What B2C retail can teach consultants about sales

Consumer behaviour has changed a great deal over the past few years. As shoppers have embraced the digital revolution—a revolution which has been accelerated significantly by the pandemic—brands and retailers have come under increased pressure to deliver compelling and cohesive customer experiences across both physical and digital channels. Consultants, of all people, should understand this. Most large firms now have some kind of digital customer experience offering, and if you look through the thought leadership output of any given firm, you’ll find no shortage of content designed to prove to clients that the firm in question has a thorough understanding of what the customer of tomorrow will look like and how they’ll want to shop.

So it’s somewhat surprising that so few firms appear to have applied that knowledge to their own sales practices. Buyers of consulting services are, after all, no different from the rest of us—they too have become increasingly comfortable researching and then buying goods and services online. And yet consultants’ sales practices seem to have gone largely unchanged since the early days of the internet. Even though firms’ websites are a lot more polished than they used to be, the overwhelming majority of sales activities still take place through direct interactions between clients and consultants.

In fairness to consultants, this isn’t a problem specific to their industry. In truth, the whole B2B economy has been fairly slow to adapt to the arrival of the digital consumer. That’s understandable; selling services to multinational corporations is a very different proposition from selling TVs or groceries. But for all those differences, consulting firms still stand to benefit from taking a few lessons from the playbook developed by B2C retailers.

The modern retailer, for example, puts a huge amount of effort into generating and analysing customer data. At this point, Amazon probably knows my shopping preferences better than I do—and they use that knowledge to make sure they’re putting exactly the right products in front of me at exactly the right moment in time. Consulting firms ought to apply this same philosophy to their own customer relationships. They should be asking themselves: How well do we really know our clients? When a potential buyer first reaches out to us, how much of an understanding do we have about the journey they’ve taken to get to that point? Do we know how much time they’ve spent on our website? Do we know what they’ve searched for on there? What pieces of thought leadership they clicked on? Which ones they actually read?

The reality is that clients in today’s consulting market are relying more heavily than ever on digital channels to find the information they need during the early stages of the buying cycle. Moreover, their experience as B2C consumers has shaped their perceptions of just how easy it should be to buy goods and services online. The onus, therefore, is on firms to start providing those clients with great customer experiences that seamlessly bridge the gap between the personal and the digital. Turning that ambition into a reality will be a lot easier if firms are willing to embark on the same process of transformation that many leading B2C brands have already been through. Specifically, consulting firms will need to build much closer links between their marketing functions, their sales teams, and their IT departments, and they will need to ensure that customer data sits right at the heart of all those business units.

We’re not trying to suggest here that digital sales channels will ever fully eliminate the need for human interactions between consultants and clients. It’s hard to imagine a true Amazon-style marketplace for consulting projects—or at least, for the types of large, complex projects where firms make most of their money. But there are clearly some opportunities for firms to take what’s worked in the B2C space and apply that to their own sales practices.

Doing so can not only allow firms to maximise the effectiveness of their sales teams; it can also help build credibility with prospects. Ask yourself, if you were a client looking for support in the digital customer experience space, which consulting firm would you be more likely to buy from? The one that had clearly invested time into understanding your needs as a digital consumer, or the one that hadn’t? At a certain point, clients are going to start noticing if firms don’t start taking their own medicine—and that alone should be reason enough to do it.