This post is part of our Weekly Tips series.

One thing I find to be universally true with the consulting profession is that efforts to be more effective with sales/business development never focus enough on the psychology of buying/selling. Today’s tip aims to tip the scales with three important insights.

By psychology I mean “the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behavior in a given context” (thank you, Google)—in this case the mind is your buyer’s and the context is professional services. That’s an important and distinctive context, by the way, because professional services are uniquely complex, intangible, and personal. It’s far harder to hear a buyer’s lack of unbridled enthusiasm when what they’re rejecting isn’t a widget, but you.

In the past twelve years that I’ve studied the buyer/seller dynamic, here are the most important lessons I’ve learned so far:

  1. Your buyers are naturally skeptical. People universally love to buy, yet hate to be sold. That means your buyers are on alert for any interaction, or part thereof, that feels salesy, and they’ll instinctively respond with pushback/reservations/doubt/negativity—whether subtly or obviously. Most consultants aren’t trained to hear this in the first place; we’re trained to lead with confidence and positivity, and therefore block out other cues. Further, we’re most definitely not trained to meet this skepticism with the unconventional approach of leading with our weaknesses, as I suggested a few tips ago, even though social psychology teaches us that’s precisely the most effective strategy when skepticism is present.
  1. Your buyers are dealing with their own fears. We sellers aren’t the only ones whose ineffective patterns are driven by fear (per last week’s tip); buyers are riddled with fear too, and for good reason. Take a moment to think about just how vulnerable it is to spend thousands/millions on consulting services to fix problems with your organization and your leadership. So, the onus is on us to listen carefully for the wide range of signs that fear is present, from slight hesitations to persistently false bravado. Genuine empathy is a much-needed tool here, as is a willingness to share our own vulnerability—the latter being one way to level a decidedly unlevel playing field, and to connect human to human, rather than seller to buyer.
  2. Your buyers’ decision-making process is largely emotional (and by the way, the same is true for you). We all love to believe that buying decisions are made based on logical, rational reasoning. Too bad it doesn’t work that way. “People buy with their hearts and rationalize with their heads” is an age-old sales adage, and findings in neuroscience back this up. That means we have to listen masterfully to understand what buyers really want (security, recognition, peace of mind, etc.), not just what they need (strategies, systems, data, and more), so that we can discover whether or not we can make a genuine connection to those wants. We also have to consistently and courageously sell by doing, rather than by telling, so that our buyers get a real experience of working with us. Test: Are your sales meetings and oral proposals routinely more like working sessions than presentations? Probably not. Certainly not enough.

While you don’t have to be a psychologist to be a trustworthy salesperson, you do have to understand buyer psychology, and then navigate accordingly.

Make It Real

This week, sit down with your team and examine a past sale/proposal gone wrong. In what ways did you fail to recognize one of these three insights? What could you do differently next time?

Learn More


Read a great story about selling by doing in real life, from our friends at Trusted Advisor Associates, or brush up on trust-based negotiations in Chapter 26 of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook.

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Andrea Howe

As the founder of The Get Real Project, I am the steward of our vision and our service offerings, as well as a workshop leader and keynote speaker. Above all else, I am an entrepreneur on a mission: to kick conventional business wisdom to the curb and transform how people work together as a result. I am also the co-author, with Charles H. Green, of The Trusted Advisor Fieldbook (Wiley, 2012).