Sales representative or adviser?

Sell your services and products through strategic advice

by Rasmus Bjørn Aagaard, Partner and head of account management at Twentyfour

There is a greater growth in corporate digitalization than ever before, companies are investing massively in technologies such as big data, artificial intelligence, and automation to increase competitiveness and efficient productivity – and there is a huge demand for intelligent advisers, independent collaborative partners, and suppliers for digital solutions. 

There is a huge demand for people like us, people working as digital advisers, sales representatives, suppliers on the market. It’s the same position that comes with many names. I have invited my amazing partner, the guy who I often collaborate with, who is a process consultant, former project manager, and digital producer, and who is also part of the digital agency world, Kaspar Hansen, to a discussion on topics such as sales, ethics, customer relations, advisory power, and impartiality.

Today, you are getting smarter.

You will understand our view on the area between an adviser and a sales representative. We will navigate between independent advice and sales interest, with examples and insights.

With our help, you will be better equipped next time you talk to a sales representative or adviser.

You will understand the differences between being an adviser and being a sales representative. We will guide you towards being a strategic adviser in order to build a long-term relationship with your customers, and thereby, increase your sales.

Which role would you choose before meeting a customer: adviser, consultant or sales representative? 

Kaspar: “It depends on which stage I meet the customer throughout the customer relationship process. When I am pitching my business to my customer, I may have a salesy approach, but, most often, I see the client daily when working on a project together, and, in this case, I am seen by my customer as a consultant, often in an advisory role.

That process often leads to ‘sales’, as we become wiser than we were when we started it – and depending on the project type, it leads to a change of direction or adjustment of time spent, either increase or decrease it, but for me, that is not the goal itself. The goal for me, personally, as a project manager, when doing a project with a customer, is to ensure that the ‘setup’ runs as agreed, that we deliver it on time, that we deliver what we agreed on, and that we deliver to the agreed budget. If my role would be a digital producer, then I would work either as a substitute for a product owner with the customer or in close collaboration with the customer’s product owner.”

“This will probably make me a bit unpopular but I think that the good adviser is 100% impartial, therefore, it is rare to find a good adviser in an agency. A good adviser is only an adviser, otherwise, if they are not impartial, there will a conflict of interest.”

And which role do I choose? Sales representative, account manager, adviser – these are just different ways of expressing the same thing.

At Twentyfour, we are sales representatives. And our customers know this. We are there to, hopefully, sell them a good solution. BUT – what we work with are complex digital solutions and not just off-the-shelf products, therefore, we need to be able to advise on the tasks and to produce the business persona. It is crucial that we truly understand the needs and pains of our customers. What do the customers want to achieve with their digital solution? What business goals do they have to meet?

We always have to be sharp, by asking the right and relevant questions, so we get to know the customers better. If we do not understand the customers, their goals, and their strategy, then we can not advise them, and thus, can not provide a good product and solution in the end.

Could you give an example of your business advice in a sales situation?

Kaspar: “The business advice in a pitch is minimal, it’s more our ‘take’ on what we believe is the right path for the customers concerning the direction their company had before we started the pitch. But if we can see that there is something fundamentally off about time / scope / budget, then it will be reflected and justified in our pitch and project plan.

A classic modern customer is the customer who wants to run an agile project but has not allocated the extra resources internally in their business for succeeding in running an agile project. It could be lack of time / resources for an initial clarification process, which is typically a series of workshops / meetings. This is all it takes for the project to start with the greatest possible chance of being a success.

In fact, it is the counseling conversations that I have the most of with our potential customers, even though my job is to sell our solutions. An example could be a customer who comes to Twentyfour and needs a new website built. Here, we need to understand why the customer needs that website – what purpose does the website have, why that specific purpose, what is the context the website should be built in – and who is the target group? How can we deliver the best result for the customer?

These are all questions that do not necessarily have much to do with technology, as we are clearly talking more about business with the customer in the initial dialogue – what does the customer want to achieve with this. Once we have that in place, we can start mapping up the business needs with digital initiatives. Eg. a website with different page types, functionalities, forms, etc. 

What is most important: Good ethics, impartiality, or getting the sale?

Kaspar: “That is a good question. Impartiality is not what you buy when you contact an agency, but it’s an intermediary who is not financially interested in the outcome and is paid to be impartial. I have never been in an agency job where my personal success depended on ‘a sale’, so I have no relationship with that. Good ethics is probably just something that has to be present. What weighs heaviest for me is the value of what we create – if it is top-notch, everyone wins. ” 

My opinion is the same like Kaspar’s, a good adviser should always first and foremost have the customer’s interests in mind, even if it means that you are not the right supplier for them, and, end up not being able to sell anything to that customer. So, while it may not directly translate into impartiality, I would definitely say that good ethics and good advice weigh the heaviest, and it often comes back ten times over, because the customer knows he can trust your advice and that you don’ think about your own benefits.

Do not fear the “stupid and obvious questions” – you are the “stupid one” if you do not dare to be honest about something you have not fully understood, but pretend that you did understand. It is often the unspoken that creates the most hassle later on. ”

Although I work in the agency world and my area of ​​responsibility as an Account Manager is to sell solutions, this is only relevant in my world and only if we can provide a solution that can support the client’s business goals or solve a specific challenge. If not, then here’s a new product just for you! And even if our paths diverge without a purchase, perhaps we can reference another supplier in the market, and then the customer will hopefully remember the good advice and pass this on to his/her network. 

How would you describe your relationship with your customers?

Kaspar: “If it’s possible, I always try to be close to the customer physically, either by working at their location or by making room for them here with us, if not all week, then at least several days a week. For me, it is important to be available, and the outcome it provides is super important for the relationship going forward. Having lunch together once in a while can’t be compared to a zoom meeting. ” 

Both as a partner in Twentyfour, but also personally, my primary focus is to always create good relationships. We build solutions for people. My most important task, as I see it, regarding all customer relationships is to listen to them, ask lots of questions and show interest in everything they deal with. It is vital to establish a trusting relationship.

Also, this is where we can really get in depth with the customer’s challenges and pains and thus become sharper at delivering a workable solution.

What do you think makes a counselor particularly good?

Kaspar: “Here I will probably be a little unpopular, but I think that the good adviser is 100% impartial, and therefore it is rare to find a good adviser in an agency. A good adviser is only an adviser, otherwise, if they are not impartial, there will be a conflict of interest.

If you, as a customer, are aware of the conflict of interest, then that is something else. And then, of course, the counselor must have a range of skills that qualifies them to advise others.”

There is a list of personal qualities one must master to be a good counselor. First and foremost, you must be able to listen to the customers’ needs and put yourself in their place. It’s also important to be clear and transparent in your communication so that the customers know when they can count on you, which matters you can advise them on, and what is not within your area of ​​competence.

It is not dangerous to be honest in your work. On the contrary, it creates trust and credibility around the fact that you know what you can do. But also, what other suppliers and solutions can do. Not only for the sake of optimizing your own sales opportunities, but also to be able to actually advise the customer on the perfect solution, even if only a few parts, or the entire project, is handled by another supplier.

And here we can discuss Kaspar’s statement by emphasizing that a good adviser is only an adviser and not a supplier. As long as there is transparency in where we come from (agency) and how we advise the customer (concrete solution) combined with an in-depth insight into other solutions on the market, and openness about solutions that are beyond our competencies, then I would say that it is good advice. This is of course a difficult balance since you want to end up selling something to the customer.

But, if your advice and what you want to sell do not create value for the customers, then I would definitely recommend wearing the adviser role, not the seller role, as it always ends up turning around. A happy and satisfied customer who has received good advice comes back and buys more – a dissatisfied customer who has had a bad experience does not. 

How often have you experienced sending a customer in the arms of another supplier? 

Kaspar:It happens from time to time, but the agencies I have worked at have been branded strongly within a specific area, so customers know what they are about. But it has happened before that our customers have asked for help in choosing an ‘app agency’ or asking about the best companies in a given category, and they have received my recommendation on another supplier on the market. ” 

An example of a similar customer situation in Twentyfour, where we bring other suppliers, partners, and even competitors into certain tasks, is when we move into, for example, the content and communicative expression of the digital solutions we build. When we have finished building a digital solution, some delicious content must be poured into the solution; beautiful and well-placed pictures, texts, and videos that explain the message our customer wants to convey.

At Twentyfour, we are not (yet, at least) experts in delivering content to our customers, just like we don’t do marketing for our customers executed in e.g. Google Ads, Facebook ads, and SEO optimization. There are other agencies and companies that are specialists in these fields and we are happy to send them assignments to make the customers’ solutions we deliver completely perfect. An empty website without content is worth nothing, and it is very important to us that what we build comes to life – so it is a synergy that must be united, and we often do this by referring to partners that we recommend our customers to contact.

We are very keen on having some strong partners in other agencies, freelancers, and specialists, as we know that we can not be equally skilled at everything. No one can. 

Five tips on how to act as a strategic adviser if you are a sales representative:

  1. With a strong and validated experience base, you stand strategically strong when you bring your professionalism and knowledge into the relationship with the customer – you know more than the customer about given products, services, and other solutions on the market. Always stay up to date on market developments, this is one of your strongest cards. 
  1. Help the customer create a strategic foundation for their company’s growth by spending plenty of time on the clarification phase by asking all the relevant questions, including the company’s requirements and business goals, the company’s mission, vision and KPIs, the company’s target groups, and competitors landscape.
  1. Do not fear the “stupid and obvious questions” – you are the “stupid one”, if you do not dare to be honest about something you have not fully understood, but pretend that you did understand. It is often the unspoken that creates the most hassle further ahead.
  1. Dare to present the customers with other solutions than they demand, as it’s not necessarily the solution that the customer thinks is the right one that meets their needs and goals.
  1. Spend time on creating a relationship with your customer, it’s important for mutual trust and long-term cooperation. Often the customer pays for the consultation and advice as much as the solution itself, and that part of the sale is born out of trust and credibility, just as the reference from the customer is.

The best sale is when a customer is referred with a positive reference, thereby laying the groundwork for mutual trust, so remember that good advice is never bad advice, not even when you send your customer in a different direction in case you are not right for the task.

ABOUT KASPAR HANSEN digital consultant, project manager, and project methodology nerd with a focus on human interaction in both customer and team relationships.

Kaspar Hansen is the founder of Excelerate Careers, which connects students with companies, through collaboration on their main thesis or just regular thesis.

Excelerate is for bachelor’s and master’s students who want to reach out to many more companies. At the same time, Excelerate can help companies find academic talents that fit into a future job position in that specific company.