Its been a little more than a year now, since I moved from a company where I sold products, to a company where I sell consulting and other services. Its been an interesting learning experience, and the differences between the two industries are quite a challenge for a salesperson. In some ways though, they are also similar. I thought it would be worthwhile putting down my thoughts on these, for anyone who is making the transition from a manufacturing to a service industry.
Product selling in many industries, has an established pattern of sales, steady expectations of offtakes, based on which one makes forecasts, passes it on to the production and so on. Sure, there are ups and downs, but some of these can be predicted. (I am ofcourse talking about established markets here, not emerging technologies or products). Consulting, advertising or other such services, on the other hand, it is difficult to make such predictions, for the simple reason, that I can’t sell consulting. I can’t go up to a client and convince them why they need to do a project with us. I can only present to them what we do, how good we are at it, and why those skills could be of use to them. Then, when they do have a project, I hope they come back to me.
Product selling often involves a distinction between selling and execution. I sell, I pass on the orders, someone else does the back-end integration, someone else runs the factory, someone else does the logistics to get the raw materials in from China ! Services, on the other hand, the gap between selling and execution is very close, to the point of nil. Even if there is a distinct project execution team involved, the client liaison manager always has his or her head on the block. The stakes of doing the project well then, are really high. Also – its very difficult to sell a knowledge based service without being knowledgeable yourself! To some extent, ofcourse, this applies to products too, especially industrial products, where application methods can make a big difference. But in many consumer product industries, it is possible to sell without getting into the nitty-gritties of the product itself.
Conversely, this closeness between selling, execution and delivery also often means smaller teams and greater ownership. Atleast in my case, I’ve found that its far more difficult for anyone in a service industry, to pass the buck. There is no production delays to blame, no shipping goof-ups, no third party vendors. Ofcourse diehard blamaholics will find someone to blame, but I am talking of ordinary people here ! Seriously, for me, personally, working in smaller teams closely focused on client needs has proved to be an enriching experience. There is less bureaucracy, less intra-company dealing (or politics), since each time works on its own deliverables. The basic assumption is ofcourse that within this sphere, the team is managed well. (And that is an imperative, regardless of manufacturing or a service industry).
Lastly, what do I love about consulting? The sheer novelty of each project and the change in requirements every time. While there are processes, and processes do help, every project requirement is different. Even given the same requirement, two clients seldom are the same in their internal company cultures or capabilities. These often make all the difference to how one approaches a project. The learning experience is therefore fantastic, given the opportunities to interact with new people and problems all the time. So, if you are a person like me, who craves change, then definitely consulting (any kind, though I specifically am into industrial products), or project based work is probably a good industry to be looking at now.