Are consultants salespeople? Neil Checker certainly believes they are, and has made quite the career of having a commercial flavor to his consultancy. I was curious to understand whether a consultancy career is a viable one for an aspiring salesperson, and I got the experienced perspective I desired in the interview below.
Neil is a good friend’s father-in-law, and his strong views on sales made him an ideal candidate for one of the earlier interviews of this series – I’m honored he was willing to be a part of it. Neil’s biography is includes tenure at many of the biggest and most prestigious consultancy firms, and below is a valuable fraction of his wisdom.
You can read Neil’s full biography here.
Jamie: At what stage does consulting become a sales career? Was it always a sales career, or at what level does it become primarily about selling?
Neil: I think in terms of consulting, sales in its broadest sense is there from the start as you are upselling the firm’s services and capabilities, even as you deliver projects.
Jamie: So you feel consultancy is always selling, and even a junior consultant’s job is a sales job?
It is quite clear that you progress faster in consulting, especially in a partnership structure, if you can exhibit early on the ability to build client relationships and bring in business; that fact is clear.
In many consulting firms, if you are not capable of doing that, then your career is going to be quite limited. Even as a consultant during delivery of the project, day-to-day, you have to try to identify where the firm’s services can be beneficial to the client and then working with senior colleagues to develop, and hopefully sell, that capability.
Jamie: What have you found most fulfilling about your career so far?
Neil: In general, what I felt was most fulfilling, and why I stayed in consulting for thirty-seven years, is the variety of work available. The continuous learning has been very fulfilling and never stops as client business challenges change over the years, and one has to offer new ideas and solutions. There certainly is a high satisfaction in bringing in business or making a pitch and being selected for a project. Personally, it is a high point, especially in junior years, when you help to bring in those early career projects. Consulting is a very entrepreneurial career, although the “ease” of selling is a mix of the individual, the team, and the firm’s brand and brand of services.
Jamie: How do you feel those consultants in your industry who have sales skills are compensated and recognized versus their peers with lesser sales skills?
Neil: Well, as I mentioned earlier, progress to the senior levels in consulting is highly dependent on the ability to bring in business, and the financial rewards follow that seniority. That said, firms that get the balance right between individual, team, and firm performance are the most rewarding and resilient. For me, successful consulting firms are about team selling, often hunting in pairs. We have to have people with complementary capabilities. That is where the question of skill comes in. Rarely have I found that one individual has all the necessary skills to win work: self-confidence, entrepreneurship, building, or having the customer relationship, team management skills, as well as content and expertise capability.
You often need at least two people, I think, in a sales situation. It does not mean you always go with two people into every meeting. But certainly, when it gets to the point of qualifying an opportunity, having two people get together with complementary skills is key in successful situations that I have been involved in.
This, unfortunately, goes counter to the individual “sales hero” style that is often associated with successful salespeople.
The market has changed since I started in consulting, with firms offering similar services, so consequently, we are not competing within a firm for future business, but as a firm overall to win. That is why the firms that get the balance of individual reward and team development right are successful. It also builds a strong collegiate structure in the organization.
Jamie: Did you find yourself more on the charisma side or the product/expert side of those duos?
Neil: I would say I was flexible and, that I could not do either in a situation. Part of my personal success was to complement whoever I was with. So, one of us would play a certain role. I would play the expert role in providing the content, particularly if I was working with senior colleagues, and the senior colleagues would usually manage the client relationship and client access. I would switch the other way if I were the more senior person. I would help position our firm in front of that client, whilst a junior partner or a principal, which is one level below, would be providing the content.
Jamie: What skills do you believe someone should naturally exhibit to want to go into sales?
Neil: I am coming from an industry and environment where you have to be successful at sales and business development to have a very long career in consulting. If you are not naturally good at sales, then firms need to help provide mentorship and some formal sales training skills.
Jamie: What specific skills have you identified that has allowed people to succeed in a sales situation?
Neil: Some elements can be learned, so to refer back to our sales and training program, I think it really helps to have an open personality. I feel that is a sort of a given. To be really successful, in terms of relationships and communication, you need to be articulate and empathetic, and that often does not come naturally to all people.
In my personal experience, you have to be a good listener, be able to communicate well with the client and understand them, and some of my colleagues are very good at it. They were particularly good at listening and then being able to re-articulate the problem back to the client –beyond that old saying “consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time. “Others were much better at saying, “Well, okay, that is the problem you have identified, but have you thought about looking at it this way?” So, they were challenging the client’s “conventional wisdom” to try to look at things differently. I think those are probably two of the most useful skills, in general. You can go one way or the other, depending on your personality.
I had two colleagues of mine with very different personalities. Both very successful in different ways because of their approach to a problem. The first is going to challenge the problem and think of it in different ways, whilst the other would articulate it in a much more elegant and focused way because often conversations with clients can be somewhat random. They will say, “I want to do this or I want to do that,” and they need help in articulating the problem.
From my experience, the third element, which is seen in some successful people is simply perseverance; just the thickest skin on the planet. That is an incredible skill to have in selling consulting services, a natural thick skin to rejection. I have seen colleagues with that, who will just not take “no” for an answer and work the client situation overtime just to least get on a bid list when an opportunity materializes. It is unfortunately a truism in consulting that “one is only as good as one’s last project.”
There are things which you can learn and gain in a structured way, to improve the chances of sales success. One of the best courses I have gone on was on Miller Heiman’s Strategic Selling®, or now I think it is called Strategic Selling with Perspective®. It follows a very structured process that some people might think is a bit “cookie-cutter,” as the Americans would say. But personally, I think it is a great process to make sure everybody is aligned in a team that is making a pitch or trying to develop the sales pitch.
Radically simplifying the process, the first question; what is the single sales objective i.e.in essence what do you think is the core issue the client is trying to address? Following on from that into the client organization – I think people get confused about who is doing what from the client’s side. This process helps you systematically identify individuals and their role in the overall lead process, and then accordingly, you need to decide how you manage the relationship with those individuals.
Some of my colleagues were cynical about such training programs. But as we went through it, we saw the value, and it provided a common language within the whole lead process. Its use is no guarantee of success, but it certainly helped in many situations to focus activities and identify key obstacles that might exist in honing the proposal through to delivering the final pitch.
Jamie: What are the biggest challenges of winning business in consultative sales?
I think the biggest challenge is probably being able to differentiate yourself. There are a lot of similar offers and being able to sell what is unique or differentiated about your approach and offer is important.
One of the key things I know clients look for, at least in consulting – beyond the senior people – is the engagement manager. As I mentioned earlier, it is getting exceedingly difficult to differentiate yourself in terms of services. Everyone has got global teams and can claim sector or functional expertise, and generally the approach, whether three steps, four steps, or five, is very similar when pricing is set aside.
Jamie: In that case, it sounds like it comes back to the sales process, whether or not you win a tender or not?
Neil: It is very much dependent on the team when pricing is put to one side. Most consultants and firms in this industry can put together a pretty decent proposal. Also, a big problem is risk aversion with some clients so they might go for the safer, known “brand “That is why going back to the Miller Heiman approach it is key to get your capability message to the so-called “Economic Buyer,” the person who is going to fund the project and in turn be accountable for how the project delivers results and impact within the company.
Jamie: Much can you make in consulting in a given year? Is it one of those industries, similar to law, where the pay escalates very highly at the partner and the senior partner level?
Neil: If you are a senior partner in one of the bigger strategy consulting firms, it is supposed to be competitive with the salaries of the people you are dealing with on the client-side, at least in Europe. For example, when you are dealing with board-level executives earning two million to three million euros or dollars a year, you would be expecting to be earning that sort of money, although for partners it depends on both individual performance and firm performance in any one year, bonus wise. Of course, most client executives will be on a mix of annual salary, bonus, and equity share that could drive their remuneration much higher. With that said job security is generally much higher in consulting at the senior levels.
The remuneration really staggers down below the partner level, but it has always been a really well-rewarded job in terms of balance. You could earn more in the field of financial services. But the balance is important for many of us is that we enjoy what we do, and as I mentioned earlier for me at least the variety of work.
Jamie: You mentioned the Miller Heiman. How was the sales training, generally, in consultancy?
Neil: Generally, the training is done in-house in most consulting firms. There are full-time staff dedicated to it if you are in a bigger consulting firm. You will have people who move into a training role and even have a senior partner responsible for training. At most of the firms where I have worked, it was really the partners and principals who would deliver most of the training courses. You will always be teaching “down” a couple of levels, of course.
Jamie: What are the biggest downsides in working for a consultancy?
Neil: It is all relative to the best alternative if you have a functional or content skill, which is working in an industry. The downside is that if you really want to be managing large teams or departments, become a CEO and have whatever status comes with that, then consulting is perhaps not for you. But beyond that, there are not many downsides. I mean it is a more challenging lifestyle and working hours relative perhaps to working in industry, at least at the junior level, but it gets easier as you move up.
Jamie: How many hours might juniors be working in a week to earn their way?
Neil: I have to say, when on projects most of the junior consultants would often be working to ten at night, or even unfortunately later if there were specific deadlines to meet. It should be rare, as consulting should not be a sweatshop, but they would be working late and often for part of the weekend.
That is the norm, unfortunately, but it does get a lot easier once you get to the engagement project manager. It is the first three, four, or five years, perhaps, which are quite demanding.
Jamie: How did you get into the consultancy industry?
Neil: Well, I came from BP, from the technical expert model, and I joined a small boutique consulting company in the energy and chemical sector. A hundred-plus people, two main offices, one in New York and one in London. At BP, I just felt I wanted to do something a bit more commercial. I did not really understand what consulting was at the time, but it sounded interesting when they explained the type of work they did. I was traveling around interviewing clients and their customers for commercial or technical projects. I was like, “God, this is great. I can’t believe people pay me to do this.” I was traveling all over Europe, staying in nice hotels and then putting a report together, and often having to present the results to senior management at the client. It was great for me at a young level, having experienced decision-makers listening to my findings. I, therefore, moved into it, not quite by accident, but certainly not fully appreciating the business model of consulting until I started doing it.
Jamie: What advice would you give to people who were aspiring to be in sales or consulting?
Neil: It comes back full circle to the things you asked about, why was my job fulfilling. I think, relative to industry, it is a very flat structure, so it is not for a lot of people.
If you are interested in learning a new business skill, diversity of work, problem-solving, and meeting and working with a range of companies and people then it is a great place to be.
Jamie: Would you say a university degree is an absolute necessity?
Neil: It is a basic qualifier, and a further degree like an MBA is very helpful. While some people feel it helps differentiate new candidates, I think it is better to join a consulting firm, if you can, early on, then do your MBA, and then come back or maybe do not come back into the industry. Unfortunately, the degree is a necessary qualifier.
Jamie: If you were starting your consultancy career again, what would you do differently?
Neil: In consulting, you’ve got to recognize that it’s a team approach. I think I might fine-tune some of my interpersonal skills within the consulting firm. I think working with clients, it was fine, as I doubt I would have lasted 37 years otherwise! But I did not suffer fools gladly and I also made it quite clear in internal situations when I felt the approach taken was not right for the business or a poor way of doing something. The further you want to go within any organization, your interpersonal and internal communication skills and style need to be very fine-tuned. That does not mean you have to brown-nose, but you should manage the harder edges of your personality sometimes if you really want to progress. But at the end of the day, I believe you need to be true to yourself and beliefs and should not compromise those.
Jamie: Could you tell me about a time when you failed to win some business, but you learnt something from it?
Neil: As I hinted earlier, what it really takes to differentiate the offer is the people. A key learning was that whilst the senior partners can come in and make a great pitch, the client wants to know 1) how much time will the partner spend on the project, and 2) the delivery team, especially the day-to-day engagement manager, and convince me why they have the skills needed.
The learning was really that we needed to get the right team together in front of the client, not the right PowerPoint presentation.
Jamie: Conversely, is there a time where you succeeded in selling, and it really showed the kind of skills you developed throughout your career?
Neil: A good example was when I was selected as a consultant for a big German client. A much larger branded firm was all over the client. The project was worth six million euros, which is quite large for consulting when most projects are ranging anywhere from half a million to perhaps 2 million euros. Why did we win? We both had global teams and a very similar approach, but actually, in the presentation and team we put forward, we were able to showcase our expertise in that particular area, and we convinced the economic buyer that we had the right team, expertise, and style to deliver and work within his organization. I think our interpersonal skills, and speaking the functional language of the client made them very comfortable with our team.
Finally, while I think about it, there is one important “tactical “selling takeaway from IBM, when I worked there and goes counter to the typical “perseverance approach. “This was the “two call close.” Basically, the message was to not keep chasing something that is not going to happen. If it is not going to happen after two solid approaches and discussions with the client, then it is not going to happen!
In other words, not to keep flogging a dead horse. Some salespeople just keep going back. But it is gone, it is dead, or it was never there. They think that they can just do another meeting and it will turn around. In internal sales meetings, the same lead would come up week after week.
It is hard to recognize the issue when one has put a lot of time and effort into a specific opportunity, but sometimes it is better to realign and refocus your sales energies elsewhere.
You can connect with Neil on LINKEDIN