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It's one of my favourite times of year. It's the start of NFL training camps. The only on-field time all year when every team believes it can win the Superbowl. Except Detroit – let's be serious here, people. They lost every game last year. Ticket sales are slow. Go figure.

Brett Favre decided today – maybe – to not un-retire again. Last year I called the whole thing "Favrever – like forever, only longer." I told a guy named Mike Florio, who writes a killer blog called profootballtalk.com, which he just sold to NBC, he could use it. He did. I was very proud. And I'm sure my coined term increased his valuation by 50-to-60 per cent, although I haven't gotten a cheque yet.

This year I've been calling the Favre saga "Faux Brettirement." And this time I'm not giving it away – Mike, if you are reading this, I will sell the rights to NBC for (pinky finger at side of mouth) $1M.

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If you have not been dazzled (as opposed to bedazzled – that's different) by my NFL observations above, you'll see that I have cleverly tied football stories to sales. Which is exactly what I'm going to do with this column.

I've learned many lessons about selling professional services over the past several years. Most of them the hard way. Some themes have emerged when it comes to selling. Just as some themes have surfaced at the start of this NFL season.

Theme #1:

Rookie NFL Head Coaches

Have a teachable point of view There are seven rookie head football coaches in the league coming into this season. Seven. There are only 32 teams. Seven. Good luck. But then again, last year two rookie coaches got to the playoffs, which is very rare. John Harbaugh and Mike Smith. They also both coach teams with bird names – the Ravens and the Falcons (although they claim that is "just a coincidence").

What Harbaugh and Smith were renowned for is one of the great lessons in sales: have a teachable point of view. They had/still have a discernible and compelling opinion on their business, the business of football.

Jack Welch (you may have heard of him) used to preach having a teachable point of view at GE. He fundamentally believed you had to stand for something in order to a) get ahead, and b) get people to follow you. And that something was a relevant stance on your industry or your line of work – a "this is how things should be done, and why" attitude.

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In professional services sales, having a teachable point of view can be a real weapon. Sure you can show up and say "we could tackle it this way, or we could go about it that way," trying to morph to every situation. But you'll be more successful if you develop a strong orientation one way or the other – on your industry or on your particular function in the industry – and stick to your guns.

For example, I know a consultant who is ardent about the correct hierarchy of market research approaches, and their appropriate application, depending on the nature of the problem to solve. Clients gravitate to him because they see his confidence, and because they learn from him along the way.

Theme #2:

Felons Getting Punished

Listen more than you talk. Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, is not fooling around. If you are an NFL player and you run afoul of the law, you will be suspended. Period. Since bringing in a personal conduct policy, Goodell has suspended six players and one coach. The latest is Donte Stallworth who is under indefinite suspension after a DUI fatality.

The other side of Goodell, though, is he will take you back. If you listen. Suspended players, hoping to sell the commissioner on a return to the field, learn quickly to listen more than talk if they hope to be reinstated.

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A great sales guy I know once said to me: "He who talks least wins." He was right. If you are in sales, and most folks in SMBs are, I bet you have a tendency to want to talk about what you do. Especially in pitches or on sales calls. To expound on what makes you special and why your firm is fantastic and how your approach is different. That's great. Save it for the last five minutes.

Professional services is ultimately about problem solving. And about trust. How can you sort out what problem you are solving, or build a trust-based relationship with a client, if you are yakking on endlessly? You can't. Resist the urge to "sell." Instead, make it a game – see how long you can go without going over your credentials – ask questions, try to get to know the client and find the root cause of the pain they are experiencing. Listen. It's amazing how much your pitching, even your on-the-fly sales, will improve.

Theme 3:

Mystery Wideout Retirements

Do your homework. Derrick Mason, the long-time wide receiver of the Titans and Ravens, abruptly retired from the Ravens late in July. Drew Bennett, another veteran wideout, who had also played for the Titans, signed with the Ravens in late July and retired 48 hours later. Yikes. Maybe they should sign Brett Favre so he can retire from their club fast, too.

Sooner or later, the Ravens are going to have to ask themselves "was it something we said?" That's not true, but they are going to have to ask themselves if they did their homework, since each retirement came as a surprise.

In professional services sales, you have to do your homework. If you go into a room blind, you will get blindsided. Clients expect, sometimes even unfairly, you to know more than you should. To be up to speed on their firm, on their line of business, on their industry and on their issues. They just expect you to know.

In our shop, we always teach: "Prepare the client, prepare the work, in that order." In other words, we feel it is more important to have done research on and understand the different client buyers/personalities in the room – to know whether they are analytical or gut-feel oriented, to know whether they want/expect industry expertise or a fresh set of eyes. But that doesn't mean the content is unimportant – that homework is important as well. You have to know what's going on in the client's industry and what issues the firm is facing.

The most embarrassing situation to be in is to arrive at your potential client's office and have them ask: "Did you see our news?" and not have seen the news. So in addition to all the background research you will now do, check the newspaper just before heading over to the client site in case a story has broken you should know about.

Theme 4:

Unsettled QB Situations

Come to the table with unexpected value. My Minnesota Vikings are a bit unsettled at the quarterback position thanks to the not-so-faux Brettirement. They are not alone. If you are a fan of San Fran, Miami, the Jets, the Browns, Denver, Oakland, Washington, the Lions, TB, or St Louis, how do you feel about your starter? Do you even know who your starter is? Ugliness. We should just all become Pats or Colts fans, and be done with it.

I promise you the QBs on those rosters are glad they don't have to compete with Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, though. They see opportunity. And the ones that bring to their team some unexpected value – escapabilty, or maybe a calming presence in the locker room – are going to have the best chance of starting or at least staying on the roster.

In sales, especially when you are representing a professional services firm with no 'products' to demonstrate per se, bringing unexpected value to the table is critical in forming and solidifying relationships. It is the currency of respect. It demonstrates that a) you care, and b) you are smart enough to contextualize the situation and develop some sort of information that is pertinent to the client.

A good example here could be as simple as talking about what you are hearing across the industry from an agnostic standpoint, or as complex as preparing a well-researched position paper on how different models (such as outsourcing) across a number of industries are affecting roles like the one your potential client is in.

Theme 5:

Michael Vick Looking for Redemption

Respect the process. The Mike Vick story is well documented, so let's not rehash the details. After a couple of years of prison time, and a conditional reinstatement by the NFL, he is ready to resume his career. By most accounts, he has accepted responsibility for his previous actions and attitude. According to Tony Dungy he is committed to changing his life. And back in the day, he had his share of football critics, too. In short, Vick is looking for redemption.

What is impressive is to see that Vick understands there is a process to getting his career back on track. It started with a pre-sell (lining up Dungy, committing to self-reflection activity, managing communication carefully), will now move to a sell phase where he has to convince a team he is worth the risk, and will finish with a post-sell where he has to a) stay on the right side of a moral/legal line in the sand, and b) deliver numbers and contribute to wins. (By the way, New England is where I think he ends up.)

Sales in professional services rarely materialize after one interaction. There is a process to selling. If you believe you can hole up and craft a great proposal, chuck it over the fence or present it, and win business consistently, you should think again. The most successful business developers I know understand and respect the pre-sell, sell, post-sell process. And that doesn't even consider a number of steps that precede this process to get the lead, or follow it to ensure repeat business – but that is another story for another day.

The pre-sell and post-sell phases are just as important, maybe more important, as the actual proposal and/or pitch. They are when you have the chance to build trust and demonstrate problem solving expertise. They are the "hallway sales" opportunities to get the inside scoop so that your can do your homework thoroughly (pre-sell), to freeze out other bidders (post-sell), and to develop a relationship with the client (both pre- and post-sell). This process is always unofficial. But it is always real. Respect the process.

As you get ready for many Sundays on the couch, I wish your team the best of luck, especially if it makes its home in Minnesota. And as you get ready for your next sales push, remember that most of successful selling is what you do outside of preparing the actual pitch – it is in the interactions you have with the potential client, in the extra work you do to understand the situation, and in the way you approach the situation and think about value for the key buying influences.

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA is a Partner at Torque Customer Strategy, a boutique consultancy focused on go-to-market strategy. He has completed more than 100 engagements in this space over the past five years. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to managing professional service firms. He is known as much for his aggressive sense of personal style as he is for intense and engaging conversations. He lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto. His full bio can be found at www.torquecustomerstrategy.com.

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