Selling challenges in professional services: Sales processes and skills

At the recent PM Forum  workshop on “Selling processes and sales skills for marketing and business development professionals” we focused on sales and selling challenges in professional services. Delegates from legal and accountancy practices in the UK and overseas (Brussels and Amsterdam) shared how to tackle those challenges. What is surprising is that despite having demanding sales roles for new and existing clients, many professional services marketers have received little formal sales training. Their fee-earners are often in the same boat. Selling challenges in professional services: Sales processes and skills.

Selling challenges in professional services

The selling and sales challenges that delegates identified were:

  • Silos – Encouraging fee-earners from different practice areas and offices to work together in service of a client (collaboration and co-ordination). Knowledge, familiarity, trust, different fee structures and perceived quality were amongst the issues.
  • Protectionism – Some fee-earners could be insecure and defensive about sharing client information and relationships. The culture and rewards systems sometimes worked against integrated client teams.
  • Data – CRM (Client Relationship Management) and CDP (Client Data Platforms) are often lacking. Some use integrated systems (see Intapp leads the way with client lifecycle management (CLM) solution ( which automatically scrapes data from emails and calendars and others used standalone systems (such as InterAction, Dynamics, SalesForce and HubSpot). And where they do exist there is often a reluctance by fee-earners to enter and maintain data during the pipeline and sales journey.
  • Nervousness – Shyness, modesty, lack of confidence and fear of failure can make fee-earners reluctant to organise meetings to take the next steps in building a potential client relationship.
  • Aims – While most fee-earners were effective at arranging meetings with prospects, often they failed to prepare sufficiently to direct the conversation towards exploring needs and asking for the business.
  • Sales cycles – The sales cycle for large clients can be long and protracted and involve large numbers of contacts and hundreds of touch points. Processes and skills for managing opportunities and pipelines can be lacking. 
  • Lack of process – Some had no agreed sales process for different types of clients or work. Fee-earners weren’t always trained in sales processes and skills. Systems didn’t guide, track or monitor sales opportunities, pipelines and performance.
  • Progression – Whilst fee-earners were often good at connecting with potential clients through networking, there was often difficulty in following up and getting to the next stage of the relationship development and sales process.
  • Digital environment – Where people buy people, the challenge of forging strong personal relationships becomes more acute when most communications are managed through digital channels. This has changed the sales process fundamentally in many environments. 
  • Time and capacity – Many fee-earners are stretched and compelled to manage large amounts of client work under heavy time pressures. Their appetite for new clients and more work can therefore be limited.
  • Performance management – Many firms tracked data at the outset of buyer journeys (e.g. email, web site and social media analytics) and at the conclusion (e.g. tenders converted and revenue generated). However, many lacked targets and data tracking contacts and opportunities during the stages in between. 

Selling to large and complex clients

Often the clients of professional service firms are large and complex organisations. With hundreds of contacts spread over different continents and countries.

The data and co-ordination challenges are even greater here: Managing consistent lead nurturing and relationship management amongst multifaceted and dispersed fee-earners facing diverse decision-making units. Selling Basics – Detectives and DMUs (Video) and recommended books (

Client research and listening projects may struggle to keep up with such large and diverse contact networks. And whilst many professional firms are good at mapping the client journey after conversion, few apply the same diligence and discipline to understanding the client journey before conversion.

There is rarely a deep understanding of how disparate and disconnected decision-making units are across such large organisations. We talked about how sales planning should incorporate field of play focus (see Successful Large Account Management (Key Account Management) ( by the Miller Heiman team)

Selling from afar

Some of the executives at the session had responsibility for targeting, making first contact and “opening doors” by setting up meetings with qualified prospects for their fee-earners. A challenging role requiring deep insight into potential clients and value propositions as well as a great deal of confidence.

Whilst most digital marketing methods support lead generation, converting interest into a commitment to meetings requires preparation, skill and persistence.

Amongst the delegates were business development executives and managers with responsibility for between three and five clients as part of their firm’s Key Client Programme (KCP) or Key Account Management (KAM). Surprisingly, the clients for which they held responsibility were from different sectors – making the task of deeply understanding sector trends and client needs more challenging.

Their roles were varied and challenging – often supporting the fee-earners in their sales activities from afar. Front line client involvement is still rare for many marketing and business development professionals except for in the largest professional services firms. And often those who are in the front line are former lawyers and accountants themselves who therefore have deep insight into client problems and the services most likely to help them.

Sales skills

There are numerous inventories of what selling skills and qualities are needed. For example:

Core selling skills:

  • Communication (verbal and non-verbal)
  • Confidence
  • Emotional intelligence (especially empathy)
  • Listening
  • Needs analysis
  • Problem-solving
  • Questioning
  • Relationship building (rapport, trust)

Related selling skills:

  • Adaptation/Flexibility
  • Analytical
  • Assertiveness
  • Collaboration
  • Commerciality
  • Conversation
  • Curiosity
  • Integrity
  • Motivation
  • Networking
  • Persuasion
  • Planning
  • Presenting
  • Negotiation
  • Research
  • Resilience and perseverance
  • Storytelling
  • Targeting
  • Tenacity

This is a daunting list for sales professionals – and even harder to contemplate for busy fee-earners who are usually focused on client service, managing their teams and fee-earning activities. However, there are assessment and development tools to help measure and develop such skills. 

Summary – Images. Ideas. Actions

At the end of the session, delegates identified their favourite images, ideas and actions from the workshop:


  • The blue box – what you want to learn about a client during the meeting
  • Persona


  • Structured sales process
  • Send fee-earners to meetings in teams
  • Pick up the phone more often
  • 5Cs follow up email


  • Data collection and analysis
  • Sales training for fee earners
  • More research
  • Prepare for meetings
  • Think about follow up before the meeting and confirm during the meeting
  • Read some of the suggested books

I’ve added the delegates’ suggestions for sources of market intelligence. The updated list is here Key Account Management (KAM) – Research companies (

Delegate poll results

How would you rate your sales and selling abilities?

11%      Really low – no experience

33%      Low – little experience

56%      Average – some experience

What’s the source of the majority of your clients?

0%       Digital marketing

22%      Internal referrals/cross selling

44%      Existing client referrals

11%      External referrals

11%      Fee-earner’s sales and BD efforts

11%      I don’t know

Are you mostly trying to sell to:

60%      Large, global organisations

10%      SMEs

0%       Not-for-profits

0%       Individuals/families

30%      A combination

Which sales objectives do you monitor?

78%      Revenue/profit

78%      Pitches/tenders

56%      Additional revenue from existing clients

56%      Referrals and recommendations

33%      New clients/transactions

22%      New leads, enquiries or opportunities generated

How familiar are you with the concept of the DMU? Selling Basics – Detectives and DMUs (Video) and recommended books (

50%      No  idea what it is

20%      I’ve heard of it but don’t really understand it

40%      We use it in some sales situations

0%       It’s an integral part of our sales process

Where do you think your firm is weakest?

0%       Focus/targeting

0%       Awareness/interpersonal skills

33%      Sales process/methodology

67%      Discipline and motivation

What do you use to help fee-earners research sales prospects? Key Account Management (KAM) – Research companies (

90%      Social media (including LinkedIn Sales Navigator)

80%      Free online systems (eg Google)

70%      CRM/Intranet/Internal systems

70%      Sector group information

60%      Paid/commercial information/research systems

30%      Industry/professional associations

30%      Companies House

10%      I don’t get involved in research

How do your fee-earners reach out to targets?

44%      Through a mutual connection

22%      Through events/networking

22%      Through a direct approach (telephone/email)

11%      Through marketing (responding to enquiries)

0%       Through industry/business associations

0%       Through social media

How often are you asked to help plan sales meetings?

10%      Never

40%      Sometimes

50%      Regularly

0%       Always

Do you think you/your fee-earners are mostly: Adapting to dog, cat and bear personalities – Better business relationships (

You Your fee-earners
Cat 13% 75%
Dog 88% 13%
Bears 0% 13%


Do your fee-earner use a framework to plan questions at sales meetings?

57%      No

29%      I don’t know

14%      Our sales/BD professionals help them

How much of what we hear do we retain? Active Listening (Video) (

25%      0 – 25%

50%      26-50%

25%      51%-75%

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