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How to sell innovation consulting? (3/10)

Many feel that the key to selling innovation consulting is expertise. There’s certainly some truth to that. But expertise is not enough. Decision-makers are time-pressured: they just can’t find the time to make their decision based on an in-depth understanding of supplier expertise. Therefore, the innovation consultant must not present his/her expertise in great depth, simply because the client doesn’t have the time to get up to speed. So what’s the key to selling an innovation consulting project? My answer: helping your client to survive a little longer on the job. Here’s more.

Courtesy of akocoaching
I/ The client / consultant relationship is based on an asymmetry of knowledge

Many innovation consultants tend to believe that when they’re called in by clients, they have some kind of expertise advantage. This is often true. In fact, innovation consultants have typically been involved in innovation consulting for some time and therefore have developed an expertise which a client doesn’t have. This explains why the client is calling on consultants to help him out. But, what the innovation consultants doesn’t know and what he will never know as well as the client is the client’s specific context. In other words there is an asymmetry between what the client knows and what the innovation consultant knows. The client knows about his context and may know less about innovation consulting. The consultant knows about innovation consulting and may know less about his client’s context. Now, the relationship is built around this asymmetry of knowledge.

II/ Listening helps the consultant fill in his lack of knowledge of client context

And it’s very important to show that, while the innovation consultant doesn’t know about the client context, he’ll be very effective in learning about it as fast as possible. And the only skill to do just that is listening. This may sound obvious to many but, in fact, I’m always surprised by the habit that some innovation consultants have of talking, talking, and keeping on talking, during client meetings. If the innovation consultant is to develop some knowledge of his client’s context he needs to listen and this involves not talking. When, his prolonged silence and his intense listening has elicited an interest in his client knowing more about him, then, it will be his turn to talk. In other words, innovation consultants must let their clients decide who gets to talk and when.

III/ What to listen to?

Now, there is much to talk about how and what to listen to when listening to a client. In fact, any serious innovation consultant should be listening to very different elements at the same time, including:

  • the facts
  • the reasoning, that is how his client thinks
  • the feelings
  • the body language and
  • the ideas
IV/ What should one listen to when listening?

The overall goal of listening is not to collect as much information as possible, but to understand how this client, the one that is sitting right in front of you right now, gets to a decision. Obviously, given the complicated and sometimes complex nature of the purchasing process in large organizations and in governments today, listening should also aim to understanding the buying process. More specifically, this includes is:

  • Who are the various decision-makers?
  • What kind of decisions does each decision-maker make?
  • What’s the decision-making timeline?


V/ Listening means collecting information on how people reach decisions

But I will not talk about the decision-making process of an organization as a whole in this post. This is something I’ll talk about in a future post. In this post, I want to talk about how a very specific individual gets to a decision. Why? Simply because there is no way one can understand how an organization reaches a decision collectively if one doesn’t have an understanding of how each individual decision-maker gets to a decision on an individual basis. I want to be clear that every single individual has his or her own way of reaching a decision. This is based on personalities, interests, values, background and so on. Obviously, there is simply no way to provide an overall framework which could serve to explain all the various kinds of ways people may get to a decision. There are just too many factors to take into account. But, I want to talk about what one needs to listen to in order to decipher what is the individual decision-making process.


This is the topic I’ll talk about in a forthcoming post. In the meantime, what do you think one should listen to? What would you focus on? What have you learned to focus on in your career and what has paid off? I’m looking forward to reading your insights and comments !


Further readings:

  • For a fun post on how to listen, please refer here
  • For a super fun article on why people buy, please refer here.
  • For another perspective on why expertise is not enough to sell consulting services, please refer


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