The Wisdom of the Blue Crab

Why is promoting a professional service so challenging? For the same reasons that life is challenging.

For any professional the process of developing new business involves a nearly infinite set of variables. What we do not and most likely cannot know about our prospects is mystifying, and possibly even stupefying. Even the most successful marketing pros wonder (if only secretly to themselves) how the process really works…how in the depths of the black box of human interaction that last sale was made or lost.

Dozens of books by as many authors explain the process logically and thoroughly. Their advice is generally good, even excellent. We ignore it at our peril:

  • Develop a relationship
  • Do your homework
  • Understand their business needs
  • Know your material and stay focused
  • Keep your message clear, simple and memorable
  • Mirror your prospect in dress, manner and speech (see addendum)

Mastery of these skills is fundamental; absolutely necessary. But these skills alone don’t get to the essence of why one person trusts a professional to guide them through a process filled with risk, anxiety, frustration, delight, amazement and, at times, gut wrenching terror.

Mastery comes when the fundamentals are so thoroughly imbedded in our brains that we use them unconsciously, and continue to practice them rigorously. Fortunately, according to K. Anders Erickson, mastery only requires 10,000 hours of focused rehearsal; rehearsal so rigorous that it takes us outside of our comfort zone. That amounts to five work years of doing nothing else. For most of us it will take longer. So by all means, practice. These skills represent the fundamentals, the science of business development. What about the art?

An artist does what she does because she believes she has no choice. He has for whatever reason, and through whatever circumstance, visited and experienced the deep and resonant music, or poetry, or drawings, or photographs, or stories, or landscapes, or structures within himself. And having visited that place, true artists know they must go back again and again, and then return to share their discoveries with the rest of the world.

This is the connection between the professional’s work and a life well lived. Mastery, then art. We begin the process by mastering the requisite skills. Then as artists we go into that essential and authentic place within us to capture a small sample of the unique gifts and abilities that make us who we are, and we share them with our fellow humans. We call them clients, or prospects, or selection committees, or project managers. But just like us, in their hearts, they long for the kind of authentic interaction and exchange of wisdom that can only happen when we do the hard work and take the risk to learn who we truly are, and then offer that wisdom to others.

Why is selling a professional service so challenging? Because it forces us to accept and then confront the assumptions, half truths, even lies we have come to believe about ourselves and about the people we must interact with. These self delusions trap us in a kind of shell that initially protects us from the challenges (and pain) of simply growing up. But as adults that outer crust becomes a prison of our own making.  A crab leaves the protection of its shell so that it can grow. And in doing so, runs the risk of ending up as the delectable center of a spider roll. There is nothing safe about leaving our shells, our egos, and sharing our essential and authentic selves with another person. At some point in the past you and I have been taken advantage of or embarrassed. We have all experienced that crushing feeling of rejection or even worse, indifference. Sometimes the crab becomes dinner.  But the crab also knows it has no choice, so it leaves its shell anyway.

The blessing and curse of humanity is that we have a choice. We can venture from our shells and offer up our abilities to those who are desperately need “our art”. Or we can play it safe and gradually suffocate in the familiar prison cell of our fear and ego.  From my perspective the ultimate choice is to invest those 10,000 hours and take the risk. Do the hard work of finding out the deep truth about yourself and then share it. What you have to offer is truly needed.

After that, selling professional services is like child’s play.

Addendum: March 26, 2013

This last instruction was recently challenged by a successful professional whose dress, hairstyle and manner are so different from the rest of his cohort, he stands out from the competition and pulls it off brilliantly. I believe he is the exception that proves the rule only because he has so carefully mastered tasks 1-5. For the rest of us , I maintain that when your manner and dress are so familiar to your future client they think of you as a member of their tribe, you can spend your time making your point with fewer distractions. During a recent conversation with another architect, the subject of cigars came up. Fully expecting him to tell me he didn’t smoke them for reasons of heath (and fresh breath), he instead admitted that an uncle he despised smoked cigars and every time he smelled one the memories of that horrid relative came flooding back. You can take the chance that your future client has a subscription to Cigar Aficionado, but odds are either your foul breath of his memories of Wicked Uncle Ernie are what will fill his head while you are trying to make a business connection.