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  • Ruth Napier

Life on the frontline with customers – On and Off the Rails

Neon side in blue. Words say "Do what you love"

As a professional services (PS) marketer, I have often been at one step removed from the real customer interface. It has been frustrating at times but fortunately there are other ways to keep core business development/sales skills honed. It really is only when you get down and dirty with it, that the joys and challenges come into sharp relief. 

At weekends I often join my other half in helping him with his hobby turned nascent antiques business (On and Off the Rails). A lifelong love of collecting small and big boys toys now forms the basis for his stock in trade – and he now is a part-time dealer in railwayana (amongst other things).

Selling a physical product is different from a service – or is it?

Sales techniques from the world of antique and collector’s fairs readily translate across to professional services (PS) business development and can help promote better BD habits!

So below are my top tips for better BD success using some of those sales techniques.

Top tips for BD success from the world of preloved selling

1.      Know your target customer. 

Having a strong set of ideal customer profiles to test your sales strategy and tactical decisions against is vital. This factors into your stock selection, your route to market (online/in person, generalist/ specialist fair), your positioning (niche, expertise, value, brand promise) and your pricing strategy (cost-plus, value/scarcity, top retail, pay what you want).  

I act as a coach to my other half, keeping him on the right track when he’s looking at acquiring stock. Asking simple questions such as “Who will buy it, where and why?” alongside “How much would they be prepared to pay for it?” helps keep him buyer-focused. It’s the same technique I use when coaching lawyers.

2.      Location, location, location.

Exhibiting or standing at a fair, the same principles hold true – some locations are better than others either due to the location of the venue or the pitch you are allocated. You need to understand how it works for you and for any customer.

a.      For the venue, factors to consider are accessibility, parking, build and breakdown windows, venue facilities for you (tables, chairs, electricity, catering, security, portering etc) and for the visitor, promotional activities, popularity and footfall (previous, estimated) – all of which the organiser can help you with.     

b.      For the pitch/stand you need to understand the layout of the venue, what you need to bring and what’s provided, and as importantly where you are in the pecking order of exhibitors (see event organisers below). For a visitor will you be the first stand they reach, towards the middle or the end of their visit? Are you next to the café or the toilets?

For PS firms, choice of physical location is usually a strategic decision but one that factors in both organisational requirements and client ones. Facilities and space utilisation rely on combining the needs of both staff and clients.

Virtual locations open up a wider array of options, and choosing the right channels is all about understanding where your target customers are and why. For promotional activities the choice is even wider: the advice of an experienced marketing professional can be invaluable to avoid wasting money.

3.      Build good relationships with your channel partners.

Without you event organisers don’t have an event but good events have waiting lists to join. Treat event organisers as you would like to be treated – respectful, grateful and understanding of the pressures that are involved go along way to making a difference about how helpful they can be. If you’re nice, you’re more likely to be offered a better pitch or to have your pitch enlarged at no cost, if its possible.     

4.      Product or service - sell what they want/need.

We can’t take everything to every fair, so each time we make a lot of choices about which stock to take and which to display. And to balance this between browsers, collectors and existing customers.

There are many browsers for whom our stock is only of a vague passing visual interest - they pass by fairly quickly, making a quick judgement and moving onto the next stand.  You're trying to find stock that will grab their attention: in the same way as a well thought out piece of thought leadership might pique interest from someone fitting your ideal client profile.

If you’re back to a venue you’ve been to before, you will have some intelligence to base decisions on. Remember to take fresh stock with you – there is nothing more depressing as a visitor who sees the same stuff on your stand that they saw when they came last time.

The same goes for your firm's website - if it looks stale or uncared for, people notice and might not drop by so often. That's fine if your phone is ringing off the hook with new enquiries from the right profile of client, less so if you're short of new business.

5.      First impressions count.

Whether it’s your law firm website or your stand, how you present it, the visual appeal, content and the customer experience are all important. 

a.      Set it off well.

A darker tablecloth, fitted and floor length hides the empty boxes you brought your items in. Well-chosen backdrops and a variety of display stands help individual items to stand out. If it looks too busy, there is no contrast or you're cramming too many different styles together, like a badly designed website, you may find it puts people off, or worse still they aren’t able to see the wood for the trees. Avoid being too clever in your visual cues – if it isn’t immediately obvious, then swap it for something better.

b.      Pack it in or spread it out. 

There is value in spacing things out – unless the customer is looking for quantity. Space conveys respect and value.  Choosing the right balance for a visual and visceral combination, It's one of the reasons your logo will have brand guidelines to ensure it has sufficient space to stand out. I take the same approach as I would with a website design, ensuring that there is enough space around stock or web content to make both pop.

d.      Eye level.

Websites are designed around what’s immediately visible on screen (desktop/mobile).

In a physical environment you need to take the tried and tested retail approach - placing the things you want to sell the most of at eye level.

We’ve both become aware of where people look and most people gaze at eye level when browsing. More interested buyers will linger and eyes will track between eye level and hand height and in easy reaching distance – particularly anything with tangible appeal.  Which works for many objects – such as unused sets of door furniture that we bought when renovating a house 15+years ago.  Less than 10% look above eye level!

c.      Put stars in prime position(s).

Tiered display shelves help make the most of the premium ‘eye level’ space – the same principle as  ‘above the fold’ content on your website. If your website is there to drive sales, then make sure your prime services and individuals take centre stage and can easily be found.

Visual cues are helpful – whether it’s a glass topped display cabinet signalling jewellery and small objets de vertu or an arrow on your website homepage indicating there is more content available. 


6.      The invisible line. 

I first learned about this over 30 years ago when standing at an online industry exhibition in Chicago. We had fitted stands with little ramps at the borders and  I quickly grasped that anyone who stepped over the line onto the stand was showing interest. 

The same principles apply a fair – with negative reactions highly likely if you encroach or engage too early in ‘shared’ spaces.  Formal standfitted events, can turn this invisible line into the equivalent of a brick wall. The knack becomes how to make it less daunting to approach – to encourage the see, touch, desire, buy cycle. Some dealers have a hands-off approach (particularly if they only deal in small or high value items) but generally they try to reduce or remove the invisible line – whether setting up intriguing walk through spaces (not too narrow) around their stand, or by staggering the edge. 

There are invisible lines in PS marketing and understanding what they are and when these are crossed is key to understanding intent. Don’t ignore opportunities to understand and pick up on these clues. Digital buying signals are easy to track and follow through: If you’re not asking them to share their email address to download your whitepaper then you're not only missing the opportunity to engage with them further but are also failing to crystalise the return on investment in your thought leadership.

7.      The buzz.

A busy stand piques interest and FOMO but creating a buzz is much harder if the footfall is low. Pre-event social media promotion is vital from the organiser but also as a standholder. It helps to prompt those who can’t attend to get in touch or to remind those who are going that you’re there and with some great new stock.  If it’s quiet then looking / interacting as a customer or moving/adjusting stock can make the stand look busier and attract footfall.  

The combination of a strong creative, innovative approach, topical offering and targeted promotion is one way to generate a buzz in professional services where it can be harder to demonstrate differentiation. Think carefully about who you want to be buzzing and why, and engage channel experts to help make it happen, if you don't have them in-house.

8.      The competition. 

It is rare that you’ll be standing without any competition, at least for a portion of your offering. However your offering will be unique. How you display, price, talk about it and are trusted becomes part of your brand and positioning. Fair organisers are usually mindful of not putting direct competitors next to each other – even if visitors would find this helpful.

Intelligence gathering and building connections with erstwhile competitors is an art – some will share information freely and others will not.  You will always have the experience of the ups and downs of selling to your ideal customers, the merits of venues, organisers or fairs for some common ground, without breaching confidential or sensitive information.  

For PS firms, arms-length intelligence gathering or gleaning insight from competitive tenders or client feedback can be the norm. Business services teams and junior lawyers often inhabit networks with more open and regular dialogue with peers – sometimes overlooked for strategic intelligence gathering?   

9.      The potential customer.

A few factors to consider

a.      What type of buyer are they?

Typically railwayana buyers fall into one of two categories – those for whom an object kindles a memory (nostalgia-led) and those who are seeking to add to a set or series of something (collectors). There are more time wasters and information absorbers in the first category than the second.

Your PS buyer might be distress, transactional or relationship motivated and will have differing needs accordingly. Your BD processes need to match and its worth mapping different buyer journeys accordingly.

b.      Appearances are often deceptive.

Deep pockets are not reflected by dress, manners or speech. Make no assumptions (despite your preconceptions). 

c.      Personality.

Some people make quick decisions and others will need time to ponder. You need to adjust to both if you want to maximise your sales.

d.      Solo or tandem?

Multiple stakeholders are a bigger pain to sell to.  Its much easier to attract, engage and convert an individual than a couple, or multiple stakeholders. At antiques fairs its common for a couple not to share the same level of interest: the number of sales that have evaporated as a consequence of a bored spouse is high! 

Building a strong understanding of the type of buyer a key decision maker is just as important in PS. Its less likely that you’ll make the wrong call as the buying cycle is longer but equally important to make sure you have a clear understanding of roles and whether or not there are multiple stakeholders involved in a decision.

10.  The touch.

It’s hard to underestimate the signal that someone sends when they are reluctant to put back an object. 90% of the time it is as good as sold once they have it in their hands. Some people do try to hide interest – we think its because they’ll lose something in the negotiation. However we are fair with everyone. As a potential buyer then that failure to communicate can translate into disappointment: they think “I like that and will pop back later to buy it” then are surprised that its been sold to someone else in the meantime.  The number of times we’ve been asked “Where’s X?” only to have to tell them we’ve sold it! – it may have been the only one my husband has seen in 30+ years of attending auctions, 20+years of online buying and a lifetime of being interested in railwayana.  The mantra should always be see it - like it – buy it. 

11.  The rapport.

Services-selling can sometimes be frustratingly intangible however thinking of it as a buyer journey makes it easier to understand what steps are important for the buyer. Successful sales rely on an ability to storytell, to enable the buyer to see how they can secure a better future or outcome or simply to have a painful process or hurdle managed for them.

Taking the conversation beyond a description “it’s a whistle” to a feature “blown by a guard as a warning of the train departure” to a benefit  “it saved passengers from missing their train, their connections, their doctor’s appointment, their business meeting” opens up a world where buyers become more engaged.  

12.  Negotiating is a skill.

Your approach to pricing will affect your negotiation. If you have your stock priced up and your knowledge and stock book to hand, then its easier to respond in a measured way when someone makes you a ridiculously low offer for something rare.  Be consistent with your discounting if you do it – your reputation may suffer if you give widely differing discounts to people (you don’t know who talks to who).

A lot of time is spent in PS firms on pricing but perhaps less on training people on the art of negotiation. There is an expectation from many buyers that the first price is a starting point for negotiation: this is not always the mindset from the sales side.

13.  Blockers and timewasters.

Sometimes hard to spot and sometimes hard to get rid off.  They often stand in front of your star pieces – either solo or in a group, but are really only there for a long conversation usually  reminiscing about something in their past.

The parallel in the PS world are people who shop around for the cheapest quote (price buyers) or people who see how much they can have for free. Weeding them out as fast as possible should be part of your sales funnel processes and can be achieved without damaging your reputation or inadvertently offending them.

14.  Nurture your customers.

Keep a record of what your repeat customers are interested in (or a wants list) can help ensure you’re finding things that you know they will be interested in.  It’s equally as important to keep them up to date with where you will be standing and when.  Remind them 2 weeks before a fair that you’ll be there.

Keeping in touch with clients is a pre-requisite for being considered for work in the future.

15.  Failing to prepare is to prepare to fail. 

Every fair requires preparation and thought beforehand. From my many years of events, I implemented the same technique for fairs with checklists and an event ‘doings’ bag.   The same principle applies as would if you were an airline pilot – don’t think about remembering the list, just go through the list.

In almost every marketing and BD situation at a PS firm, I have had (or created) a checklist or process list. With a client meeting, its an outline agenda and supporting materials.  With a pitch, it’s a template and a set of questions. 

Third party exhibition organisers often employ event lead capture apps, linked to scannable attendee badges, making lead capture and follow up easier: freeing you to prepare the follow up.

Don’t forget easy to access takeaways – for fairs we have business cards, flyers for future fairs and details of the antiques centre where we’re based. Even if your entire offering is virtual, having something tangible to share or giveaway can help cement your brand in your potential customers eyes.

16.  Many hands make light work but too many cooks can spoil the broth. 

Four hands are better than two and two heads better than one, particularly when needing to keep the attention of a number of potential buyers. However, it is as easy to overstaff as understaff.

Staffing your sales event or pitch appropriately means thinking about complementary skills when putting your sales team together – such as a technical expert will go well with a relationship builder – and about getting the numbers right. Mirroring numbers is ideal – there is a balance between the buyer group and the seller group which subconsciously works well.

Coach, partner, mentor

What I love about working with my other half is that I get to stand alongside him, in sales/BD mode, learning random facts (occasional yawn) about railways, but combining this with honing my antenna for buying cues.   In many ways we complement each other from a sales perspective. He doesn’t always pick up on the less talkative and more reserved buyers but excels in imparting knowledge and stories about the use of esoteric objects and their back story.  On his own he risks missing out on potential sales, so whilst he’s taken up with an impassioned desire to share his knowledge with a rapt audience, I can engage with the more reserved but equally valuable customer hovering in the wings.  The best bit of all is seeing him doing something he really loves and helping him get better at it. It really is a win-win!


This article is part of a series on improving marketing and business development in professional services.

Headshot photo of author - on brick background

I am Ruth Napier, the Marketing Director for firms that don't have one but need one.

Get in touch today for a free, no obligation discussion about how I can help you update your firm's marketing and BD strategy.


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