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Starting a consultancy business: 5. Selling your services

In this series, Calvert Markham, former Director of the Centre, provides basic guidance on starting and running a consultancy business. Previous articles have covered product definition, working out your fee rate, pricing and terms of business, and promoting your services. This article moves onto the next stage: selling your services.


In article 4 I dealt with promotion, which is about generating enquiries from potential clients; the next stage concerns turning these enquiries into sales i.e. selling.

Many professionals recoil from the idea of selling but it is essential if your consulting business is to survive and thrive. Here are some seven simple recommendations.

  1. Make it easy for the client to buy. Suppose a prospective client has seen your web site or is responding to a marketing email you have sent and wants to discuss the possibility of engaging your services: what happens next? Are you easy to contact, and do you respond quickly?

The experience of buying from you will be taken by clients as an early indicator of what it may be like working with you, so give careful thought to the customer journey from enquiry to sale for your business.

  1. Bring the same project management discipline to selling as you do to project delivery. Unlike buying a bar of chocolate, which is a single transaction, selling consultancy services involves several stages:
  • promotion — in which you are seeking to establish relationships with potential clients, aiming to open a dialogue with them (covered in article 4);
  • prospection — in which you are discussing opportunities to work together;
  • proposition design — where you are fashioning the details of how you would address an opportunity;
  • pitching — in which you present the proposition to the client.

This process is sometimes called the sales funnel – or more accurately a leaky pipeline, as not every prospect converts to a proposal, nor every proposal to a sale. Managing your sales process means checking you have sufficient potential opportunities at each stage to ensure a steady flow of new sales emerging at the end of the funnel, and points to where you may need to put in more effort.

  1. It’s easy to be a busy fool! Earlier articles have emphasised that time is the consultant’s stock in trade, and you need to be as parsimonious in its use in selling as you might be in delivery. Not every expression of interest or invitation to tender is worth pursuing, and so develop some qualification criteria, which you will use to decide whether a sales opportunity is worth further investment of time.

Selling skills are needed in sales meetings and so the remaining guidelines relate to these.

  1. When you’re not talking, you’re not screwing up. Consultants sell not so much by what they say, but how they listen and then respond to what they have heard. Distinguish between extrinsic selling, which is your general capability that prompts a prospective client to open discussions with you, and intrinsic selling, which relates to the specific project for which you might be hired. You can find out about that project only by listening carefully, so….
  2. Be fascinated by the client’s problem. This is what really matters to them and it provides the opportunity in conversation to add value to their thinking. If the sales meeting is a profitable experience for clients, they are more likely to be convinced of your credentials and to engage you. It also enables you to fashion a suitable proposition to address their issues.
  3. ‘Time spent in reconnaissance is rarely wasted’ is a long-standing military maxim, and it follows from the above. Your reconnaissance should not only be about the content of the issues to be addressed, but the context. Remember that the challenge of change is not limited to its design, it also about its implementation and the latter depends on an understanding of the environment into which it is to be introduced.
  4. Speak the simple truth. From an ethical point of view consultants should of course be truthful, but in practice simplicity can be challenging! It is easy to make things needlessly complicated; simplifying things can be hard work. Above all, speak to express, not to impress!


Conventional selling skills are needed particularly at the prospection stage of the sales process, in which a general expression of interest is converted to a specific request for a proposal – a document explaining how your consulting practice can help and the terms on which you will do so. These remaining two stages of the selling process – proposition design and pitching – will be covered in the next article.


For more on this and other related topics, see Calvert’s book Mastering Management Consultancy

Saturday 14th August 2021
Swan taking off