Mental blocks to selling advisory services

Philip Morgan

It feels easier to sell services because it's a concrete deliverable. How can I move past the mental block that advisory work is "harder" to sell? This is a great question from my post opt-in survey. I'll hazard an answer here. (Listen to an audio version of this email: /consulting-pipeline-podcast/cpp-142-mental-blocks-to-selling-advisory-services/) First recommendation: if you haven't already, join Jonathan Stark's email list: Jonathan's meta-topic is pricing, and gaining a sophisticated understanding of pricing requires understanding the nature of value, and Jonathan is always coming up with ways to help his email list members deeply understand the nature of value. Back to the question. Advisory work is "harder" to sell for several reasons. Actually, before I get to that, let me remove the quotes from the word harder. It really is harder for us because of the starting point we're all coming from. We're all some flavor of self-made expert, and we generally lack the bonafides and pedigree that would help us tell ourselves the confidence-building story that, "of course I should be selling advisory services!". We sneak our way into advisory services through some kind of side door without the institutional bonafides and pedigree, and as Alan Weiss says, the first sale is to ourselves. So it really is harder for us. But we can learn and adapt and grow. There are several reasons why it's harder to sell advisory services.

First challenge: We know not what we sell

The first challenge is that many of us start selling advisory services before we start consuming them, and that makes us unpracticed at viscerally understanding the value of good advisory services. For most of us:

  • If we've hired a tax advisor (aka a CPA), they've helped us save a few bucks here and there on a tax bill, but they have not helped us save life-changing amounts of money or mitigate life-damaging amounts of risk.
  • If we've hired a real estate agent, they've tried to sell us as much house as we can afford rather than helping us make a life-alteringly smart real estate investment.
  • If we've hired a doctor, they've done the best they could for us within the constraints of an assembly-line appointment schedule, the insurance system, and multiple other constraints.

I'm not trying to throw these professionals under the bus here, but rather point out that most of the advisors we've encountered in our personal lives have not changed our lives dramatically for the better. They've done competent but forgettable work. When we do happen across an advisor who can alter our lives for the better, it leaves an impression! And maybe at that point we get a glimpse of what's possible within the realm of advisory services. And maybe we go a step further and start to believe that we have that potential too! But again, for most of us in our everyday lived experience, we experience little to no dramatically positive impact from purchasing advisory services, and so we don't have firsthand experience with the value of those kind of services. That, of course, makes it difficult for us to believe in the value of our own services when they are packaged as advisory services.

Second challenge: the devil is in the details scope

The second challenge with selling advisory services is that many of us have difficulty clearly defining the scope of advisory services. They seem difficult to package in a sensible way. And you know what? THEY ARE! Some of the ways you'll see advisory services packaged include:

  1. "I'll advise your company, and we'll define scope based on who at your company has access to me."
  2. "I'll advise your company, and we'll define scope based on how often we meet."
  3. "I'll advise your company, and we'll define scope based on how much context I consider in my advice to you."
  4. "I'll advise your company, and we'll define scope based on how much research I do on your behalf."

That's not even half of the ways you could package and scope an advisory services engagement. A coaching client and I recently had a breakthrough on this front, and it took hours of discussion to get there. If I do say so myself, it wasn't an inefficient process. It just takes a while to sort through all the ways you could package advisory services and settle on one that's a good fit for you, your market, and then to describe the packaging in a way that makes the client's choice as simple as choosing between a cheeseburger and a burrito at a restaurant. Maybe that all sounds easy on paper, but in reality it's not.

Third challenge: We lack confidence

The third challenge is that many of us lack the confidence that is helpful for selling advisory services. In selling advisory services, maybe we feel like we have moved from flying a single-engine Cessna to piloting a 747, and that the stakes are way, way higher. That's not totally wrong, but here's what I've seen personally and via interviews and friendly conversations with other self-made experts:

  • There's maybe a 60% chance your client will ignore your advice anyway.
  • There's a similarly large probability that they will heed the advice but screw up the implementation.
  • There's a lesser but still significant probability that your client will mis-understand your advice and implement something different from or completely opposite to your advice, get great results, and give you credit.
  • And finally, there's a chance that your advice will not really solve a problem, but it will motivate action you couldn't have predicted or didn't specifically advise, and that action solves the problem.

As David C. Baker is fond of saying, there are good reasons why there's no licensing requirements for the management consulting profession. Massage therapists and dental hygienists are required to undergo more training and certification rigor than indie consultants, software developers, or people who speak on the stage at an event that draws 170k people (Dreamforce 2019). Anyway, if confidence is what's preventing you from selling advisory services, it's a helpful serving of humble pie to remember that most of the time, your advice won't work anyway. The times it does work makes it worth it, I think, but selling advisory services doesn't grant you godlike powers or the responsibility that would come with those powers. I'm not trying to let shady or lazy advisors off the hook here, or excuse those who knowingly give bad advice. Rather, I'm trying to speak to that little shit that sits on your shoulder and whispers discouragement into your ear. You'll be more likely to believe that nasty little gnome's discouraging words if you also believe that your advisory services have some magical power to alter lives. In maybe 40% of the cases you'll encounter, they do have a near-magical power to help. The 60% of the time your advice doesn't help, it's unlikely to destroy lives or businesses. Maybe that knowledge takes some of the weight off of your soul? I hope it does.

Fourth challenge: Right buyers; wrong package

The fourth challenge to selling advisory services is that many of us lack the access to buyers who would buy the kind of advisory services that we normally think of; the retainer that you'll read about in Alan Weiss' books; the fabled $500-a-minute-phone-call-with-the-CEO-every-now-and-again retainer. The fabled $500-a-minute-phone-call-with-the-CEO-every-now-and-again retainer is a way of packaging advisory services but it's not the essence of advisory services. This topic deserves a deeper treatment, but for now I'll say that there's more than one way to package advisory services in a profitable way. So if a lack of access to buyers that can pay 5 figures a month or more for an advisory services retainer is what's challenging for you, then I want to talk about how you could change the game. Because there are other ways to package life-changing advice! For now, consider these questions:

  • What if it was a group instead of 1:1 packaging? What if it was a huge group?
  • What if there was a way for you to additionally monetize the advice after you give it?
  • What if giving the advice gave you access to data or insight that you could use as input to future value creation?
  • What if giving the advice was incredibly free of stress or labor for you? What if it felt like play?
  • What if the advice became more useful rather than less useful if you standardized it?

Because of how the Internet has changed the game, I think it behooves us to think about how we can use creative packaging to change the advisory services game. Thank you, dear questioner, for the question, and I hope at least some of this advice helps! -P