Episode 155: Serve Don’t Sell – Liston Witherill

Predictable Prospecting
Episode 155: Serve Don’t Sell - Liston Witherill
00:00 / 00:00

What’s the best way to sell services? How does selling services differ from selling products? How can you convince a prospect that a particular professional service is right for them? Today’s guest is Liston Witherill, and his message is: serve, don’t sell. Listen in to hear what Liston has to say about what “serve, don’t sell” means, what the success path for selling services is, and the four steps that he recommends. 

Episode Highlights:

  • Why Liston got into professional services
  • The success path for selling services
  • What “serve, don’t sell” means
  • Understanding that you’re adding value
  • Drawing the map
  • Understanding clients’ motivation
  • Helping people make decisions
  • Showing what’s possible
  • Which slides should be in your slide deck
  • Asking questions that demonstrate that you understand the prospect’s problem
  • Case studies and testimonials
  • What’s in Liston’s training


Serve Don’t Sell

Modern Sales Podcast


Marylou: Hey everyone, it’s Marylou Tyler. This week’s guest is Liston Witherill. He has this really cool offering on servedontsell.com. What I really love about what he’s doing is he’s taking what we think of as the invisible, the intangible way to sell. You and I know that most of what we talk about here on this podcast are widgets of selling something that you can touch. What Liston does is he works with sales executives and professionals in selling services, professional services. If you have a professional service arm, he would be the one to help you take that business and grow it. It’s not on referral.

One of the things we always say is, oh well, professional services, that’s referral. You’re working with clients. I am here to tell you that Liston has a methodology and a process that he is going to talk about today on how to grow your business. This is a professional service, independent consultants, firms that are not selling widgets, how to take control of that, and actually build pipelines so that you can consistently and predictably close your deals. Welcome to the podcast!

Liston: Thank you and predictable is right on brand. I am very happy to be here. Thank you.

Marylou: Yeah, very good. This is always a grey area for us. Yeah, professional services will grow. What got you focused on this really important and niche-y kind of selling environment?

Liston: It’s interesting you say niche-y because basically the whole economy is moving more towards the service model and increasingly I’m seeing even software companies starting to add services and consulting arms to their product offerings as they start to consider how do we continue to grow revenue, and also how do we make customers more successful with our product, especially big enterprise offerings. What got me into this, I’m a scientist by training, I have a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science and Management. My stated goal to go to grad school was to go into consulting, which is what every little kid wants to be when they grow up, if you ask a 5 year old. I want to be a consultant.

After grad school, what I wanted to do was learn the business of consulting. Going into grad school, the idea was I really need to understand the science of the environment and how this works. And then I wanted to go operate on the business side of environmental consulting. I was the Director of Marketing and Business Development at—not a huge firm. We had about 80 people, we’re doing about $8–$10 million when I got there. We grew steadily over a few years.

While I was there, I kept asking the question, obviously this was my whole job, how do we grow the firm? What is driving our growth now? What have we done in the past that has worked or hasn’t worked? Also, importantly, why am I surrounded by so many experts who have this really weird, awful feeling about selling anything? It was really interesting that a lot of them, their orientation towards their job is in this case, I do science, I do my expert work, I’m not in the business of selling anything. But of course, our compensation was determined by how much revenue they brought in.

Obviously, they were selling something. I’ve been on a quest ever since I started that job and eventually went out and started my own marketing firm to figure out what is it about services that are so damn hard to sell?

Marylou: Right. Speaking from someone who is in awe of what you’re doing right now, it’s one of those things for me that I don’t understand the multiples of professional services. Could you make it tangible? My brain is always wrapped around going to the IPO. By growing from the standpoint of a capital thing as opposed to what I can say operational, I’d lump professional services into that. The second thing I’m always timid about is those are relationship sales. A lot of times, it takes long to establish a relationship. The work that I do is like duty dating and the work that you do is like engagement and getting married kind of thing. This is me not understanding, even though here I am a consultant, right? But most of my work, I do outbound work and I get referral and inbound. It’s a pretty nice mix.

It’s really interesting that you’ve developed a system for it. What I’m really curious about is how you go about getting people started on this path who are naturally reluctant. Because they’ve used sales as a not so nice word. It’s something that they don’t want to be associated with. Why don’t you share with us, when you get someone in and they want to grow their business, and they’re selling only, they’re selling services, how do you organize them down that success path so that they start seeing the value if this is a repeatable portion of their pipeline?

Liston: The first thing I tell them is a mindset part which is you got to kill your inner salesperson. Marylou, you know all the stats about how salespeople are one of the most hated professions in existence. The reason is, we all have had some sort of negative experience with that salesperson who is willing to be manipulative—which is different than persuasive. Meaning they are using parts of the truth in order to move you in a direction that maybe you wouldn’t choose otherwise if you heard the whole truth. Which is very different from persuasion.

We have experienced people who are totally self serving, all they care about is getting the sale so that they can get their commission or add revenue to their bottom line. I think what a lot of people feel when they hear the word sales is that it means I’m going to lose my integrity—and my integrity matters a lot. As a service provider, my reputation is a core business asset in terms of attracting new clients, in terms of maybe even being able to charge a price premium. That reputation is critical so I don’t want to trade that off by being this nasty used car salesman, of course the image everyone conjures.

Where I start is I say, kill your inner salesperson. You don’t need to be that version of sales. The other thing as I’ve done this work has been really obvious is when someone says the word sales, 10 people can mean 10 different things.

Marylou: Right.

Liston: Right. We need to get an understanding of what that means. The way I define it in when I say serve don’t sell, what I mean is, the goal of a sale is to help people make an informed decision about the outcomes that they want whether they choose us or not. What I want to be is an educator, in that way, when I’m working with experts in service providers, all I tell them is look, the sales process, your expertise is fairly invisible to that prospect or buyer in the beginning. What you have an opportunity to do throughout the sales process is demonstrate what it will be like to work with you in some small way right away. Which isn’t to say giveaway free work, but it is to say be organized, it is to say predict and understand what questions are going to be asked and how you respond to them.

These fundamental things that I think are if not un-addressed, under addressed by most service providers is where we always have to start.

Marylou: One of the things that I have noticed in working with people who don’t consider themselves sales professionals is that they feel like they’re bugging people. They don’t want to be identified with that. There’s also this other aspect that they don’t think they can add value every time they pick up the phone or every time they are face to face, or every transaction or conversation that they have, they feel like they’re bothering people. I see that more in areas where you’re selling professional services than perhaps widgets. Do you find that that’s another portion of this that you have to unprogram them before, is that you’re not bugging people, you’re adding value. Does that go hand in hand with what you said about educating and demonstrating what it’s like to work with you?

Liston: Yeah, absolutely. The key driver of that feeling is the curse of knowledge. As an expert, we have 400 or 500 levels of understanding of a topic and our clients have a maybe a 100 level understanding of our area of expertise. We quickly forget what it was like to be that 200, 300, 400 level student. Therefore we forget how easy it would be for us to add value to the client.

The other thing that I would say is in these situations—you know this from prospecting in any sort of outbound effort—if you can help or prompt people with a yes or no decision or a relatively easy decision to make, that can help them qualify themselves. One of the big mistakes—and you must’ve preached this for years—is leading with something like do you have 30 minutes for a meeting next Tuesday, is not where we want to start with anybody. But if I’m an accountant and someone has come to me and said my books are a mess, I don’t know if I can hire anybody right now, and I want to make sure I hit 20% profit margin this year. I don’t think you’re bugging them if you reach out and say, hey, are you ready to make sure we hit this profit margin together? That’s not bugging them. 

I think there’s this human tendency—and this isn’t limited to service providers, it’s just human nature—to focus on the negative experiences. That time when a salesperson just would not get the message and will never stop bugging us, and sometimes legitimately they are annoying, we can agree on that, some of them are, we tend to remember those moments and not the moments where I was interrupted in the middle of the day. I picked up my phone and I was like, yeah, I do have mold on my basement. Let’s talk about that. Your timing is perfect.

We overweighed some of those negative experiences and that’s part of the problem.

Marylou: But falling under the heading of mindset, what I like to do is substitute the word selling for adding value. I have a post-it note, it says, how can I add more value. Every day, I’m looking at that, how can I add more value? How can I be more of an advisor, a trusted person that you can call and ask questions of? That’s really where I see myself, is more of a mentor, giving back—whatever you want to call it. That also elevates you to a place where when you do have these conversations, you’re doing good work, you’re really helping.

If you can get over the sale versus service, serve don’t sell—that’s the perfect way to think about how we can navigate through a sales process especially if we don’t consider ourselves as a salesperson.

Liston: Right. What I tell my clients is I’m not asking you to become a salesperson. I’m asking you to have better communication skills, is really what it comes down to. Why is it so hard to sell services? They’re intangible. It’s like a blackbox. I don’t get to see what’s on the other side. In the beginning, all I have is your word that you’re awesome and that you can deliver for me. Of course, you’re going to say that. Why wouldn’t you say that?

The more we can demystify what it’s like to buy from us, I have this circular argument which isn’t sufficient to explain it, but sums it up nicely. The reason services are so hard to sell is they’re so hard to buy. There are lots of reasons for that. Some of it comes down to trust, to the opaqueness, your lack of clarity and what people will actually be getting both in terms of features and benefits. Are they buying inputs, outputs, or value? You should be really clear about that up front. I think all of those things add up to increase clarity of communication and a lot of folks also will say—this is the other objection, Marylou is—you don’t understand. My services, they’re just hard to sell because no two clients are alike.

Marylou: What’s that saying? If I had a nickel for every time I heard that.

Liston: Right. I always say, okay, cool. Let’s look at your five top clients, what problems did they have? We could just map out very easily and I can just prove that in less than 10 minutes. I could say, oh, actually, you’re just maybe being too specific or you’re choosing the wrong categories, but certainly we can identify patterns in why people buy from you. If you’re truly right about the idea that no two clients are the same, you’re lacking focus in your business. That’s a separate problem that we can’t solve in sales.

I think there’s a lot of reasons for why folks are feeling this way. The good news is all of them can be addressed.

Marylou: Pretend our mindset is now ready to absorb the next step or the parallel step of actually putting together a selling system that encompasses what you’re talking about. I heard you say map, I heard you say building a list of what motivates people. Tell us a little bit about that part of it. One of the things that I would struggle with doing this is substantiating my claims with proof and specificity. That I think is, it’s the bane of all my folks’ existence is we can find the challenges, we can contrast that to how I could be, should be, or will be, but then when we’re trying the substantiate the claim that we are the best choice for them, that’s where things get a little muddy. I’m curious to hear from you, the system itself of preparations. I am a big fan of preparing and planning. If I was coming and selling my product, which is advisory services, the selling system, what does that look like?

Liston: Let me just walk through the steps and then I want to come back to what you said about building credibility or showing proof—substantiating your claims. Four steps, number one is to draw the map. In order to draw a map, we need to know where we’re standing and where we plan to go. Only then can we plan a route. A lot of service providers haven’t even sat down to say, okay, for me to get a new client, what needs to happen? Do I need to sign an NDA? Do I talk to the business owner? Or do I have five people involved? Who’s involved? Do I need to talk to the head of IT? We need to figure out what that is back to this premise of it’s hard to sell services because it’s hard to buy them.

Your clients may not know how to buy your services. Your responsibility is to teach them. Drawing the map really comes down to having a goal for every meeting and understanding what needs to happen—start to finish—in order to close a new client, and then setting up an agenda in next steps. These are the book ends on every meeting. What are we going to do today and what are we going to do next? If you can do that, you’re going to greatly accelerate the process and win more deals.

Step two is to understand clients’ motivation. The way I think about this really comes down to pain and reward. We have two systems in our brains. System one and system two, these come from Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky. System one is the automatic part of our brain. That’s the survival part of the “reptilian” brain. Things that are painful, we want to run away from because that’s how we survive. If a lion is coming at us, don’t bother asking me what the meaning of life is, I just need to get away from the damn lion.

In the sale, we have both pain and we have gain that we need to message around. The gain is what is that awesome future that this client could reach. But the pain is, why should you even consider doing it? What’s wrong with you now? Both of those need to be present. I’ve had some public arguments with my friend Jason about which one is more impactful. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re much more motivated to avoid pain. But I would say from a sales standpoint and a marketing standpoint, it’s really effective to message around how awesome the future can be. And then in the sale, identify what are the causes of pain that makes the client attracted to that message in the first place. The only way we can do this is by asking great questions and understanding each individual’s motivation.

Marylou: Okay. Just to comment on that, what we like to do is state pain and then have a contrast. The example of that would be the fat-skinny ads that are very effective. Because you can visually see someone who’s not in a great shape, maybe not as happy, that has frown on his or her face. And then on the next side of the page is the outcome, that you’re going to be like this. That’s the combination of the two together. The pain of something and the gain that you can expect. That rises to a level of desire that also can motivate people to act.

In our messaging, we like to combine the two and then that proof and specificity to give them a reason why to act now. We use all of those things you just said in item number two. The motivation, pain and gain, and then this new normal of what they can expect that they may not even have thought of yet because they haven’t been involved with the work that you do.

Liston: I want to get that last point, that’s my step number four. Because I think we need to go a long way of painting the picture for our client about how things can be different. Step three is about helping people make decisions. This is where most service providers fall down in being able to charge and actually get premium pricing. The reason for that is a lot of people don’t understand that the way we make decisions is based on comparison and relative information.

Marylou, one way that you can charge premium pricing, you have tons of accolades, you have this podcast, you have a really famous book that you wrote. But it’s also helpful if someone’s talking to you and you say okay, why do you want to hire me? What will you get out of this? You can go through this value setting exercise where the whole point of that exercise is for the client to anchor herself on to that awesome outcome that they’re going for. Whatever that outcome is, if you’re targeting the right prospects, your price is going to be a small fraction of that. That is a way to help people decide. 

Also, a lot of people make the mistake of showing one single price or giving one single option, which is not the way most people make decisions. I just upgraded my home video studio here where I shoot my YouTube videos and do these interviews, I will tell you, I looked at a lot of cameras before I made the decision. That’s common. I don’t believe in services people will shop around to that extent. But we need a way to justify to ourselves why am I making this decision. We need both the emotional—what is it that I want and what am I aspiring to. But we also need the rational—oh, this is a good idea because X. Usually, it’s justifying the investment.

And then step four, I think we should dwell on this a little bit is in showing what’s possible. I like to tell stories here. If you follow my methodology, you gave your client the map in the beginning, you told them here’s what we’re going to do, here are all the steps that we need to take and we’re going to have our first, second, third call. In the second step, I went to the client and I figured out what is motivating them to make a change—both positive and negative motivation. In the third step I’m giving them ways to make a decision. Now, in the fourth step, I’m going to illustrate for them exactly how this is going to work. I’m going to tell a story about where they are now and where they’re going. The only logical conclusion of that story is how my solution will be the one to help them. This is all assuming you’re talking to the right people and not a square peg in a round hole kind of person here.

If you’re doing your qualification right, you should disinvite anybody early on from your sales process and from doing business with you. Assuming you’re talking to the right people, this story should just be the absolute natural conclusion to this person’s problem. It’s interesting, I have a very particular way of putting together a slide deck, which I know some people in services are allergic to slide decks. But my barometer for how mature your sales process is, is can you put together a slide deck that does your whole presentation in under 10 slides. A lot of people can’t.

I’ll tell you exactly what those slides should be and why. You don’t have time to go into that right now, but putting together that deck allows me in a message both around feelings and facts and it allows me to tell a story of where they’re starting from to where they’re going to end up and exactly what I’m going to do to help guide them there.

Marylou: Right. That’s great. I do love the idea of a deck like that. We used to call them pitch decks.

Liston: It’s such a dirty word now.

Marylou: I know. That sounds very dirty. It did cover the reason why and where we are today, what the issues are associated with that. Sometimes we did interviews ahead of time so we got a clear understanding of their unique issues that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. From there, we can embed that in there. I love the step number three about helping people make decisions. Even in the product world, we can get people excited about what this can do for them. I remember in my world, a lot of times, once we qualify them from the standpoint of they fit the round hole with the round pegs, we got that going, and they want to work with us, and they want to explore more. We pass it over to a field salesperson, usually, who takes the rest of the way. We don’t hit prices very often. We give them range, we’re done.

This understanding of helping them make a decision is so important in order to avoid price issues even with products, not just services, with products as well.

Liston: Yeah. I don’t know if you know Blair Enns. He’s just an awesome business thinker, fantastic. He writes a lot about pricing. In his core materials, one of the things he talks about is having the value conversation. That’s really what I mean when I say help them decide, is give them the information. Again, the information they need to make an informed decision. If you say to someone, working with Marylou is $30,000 or $50,000. That’s the devoid of all of the context of why should I even care about this? Okay, so what, $50,000? To one person that may sound like a fortune, to another person, it would be like oh no, we’re looking for more of like a $500,000 consultant.

This idea of this invisible hand that’s guiding market prices often doesn’t apply very well to services. Certainly, doesn’t demonstrate for the client what would be in it for them. What do they stand to gain? Again, both emotionally and from a rational standpoint. The feeling of knowing that I can hire someone without going broke. Man, what is that worth? We may not be able to put a number or that, but to a business owner, that’s worth a lot of money to me.

Marylou: That’s the biggest difference. The ability to map the roadmap of growth. To get a sense and a comfort that you’re not living in a peak and valley, that there’s a glide path here to the revenue goals that you’ve said or maybe you want to hand off your company to your family members or sell it to another firm or whatever it is. There’s something at the end of the rainbow there that you’re trying to achieve. To have a clear picture of that, that would get you out of bed every morning and make sure that you’re adding value on a daily basis to your clients. That’s great.

Liston: One thing I wanted to come back to is this idea of proof that you brought up earlier. This is a difficult one for services in particular because I use way too many software products, Marylou. I’ll admit it. I don’t really need proof. They can put whoever they want on their website, but for a lot of software products, I can go sign up for a free trial or maybe sign up for a one month of the software for $50–$100 and I can go try it out. I don’t need third party stories nearly as much to make a decision because it’s tangible, I can go try it.

Services often don’t have that. There are ways we can de-risk the client’s decision by giving a smaller version of our service. For the most part, they’re taking a giant risk. That’s the way I look at it is, proof is so important in services because the information is so asymmetric. As the service provider, I know way more about what I’m doing than the buyer ever will. Whereas with the product, it’s not the balance is much different. I see a few different ways that you can demonstrate proof. One is—I’m big on this—if you ask great questions that challenge the person’s thinking to the point where they say, damn, I should’ve asked that question five years ago. That’s going to start to prove to them that you understand their problems better than they do.

This is a very underestimated way of proving that you understand your client and that you know what you’re doing is asking great questions. The reason it’s underestimated is because I can’t really give you a formula on how to do this perfectly. The more you specialize as a service provider, meaning you either focus on a single problem or you focus on a single vertical, or ideally both, a problem within a vertical, then you’re going to be able to ask great questions. 

But now, the mechanical ways that we can do it: case studies. The whole format for case study is where did your clients start, what did they achieve, and what did you do to get them there? That’s your case study format.

The other one is testimonials. What do people say out of their own mouths about working with you? I’d say that’s less a thing in really high end enterprise or corporate services. It becomes much more about case studies. The one thing I’ll say about case studies that a lot of people get wrong is they think if they have a collection of three or five case studies across all different client verticals that that’s going to work, generally it won’t. You need to present each client type; by industry, by job title, however you identify your perfect fit client. You have to have case studies that will resonate specifically for them. 

I work with business owners. All my case studies that you’ll see are with business owners. All of my testimonials are business owners. Because then, the person I’m trying to attract will read that and it will be more resonant with them.

Marylou: Right. What we do in our world is we have decision makers, we have direct influencers. The direct influences are the folks that will either get us to the first meeting or the table to start the discussion, they’ll get us to the point where we can continue the discussion, and those people may not be involved in the actual decision making process, but it is important that they see their peers and colleagues written up or at least demonstrated that they are part of this making this decision for this solution that they’re looking for. It’s so important to segment that out. Even for us, to have the decision maker as well as the direct influencers. So they feel like you’re talking to them in their language.

Liston: Absolutely. Yup, I agree.

Marylou: Where do we go from here? I’m so excited. What kind of services do you offer so if someone’s hearing this and thinking, oh, this is the holy grail for me. Where do they go? What do they do?

Liston: Just go to my website, servedontsell.com. Plenty of free resources for you there. I also have a podcast, Modern Sales, if you’re a podcast listener, which obviously you are if you’re listening to this. If you wanted more help from me, I have a course called The Sales Print which is a combination of some of the stuff I talked about here, but way more in depth. I also have a private coaching program, if you really, really want to figure out how to grow your service business.

Marylou: You’ve dangled the carrot with this 10 slide presentation. Is that in the training that you offer?

Liston: It is in the training, yes. Thank you for bringing that back. I appreciate that. Yeah, that’s in the training. That’s one of the modules, it is all around how to take all the information you gather throughout the sale, turn it into a deck, and present it. It’s often a game changer for service businesses if they can get their services on to a deck because it makes their sales more repeatable, capable of handing off and training other people on, and usually more profitable.

Marylou: I will attest to that because even in Predictable Prospecting, Jeremy wrote about, we called it a pitch deck as I said, but he wrote about putting together these decks that are short and sweet that cover. He put what he thought would be very good to have in the deck. I can tell you all, that when you start implementing those decks, practice them, role play them, and work through them, they are just winners all the way around. Your conversion rates are going to go up. It’s worth looking into this 10 slide pitch deck or deck because it’s going to help you organize your thoughts, it’s going to help you understand the rhythm and the flow of what you need to do for those four steps of drawing the map, of understanding the client’s motivation, of helping them make decisions, and then finally, showing what’s possible.

Boy, this has been a great conversation, Liston. Thank you so much for your time. I’ll make sure I put all your connections and all your links on the web page for people, so that they can learn more from you. Very much appreciate you spending time with us today.

Liston: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me here.