A salesman by any other name

You may be called a consultant or an adviser, but when you work for a company that has a product or service and you talk about them with potential customers, like it or not, that is selling by another name, says T21 managing director Paul Laville

In many quarters, ‘sales’ is a dirty word. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, for one reason. Because, lately, I’ve had a whole bunch of people knocking on my door offering me counsel on my domestic solar needs, a free consultation on hydration purification solutions, help with facilitating my ‘recycling journey’ for £150 a month, and advice on the harm I’ll be inflicting on the planet if I don’t switch immediately to another supplier of fossil-fuel-burning by-product.

When challenged, not a single one of these philanthropic evangelists admitted that they’d knocked on my door to sell me anything.

“I’m an adviser,” they said – all of them. “Honest, I’m not selling anything.”

An adviser. Really? If that were true, I can imagine their conversations with the boss at the end of the day.

Adviser: “I advised 150 people on their domestic solar needs today, boss!”

Boss: “And how many panels did you sell?”

Adviser: “None.”

Boss: “Get out.”

Thank you. Noted. Goodbye.

Doesn’t happen does it? Fact is, they are selling.

The other reason I was thinking about this is because I took a call recently from a retail manager who wanted a course on consultative selling. The business had set out in a new direction and some of his top sales staff had been moved into shiny new premises, where they’d been elevated to a consultative role. The project had been ongoing for six months, I was told, and now it was in jeopardy.

I asked him why and his answer was that his sales staff “seem to have forgotten how to sell”.

Despite wishing that people would ask for training before they made such moves, rather than after the fact, we nonetheless met up with these new consultants, who cheerfully told us that they were now advisers. Not mere sellers. Not for them the day-to-day grind of a busy shopfloor.

(You’ll be pleased to know that this particularly epic case of semantic failure happened outside the electrical retail industry.)


But it was interesting, I thought, how one group of people used labels such as ‘consultant’ and ‘adviser’ to try to disguise the fact that they were really selling, and there was another group who appeared to hide behind the same labels and use them as a reason not to sell at all.

Being a consultant or an adviser is a different kind of sell to the ‘instant fix’ that happens on most retail sales floors. But it’s a sell nonetheless.

In my head, you are a consultant when a customer has made an appointment to sit down with you for an hour, during which you discuss a complex and specific need. You look at the end goal and you plan out in detail how to achieve it within certain parameters – such as time, location and budget. You bring all your experience, knowledge and expertise into play and you define the steps of a project. A good example could be a technically challenging smart-home solution involving disruptive installations and a limited budget.

The customer would expect a quote for the project and would need some time to look it over. There should be an expectation that they’d probably visit at least one other consultant for comparison.

And this is where many newbie consultants fall down.

Let’s say that the customer ends up with two quotes at virtually the same price, and that in all other aspects they’re identical. Which one do they go with?

For me, it’d be the consultant with whom I had a better rapport, the one who fully understood my needs and concerns and in whom I had more confidence. Maybe it’s the one who rings me a few days later to ask how I’m getting along and do I have any questions. Could even be the one who offered me an incentive to return and do the deal with them. If there was a consultant who did all those things, it’d be a dead cert I’d say.

This should be ringing a bell because building rapport, understanding needs, offering reassurance, incentives to buy and follow-up – these are the essential building blocks of good sales skills. And you need these whether you’re knocking on doors or sitting with a customer planning the transformation of their home into a fully-connected smart environment.

My advice? Call it whatever you like but sales is sales is sales…