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How to sell innovation consulting? (2/10)

While many believe that selling innovation consulting requires promoting one’s expertise, the truth is that expertise alone isn’t enough to close a deal. Understanding how clients make decisions is, in my opinion, the most important skill any successful sales executive has to develop.

Truth, knowledge and belief
Truth, knowledge and belief – Courtesy of Wikipedia
I/ Experts tend to write proposals that are expertise-based

Now, having talked about how clients allocate their time to make the best decision possible, let me turn back to how suppliers come up with their proposals. We had had several meetings with the executive decision maker to understand what he wanted us to do, we tried to understand what his need was and what his context was and what he was trying to achieve and why he was calling on suppliers to get something done. Then, I reverted back to my company and pulled all the expert resources I could find to build a relevant proposal. Some of the people involved in the project of creating this proposal had been working in innovation consulting for over 15 years. Some of them had written a couple of books. I dare say that my team was very competent and had a high degree of expertise.

Unfortunately, a lot of the experts, especially those working in my team, believed that, somehow, the client had long hours in front of him, that he could devote to understanding the real fundamental nature of our expertise. It’s as if they were expecting the client to understand the nature of their expertise, how they had developed it, how they had formed their theories and what their most compelling experiences were. And, as a consequence, they drafted proposals which were a reflection of their theories.

II/ However, clients don’t have the time to understand their suppliers’ expertise in detail

They seemed to believe that the client would devote time and energy, to understand their theories and, they seemed to assume that the client would be willing to devote the same kind of energy to every single supplier. Well, I don’t mean to be negative, but if the client were to devote that kind of energy, at its fullest degree, he would probably have to have read every single book that the experts had read, study every single books that my experts had written, live again, every single formative experience that my experts had had. This alone would get the client to understand, to its full extent, supplier expertise. Given that there were three suppliers involved in this bid, there is no way that the client could devote that kind of energy to understanding the true nature of each supplier’s expertise. So, this is my point: clients can’t fully understand all the expertise that suppliers bring to them, simply because they don’t have the time, and because they have many other projects going on. And yet, clients make decisions: they end up by choosing one supplier over another. So, on what basis are they making their decisions, if it’s not based on an intimate understanding of supplier expertise?


This example shows that clients don’t buy expertise, simply because they don’t have the time to develop a deep understanding of supplier expertise. So, if clients don’t fully understand what expertise they’re buying when they’re buying innovation consulting, how do they reach a decision? Well, I believe, like many other people involved in innovation consulting sales, that people reach a decision based not on knowledge but based on belief, or what I would call “justified beliefs”. I want to be extremely clear on the distinction I’m making between these two different degrees of knowing: justified beliefs and knowledge.

III/ The different between justified beliefs and knowledge

A lot of people say that they know something when in fact what they do know has more to do with a justified belief than effective knowledge. Let me give you an example. I tend to go to pharmacy when I get a cold. I go see the pharmacist and I tell her what my symptoms are and she typically suggests that I buy a specific drug. And, I take out my wallet and buy the drug. Then, at home, I follow the prescription and I take the number of bills as indicated by my pharmacist. Now, do I know that these drugs will have the desired effect of curing my cold? Do you I know what is the chemical and biological process that will cure me? No I don’t. My pharmacist knows, but I don’t.

I believe and I trust the pharmacist and, if I agree to accept to buy this drug even though I have no real knowledge of what its effects will be, it is because I trust my pharmacist and I believe in her expertise. In other words my decision to buy this drug is based not on knowledge but justified beliefs. That’s the critical difference between knowledge and justified beliefs. In my life today I know very few things but I have justified beliefs on many, many, many things. And I make most of my purchasing decisions based on “justified beliefs”, not knowledge.

IV/ How to sell innovation consulting?

Clients choose one supplier over another based on “justified beliefs”, not knowledge : Now, how does this apply to why a client buys innovation consulting? Well, much like when I’m going to the pharmacist, I believe in my pharmacist’s advice, clients believe more than they effectively know. In other words the very reason why they buy innovation consulting lies not in their knowledge of innovation expertise but in their justified beliefs that the chosen innovation consultancy will produce the desired effect. Therefore, when an innovation consultant wants to nail down a deal, he needs, not to present his experts’ expertise in all its complexities, but he needs to articulate the value proposition in such a way that beliefs that the innovation consultancy will deliver results are justified. So, I guess the next question is: how does one create a justified belief that his consulting firm will deliver results? This is the question I’ll tackle next week.

In the meantime, please feel free to share your experience on selling innovation consulting. What works? What doesn’t?

Further readings:
  • For a discussion on the difference between “justified beliefs” and “knowledge”, please refer to Plato’s Theaetetus. Alternatively, please refer to this epistemological summary, which explains the different degrees of knowledge.
  • For a discussion on the different degrees of knowledge and how some subjects (such as Math) may lead to a higher degree of certainty than others (such as Theology), please refer to Descartes’s Discourse on method.


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