Many of my friends, who work in innovation consulting firms, often believe that the best way to sell innovation consulting is to develop an expertise. There is clearly some truth to that but, although this may cause disagreement with some of my friends, I believe that the best way to sell innovation is not so much to promote an expertise, but, rather, to understand how people make decisions. Here’s more.
I/ Selling innovation consulting means developing an expertise but also understanding how people reach decisions
Those who feel that expertise is critical in selling innovation consulting, spend a great deal of time reading books, polishing their ideas, finding the right words, developing theories, testing out their theories, tweaking their theories, publishing their expertise, promoting their expertise. It’s clear that expertise is, I believe, the first step in selling innovation. And I take great pleasure in reading about other people’s theories and coming up with my own. It helps to be more specific, more to the point, and more relevant when having a sales discussion. Expertise is critical in bringing focus. It helps to zoom in to a specific innovation issue, rather than talk about general ideas. It brings structure to sales conversation, otherwise rich in idea association.
But, unfortunately, many of my dearest friends tend to believe that this is the only element to excel in order to sell innovation. This isn’t the case. I want to provide an example which will serve to illustrate how people make decisions, and, more specifically how decision-makers choose one supplier over another to meet a very specific need that has arisen in their job. This example will serve to prove my point: the most important skill to excel in selling innovation isn’t expertise but understanding how people reach decision.
Several years ago, I was involved in selling an innovation project to the French government. There were, as I recollect, about three suppliers that were lining up and presented their offering. Obviously, each supplier had their own theories about how to meet the client’s need. And, much of the suppliers’ effort, and I know this because I was working for one of these three suppliers, was involved in articulating in the best possible way the value that they could bring to their client based on their expertise. In other words, these suppliers believed, like most of my friends believe, that selling innovation means presenting one’s expertise.
II/ Switching perspectives gives a better understanding of how clients reach decisions
Now, let’s switch perspectives, and look at the same situation, not from the suppliers’ point of view but from the client’s point of view. The client had been involved in innovation for about 12 years, working in various projects. He had developed a taste and a degree of expertise in innovation, more specifically applied to how the French government could help innovation companies blossom in France. I won’t go into the details of what was the client’s need was but I’ll simply say that the clients need was something that was different than the usual business he was used to working on which explains why he was calling on suppliers to help him. I know that the client was very busy and he had about five meetings every day. He was working on multiple projects at the same time, including:
- One project involved coordinating different French regions to achieve develop seed investment in innovation start-ups
- One project involved being part of an innovation project team working directly with Brussels and helping Europe to become a more innovation driven economy
- Other projects were bilateral projects involving the United Kingdom, Germany and Switzerland, among others
Needless to say: the client had only limited time to choose what supplier he would go forward with. And, to be totally honest, I personally believe that he made his decision in about 6 or 7 hours, total. This time was spread across several weeks but, I believe, that over all, that’s all the time he could spare to choose one supplier over another. No more. This doesn’t reflect the fact that he was unprofessional. This reflects the fact that he had many things going on, and he only had limited time to get each and every project moving forward. So he tried to allocate his time as effectively as possible.
III/ Clients have little time to truly understand their supplier’s expertise
Now, in order to assess the different proposals submitted by the three competing suppliers, he involved an analyst who was in charge of providing him with some kind of executive summary which summarized the offering of each supplier and compared them to one another. It turns out that I know this analyst pretty well and, to be totally honest, I used to have a job that was much similar to his. And I can tell you that, based on my experience of this previous job, I’ll bet you that the analyst spent no more than two weeks studying the various proposals. I can guarantee you that two weeks is already a very generous estimate. So, this is my point: the client makes a decision to go with one supplier over another based on approximately 2 weeks of analyst time and a less than one day of executive time. No more.
Next week, I’ll revert back to the supplier perspective and show how we went about drafting a proposal that lead to signing the deal.
In the meantime, what’s your experience in selling innovation consulting? What are your tips? What are your learnings?
Further readings on how to sell innovation consulting:
- For a discussion of why time is critical in reaching a decision, please refer to Gary Klein’s Sources of Power: How People Make decisions. Gary Klein spent a number of years studying how military leaders, doctors and business leaders reach decisions in time-constrained environments. Chapter 9 dealing with the Apollo 13 Mission is particularly revealing on how managers made life-threatening decisions in conditions of uncertainty
- For a discussion of how consultants can promote their expertise and sell innovation, please refer to this website