.  Demonstrating that generosity (both in tangible and intangible ways) builds trust and loyalty.  By going to service first, we are demonstrating what we know and what we can do in an immediately valuable way.  We are building credibility in our expertise.

Epilogue:

“Consulting is a relationship business. A special product may make you competitive. Differentiated services may make you distinct. But only carefully crafted relationships will create a breakthrough firm.”  (Weiss 2003)

Three great reads: 

Jagdish Sheth, A. S. (2000). Clients for Life: how great professionals develop breakthrough relationships. New York, Simon and Schuster.

Lencioni, P. (2010). Getting Naked, a business fable about shedding the three fears that sabotage client loyalty. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Weiss, A. (2003). Million Dollar Consulting: The professional’s guide to growing a practice. New York, McGraw-Hill.