Sales, without question, is the most difficult and often undesirable part of an IT consultant’s job. And selling one’s own skill set and experience is even tougher—and more important—in a tight economy amid heightened competition. Yet the ability to contact new and potential clients is what your business is built on.

We spoke with several experts who suggested ways that IT consultants could improve their sales skills. Here are five tips on how to sell your services to a prospective client from planning to closing.

Determine your sales cycle
Before you plow through your list of contacts and begin cold-calling for appointments, outline what the sales cycle—the amount of time and number of smaller sales needed to close a deal—is for your product or service, suggests Anthony Ruiz, a 25-year veteran IT sales consultant who lives in Los Angeles. He contends that any deal is composed of a minimum of three smaller sales:

  • Setting up an initial presentation in which you have a chance to learn what a potential client needs and explain how you can work with the client
  • Making your proposal during a second meeting
  • Asking for the actual sale after you’ve presented your proposal

You should outline the minimum number of sales it will take to close a deal and estimate the total amount of time for each potential client. This sales “blueprint” will guide your effort and help you plan for the short and long sales cycles. The length of the sales cycle can also depend on the cost of the project: The higher the price tag, the longer the sales cycle.

But what if your sales cycle is so lengthy that it affects your cash flow? To minimize the impact of a long-running sales cycle on her earnings, but still allow for pitches to Fortune 500 companies, New York-based design and Web consultant Sharon Troth of net images, inc., works on a variety of smaller projects—up to 65—to keep her consulting practice afloat. The tactic recently allowed her to land a project with a major entertainment firm, which took more than a month to complete. She also had smaller projects that she worked on when she wasn’t handling the entertainment firm’s contract.

“I have six hours a day occupied in updating smaller client sites,” Troth said. “If I don’t win the big one, it won’t kill me.”

Focus on client needs
Once you make it to the initial presentation, the biggest mistake is never letting the prospective client explain what it needs, Ruiz said. “The green salespeople often don’t listen to a client,” he said. “Your initial presentation is really to understand more about what their current systems are, why they are unhappy, and what they are looking for.”

For any initial client meeting, Troth goes in with a multipage list of questions she is focused on answering. While she won’t cover every question, it helps to guide the conversation and assure that what the prospective client is looking for is a priority. For Web site development, for example, questions include:

  • If there is a current site, what does the client want to change?
  • What is the goal of the site?
  • What type of content will the client publish?
  • How will the site and the content be managed and updated?
  • What interactive features will be included?
  • Does it need an e-commerce component? Who will manage that?
  • Where will it be hosted?

Before she meets with potential clients, Sacramento-based database and mainframe programmer-turned-IT marketing consultant Susan Wheeler prepares by spending at least eight hours researching the client’s organization, its industry, the technology that’s relevant to it, and the possible solution she may propose. “If you can come in and, not only have you looked at their Web site, but at their competitor’s Web site, or at companies with similar problems, and how they have made the transition, or improved their business or process, you are ahead of the game,” Wheeler said.

Once you understand a client’s goals, you can explain why your skills and services would be beneficial. To help emphasize her qualifications, Troth brings a six-page sales kit in a slick folder that includes her sample work, client testimonials, and outlines of the development process, which she leaves with a potential client, along with links to her online portfolio of additional work and samples.

Sell in person
For the initial presentation or the proposal introduction, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting. In most cases, such meetings allow both parties to try to begin a long-term relationship, which is nearly impossible to accomplish using phones and e-mail.

Lori Ann Clark, whose Minnesota-based J4 Web Services firm designs Web sites and Web applications, said she recently lost a potential client because she did not deliver the project proposal in person. The client was a close contact of one of Clark’s employees, and the firm was in talks to do a custom-built Web solution. Clark was confident that the deal would go through. After the proposal was sent, the prospective client called back to say the company was going with a packaged solution by Network Solutions or VeriSign instead.

“You can’t make any assumptions,” Clark said. “If you don’t go through the proper steps, even if you think it is a slam dunk, it can come back and bite you.”

She has since changed her policy on proposal presentations.

Follow up
While the initial work you do on behalf of your client will help get you in the client’s office, it’s the ongoing contact with a prospective client that can make a difference. Follow-ups over the phone and via e-mail should confirm a future meeting and what will be discussed; thank a person following an appointment, and recap whatever timelines and decisions were made.

For Clark, one tactic that she believes is effective is to contact a prospective client a minimum of five times, which includes meetings and follow-up calls or e-mails, so that the company and the contact person become accustomed to speaking with her. That way, the client can get a sense of how available you would be during a project and how it would be to regularly communicate with you.

Weekly phone calls or e-mails to check the status of the decision on a submitted proposal are generally acceptable, unless the company has already given you a specific timeline. Troth has checked every two weeks with her entertainment client, at its request, which helped her learn what roadblocks—including management vacations—were in the way of the company hiring her for the job.

When following up, Troth also likes to anchor her conversations with any personal information she has gleaned from the prospective client. On a recent proposal for which she was awaiting a reply, Troth routinely called to check on the status, and also inquired about the client’s home remodeling project, which, she contends, showed that she was interested, listening, and genuinely curious.

“I hate to call it a sales tactic, but I try to remember personal details,” she said. “You definitely want to have a positive, congenial relationship with a contact.”

Ask for the sale
The final mistake that nonsalespeople make, according to Ruiz, is not asking for the sale. Though it may seem obvious to the salesperson what the next step is, asking a client, “Is this something the company is interested in doing?” is not what most people are wired to do.

Ruiz points to a recent example in which he was working with a junior salesperson who told him that after meeting several times with a prospective customer who appeared interested in a software product, he could not get the company to close the deal.

“So I asked him, ‘Did you ask for the sale?’” Ruiz said. The salesperson was perplexed. He assumed that showing the customer the demo, which the customer praised, was all that was needed. Ruiz then took the salesperson back to the customer, contract in hand and, after the demo, asked the company representative if he would like to purchase the application: “Then I said, ‘Great,’ and handed him the contract, which he signed.”