Clearly, without selling there would be no clients, no income and no profit. Every business has to focus on selling their products, services, advertising space etc. if they want to survive. But I never knew exactly how this worked in consulting. I knew we had great salespeople in the firm, and I knew we were selling work, because there were loads of projects going on – but who actually sells this? Who is finding the market for our services? Who is approaching clients and convincing them that we have something worth paying for? And, how are they doing it?
I aim to answer all these questions, and more, below. If you have any additional questions, leave a comment below or tweet us @youdowhatblog. Happy reading!
You do What? ‘Sell ourselves’ (our time & services) to clients.
The many routes to a sale
Sales come about in a myriad of ways at a Big 4 consultancy. There are the ‘normal’ routes which involve the client formally asking for services, after which many consultancies submit a tender for the work. There are also plenty of other more nuanced and subtle routes to a sale.
For the most part, the selling process is initiated in one of three ways:
- Request for Proposal
A company realises they have a problem and wants help solving it. This could be a piece of research, a new project or the implementation of a new system (like accounting software or other technologies). The company creates a document detailing the issue and outlining the broad way they would like to solve it. This is called a Request for Proposal (RFP).
- Existing client relationship
This is all about ‘who you know’ and why networks are so important. Remember that person from university who you were great friends with but from whom you eventually drifted apart? Well they’re now in a senior position at a potential client company and wants to get some consultants in… Either at the end of a previous project or due to an existing relationship between a senior consultant and a senior member of staff at the client company
- Proposition development
Consultants realise that a lot of companies are struggling with a similar set of issues, but may not even know it yet. For example, we may understand the hurdles that upcoming legislation will throw up and have an idea of how to pre-emptively solve this (or reduce disruption) for potential clients.
The RFP Process in detail
If the RFP initiating step takes place, the client then goes through the following process. (Often, as a formality, an RFP is still created even if this wasn’t the initiating step. But in this case, a non-competitive tender may take place, where the consultants are not competing to win the work but just have a private agreement with the client.)
- RFP’s are sent to many consulting firms and make their way to Partners and Directors. In reality, it’s rare that RFPs and their content are a complete surprise. This is thanks to the role of Partners. A large part of their job is to have close contact with companies assigned to them (current and potential clients) and stay on the pulse both of what the client is struggling with and what services our firm has expertise in delivering. This means that often the RFP has been discussed, at least casually, with leaders in the client organisation.
- Consultants then analyse the RFP in detail and construct a response – the proposal. This is often a bit frantic and can entail some late nights due to the fact that there is always a strict deadline and the quality of the document must be the highest possible. Proposals are often referred to as ‘bids’ (as we are bidding to win the work) and a ‘bid team’ is formed (from staff who have some spare time in their diaries and some expertise in fields relevant to the RFP) to collate the proposal. In order to create the best response possible, this team will reach out to many experts in the firm and combine their knowledge.
- When the proposal is complete, it is submitted to the client. The final document is usually around 20-30 pages long and in a format dictated by the client. These days that usually means a PowerPoint deck. After this is complete, the second stage of the sale process begins – planning for the pitch.
- The pitch is often scheduled a week or so after the proposal submission deadline. This week is spent preparing a slightly more presentation-friendly version of the proposal and lining up subject matter experts to participate in the pitch. On the day of the pitch, all the consulting firms that are pitching for the work will turn up, often at the client’s office, and present for around an hour. This presentation will also include time for the consultants to ask additional questions to the client and for the client to ask questions about the proposal. Partners and Directors with the most relevant experience and the best relationships with the client take part in the pitch.
- Once the pitches have all been completed, the client evaluates the proposals and what they heard in the pitch and decides if they want to offer the work to one of the firms, or conduct further rounds of pitching (a second round). If there is a second round, often only a few of the bidding firms will be invited – just the client’s favourite options – and a more specific brief may be issued, to answer the client’s mot detailed questions, and see how the firms react differently to a challenge.
Important sales roles
Partners are responsible for sales first and foremost. The Partnership model rewards partners with a certain share of the profit of the overall company. The Partners are all, therefore, heavily incentivised to sell projects to clients and deliver them profitably. In reality, the part about profitability usually gets passed to colleagues further down the chain – while the Partner stays busy selling the next piece of work.
In order to sell effectively, Partners use their networks to their full ability. As mentioned above, Partners are often assigned to certain companies (clients or potential clients) and stay in the loop with their management teams. This allows them to know exactly when to offer services to the client and in which areas of the business. There are also regular meetings about key clients where Partners and others from all over our firm (Consulting, Audit, Tax etc.) come together to discuss exactly how we can offer the best, most competitive projects to these companies.
Other senior colleagues are also expected to help sell work, normally by extending projects where a client has been working with us for a period of time and another issue has cropped up. These can be an easier sell as the client already trusts us and is more inclined to continue the relationship than have to waste time and money running a formal sales process. We are all encouraged from the beginning of our Big 4 career to look out for these opportunities and understand how they arise and how they can be capitalised upon.
Selling isn’t everything
Tied up in this sales process is a focus on profitability and tying in with our firm’s strategy. Big 4 firms will consider carefully if they want to respond to each RFP they receive. It is in their interest to only respond to those which can generate the fees necessary to keep a Big 4 in business (i.e. higher fees than are charged by smaller consulting firms) and that are aligned to the current strategy of the firm. The strategy might dictate things like a sector to focus on, a size of company to focus on or a type of work we are most interested in delivering.