I’m joined today by the CEO of Signorelli Consulting Group, Tony Signorelli. His consulting group focuses mainly on sales enablement and marketing, and they have been in the business since 1995. In this episode, we talk about the path that led Tony to sales and consulting, and he shares insights into creating a successful consulting firm within the corporate world. We examine the importance of taking action when securing new clients, and he shares the mistakes he’s made — that you can learn from — and the incredible importance of using your network to your advantage. Tony shares several of his secrets of success, including the ways that you can generate more revenue without adding more work hours to your day. You won’t want to miss the stories he tells in this episode of The Consulting Success Podcast.
Increase your billable rates by becoming an educated expert, working your network, and avoiding one major (but common) mistake.
I’m very excited to have Tony Signorelli joining us. Tony, welcome.
Thank you very much, Michael.
For those that aren’t familiar with you and your work, explain what you do.
Signorelli Consulting Group is a consulting organization mainly focused on sales enablement and marketing. We help our clients bring new-to-the-world products to market or existing products to new markets. We’ve been doing this since 1995. Got into it through training, sales training work primarily, and then got into all of the processed stuff, customer engagement, buying process research, understanding all of that and then aligning the corporate systems or the sales and marketing systems to what those customer needs are. That’s been our primary business ever since.
Where were you always interested in sales? Take me back to before ’95. Were you in a sales role as youngster? Were you selling in some capacity as well or how did you get into sales?
The sales part was only of interest to me as an entrepreneur who has had many different businesses, some along the lines of doing my consulting business. At the time, the way I got into it was as I started off as a technical writer. I was doing technical writing for a couple of companies. They asked me to get involved, and Medtronic was the main one at the time. They asked me to get involved with writing their sales training. I said, “I think I can do that.” It was a lot of technical sales training about their products. One thing led to another and we were working on every product launch that Medtronic had for the next several years in their cardiac area, training their sales organization, writing for all kinds of different instruments and things.
That was how we got into it. When we wrote good training materials, we realized that the only way you can do that, it’s not about the information, it’s about the application of the information in a sales situation. The other people in my company, we all became students of the sales process because depending on the company, they would be using different processes, and therefore had different actual behavioral outcomes that had to be stimulated from the training experiences and training materials that we were putting together. We’re trying to enable specific behavior, which is what sales enablement really is. It’s trying to enable salespeople to be able to do certain things so that they can engage customers the way they ought to be engaged.The key for me was being creative and being curious. Click To Tweet
Before that, do you come from a corporate background or always doing businesses and then decide to start a consulting business?
My background is unique in that way. I have never been an employee of anybody. I did some freelance writing. Then I had an out-of-print used bookstore, then I had an organic farm. I was a poetry editor of a magazine, and then I started the technical writing. All of that led up. It was not one of these linear things where I had all this background. The key for me was being creative and being curious. Those two things led me down the path of being, “That’s an interesting problem that they have. This is a new one, and this is a new one.” That’s how I bet it, but I did not start my business from having extensive background in one or two particular areas, and therefore then becoming a consultant.
I started doing that from the content level up. Years ago, they had the old value pyramids on Miller Heiman and some of the other sales methodologies had written these things about the value hierarchy. We were very aware as we developed our business of trying to get up that hierarchy. We learned as we went, rather than bringing this extensive experience into it to start. We learned as we went, got better and better in what we did. That’s what led to our status of where we are now.
At what point did you know that you found your calling? If we call it even from a professional perspective, to know that you’re running a bookstore, an organic farm, and then you got in technical writing, and then sales training and workshops. Was there something specific that happened or a time where you said to yourself, “I want to go all-in into building the sales and marketing focused consultancy.”What made you not go onto the next thing right after that?
The biggest thing was that the questions that we were facing were increasingly interesting. For a curious mind like me, the reason why I would go on to something else because I get bored. I always had that curious thing going on. As we grew in our business and got bigger and different problems and different challenges, it stayed interesting and it still does. It’s turning into more marketing automation stuff because that’s where the new front edge is. I do remember a moment where we were with a client. We had been asked to come in and build some sales training for them for a world training thing that we’re bringing in about 200or 300 reps in from around the world in a software company around Silicon Valley.
We were trying to sort out all this stuff and doing some process mapping on the sales process with them in the room. But we were doing it as a way of trying to figure out, “What is the project?” We were in the pre-sale phase of this thing. We got done with it about half a day of doing this. I walked out with the two guys that were with me on the meeting and I’m like, “What the hell? We should be getting paid for this. We’re fixing their problem and we’re not even engaged yet. This is part of what we should be getting paid for.” That was when we took the leap from being excellent training developers into, “We’re really changing sales processes and helping people understand how they need to do it based on where their customer needs are.” That started us down the line. At various points, there’s been new opportunities that we were asked to do, and we took on those challenges, added customer research, added all these different things. It became inputs to that process.You have to keep educating yourself so that you can ask better and higher-level questions. Click To Tweet
You mentioned that you were looking at this value pyramid and realized quite quickly that you needed to go higher up, work your way towards the top. You kept focusing on getting better and better. Talk a little bit about what did that look like in terms of specific decisions that you made or specific steps that you took to get better and better?
One of the things that we did was educating ourselves, reading extensively all the new things that are coming out whether it was online or the new books, and learning what are all these new sales methodologies that are coming out. Where are they different and where are they not different? What’s happening with customers? It all follows this sense of curiosity of what is happening, but you have to keep educating yourself so that you can ask better and higher-level questions. It wasn’t only in the sales methodology, it was also like reading the things around building value in businesses and good to great. All of the books and the ideas that are out there in the environment, being with those and then beginning to apply them in the situations we were in, and finding out that one of the best things you can do as a consultant is be able to bring the new ideas into your client’s. Whether they’re yours or somebody else’s, if you can do that, you win a lot of loyalty through that process. People admire that.
They’re looking for those ideas because people buy consultancy only for a few different reasons. One is that they need an extra pair of hands, they’d need some capacity that somebody come in and do something. One is expertise. If you have established expertise, that’s great. Then being able to come in and sit down and think them through a process is another one. The third one is try to get outside a third party to be able to assess or validate what they already think is true, so that they can use it internally in the company. Those are usually the three reasons why people buy outside consulting. If you have the expertise, you are better at the third party one as well. And so, that gives you two out of the three and that’s really kind of where you want to be to move up the ladder. If you’re just a pair of hands, you tend to be moving down the ladder in terms of that value chain.
Did you see an impact on your business when you made that decision and that commitment to educate yourself more and dive into too deep study of your area? Was there a direct correlation in terms of impact on your business or did it impact you personally in terms of fulfillment? What kind of impact did you see from that?
The biggest thing that happened was that we were able to generate a lot more revenue without adding hours, so rates went up. The value proposition went up. Initially, we were writers, and writers are a dime a dozen, $40, $50 an hour. When you come in and you say, “I can fix your sales process,” all of a sudden we’re billing it a couple hundred dollars an hour. That’s a dramatic shift and the challenge was to get more and more people up that ladder. It’s like all the other big consulting companies do, they get those consulting rates even though they’ve got somebody who’s a first-year person, and so you get a big a margin in there.
That’s what empowers the business is doing it in that way. If you had a staff, you leverage them and you are able to do that. Even on an individual level, and I have both, during this period. Essentially, because we quit charging on a rate basis, we started charging on a project basis, but the amount of money that you can charge for these things changes dramatically because the value is changing because you’re delivering a very different value proposition to the customer. I saw that. As I implemented the stuff and moved into the right places and found the right people to sell it to, our business blew up. In a few years, my revenues went up four or five times.The questions you ask will tell way more than the stories you tell or the claims you make. Click To Tweet
There’s a lot of people out there who could benefit from focusing more on doing deeper studying in the area that they want to be experts at. One thing that you said was about the ability to ask better questions. The status quo for a lot of consultants is this idea that they need to go in and demonstrate their expertise by talking and presenting and doing a lot. Being able to ask better questions is what creates a lot more value and a lot more clarity, both for the consultant and the client.
Credibility. The questions you ask will tell way more than the stories you tell or the claims you make. There’s no question. That’s what people are judging you on. You ask a good savvy question and they go, “I never thought of that.” You make a claim and they go, “Yeah, right.” That’s the difference.
Your clients have included Medtronic, Thomson Rotors, Grackle Merrill Corporation, and many others. What approach do you take early on to win corporate business?
Winning corporate business is a challenge. There’s a number of different things you can do. You need to make the connections. For me, the very first thing that I did when I started my business was I wrote a letter saying, “This is what I’m doing.” I sent it to literally everybody I knew.
What do you mean? Family, friends or just in the business world?
Everyone. Family, friends, business world.
How many do you think that went out to?
Not that many. Maybe a hundred.
Because we’re not talking email. We’re talking of physical letter in the mail.
This was physical letter in the mail at the time. I sent that letter out to everybody on my list, including family and friends. One of the people who received that letter was my dad. My dad had a heart attack and he had gotten a pacemaker put in by Medtronic. It turned out that he had struck up a bit of a friendship with the guy next door to him, who was an engineer at Medtronic. One day after receiving this letter, he and his next-door neighbor, Toby, we’re standing out there out on the driveway talking. My dad said, “I got this letter from Tony and he’s doing this writing stuff. Let me show you this.” He went and got it, and Toby said, “I could probably help him. I know somebody who would be interested in talking to Tony.” That’s how I got my first project at Medtronic. Three years later, I was doing $2.5 million with them
That is such a great example of the power of taking action. You got to let it out there. Someone might sit thinking about some complex strategy, but you got it out there. You got visible on the radar. People who may or may not have been ideal clients, but it was more than not doing anything. Okay that’s your first story, what’s the second one?
This was a person. For a while I’d run a couple of coaching sessions with some entrepreneur friends of mine to help them learn how to do this. I told them the same thing, “Write a letter and send it to everybody you know.” There’s this one girl who lives in California. She came back, and she said, “I sent out the letters to everybody.” I said, “Did you send it to everybody?”“I cherry picked the list and got the ones who I thought, ”I said, “No, you need to send it to everybody.”She’s like, “I didn’t send it to my kids’ preschool teacher.” I said, “Why not? You need to send it to everyone on your list.” She did that, finally sent it out.
The next week, when we were on a phone call together, she said, “I got to tell you, you were right.” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “I sent that letter to the preschool teacher thinking that was absolutely the dumbest thing I’ve ever done.” I said, “Why was I right?” She said, “When I went to pick up my kid, the teacher came to me and she said, “I got your letter. By the way, you know my husband, he’s the Vice President of whatever at like Hewlett Packard.” She’s like, “I think you and he will need to talk.” ”That’s the kind of connections that come through these things. You never know who’s who. If you write the letter correctly, if you can be specific about what you’re looking for, then it gives people a chance to respond and a chance to help you. If you don’t tell them, they can’t help you.
What do you believe then? You said you were doing this when you first started your business. That sounds like how you got in there. You won this first piece of business with Medtronic, they’re your first client. How do you get the next client and the client after that? Was it word of mouth? Was it some other marketing approach that you took?
There’s two biggest things that happened for us. One is, the letters I sent led to a couple of other things as well, and I had had one contract where I knew some people at another company. We got that. Most of them came from that initial set of letters and other outreaches and networking to the people I already knew. It was not a big circle. I was pretty young at the time. Then, this is key to strategy for small consultants who are working in the big company space. There’s two big things that will grow your business. Number one is being able to leverage your success in one company to getting to other places in that same company, other business. There’s three or four ways to do that, and we use strategies to do that, so we could get from business unit to business unit, so that we could get repeat business in the unit we were in, and so that we could go up the chain. Those are the three things that you want to do. That’s number one.If you can be specific about what you're looking for, then it gives people a chance to respond and a chance to help you. Click To Tweet
The second thing for bringing in the new clients for us, was primarily what I call the diaspora. All of these big companies eventually lay people off or people quit and go somewhere else. You maintain those relationships and all of a sudden, you end up in another place and another big company because these folks tend to work in that area. They go to another big company, then they’re leading sales, or they’re leading sales training, or they’re doing something or marketing or something that you know something about. They know you, and you maintain those relationships. They walk you in, and now you grow a whole new set of relationships with people you didn’t previously know.
For me, that’s the primary organic method of doing this. What I’ve found is that if you need to generate new leads, there’s two ways to do that. One is the right trade shows and conferences, but mainly trade shows in your industry. The other one has been the rise of LinkedIn. When I started, I would have killed to be able to get the kinds of lists that I can get on LinkedIn of prospects, because you can do a search to find all the product managers and product leaders at Medtronic and get a list right then and there. We couldn’t do that in 1995. That was a $2,000 or $3,000 or $4,000 investment to get that list, and most of the time it was no good.
Talk about when you could get that list through LinkedIn. It’s not hard to find those kinds of people. When you have it, what do you do with it? How do you connect? How do you reach out to those people to start a conversation?
There’s a lot of different things. One of the things that we’ve done is we’ve been creating groups that we bring people into. The idea in what I have found is that the best way to do that has been locally, not trying to go big national, but to say, “We want to start a local group that’s focused in this area and we’d like to invite you to participate. It’s for people in our profession. We’re not looking to have a group of consultants.” That is one of the things you have to do. If you are a consultant and you want to start a group on LinkedIn, one of the problems is you go to these groups and they have a 115,000 people in them, but 98% them are other consultants, but they’re not buying your stuff.
You want to keep it to the people who are actual prospects and own and do by invitation only. Invite the people who are there and get them into that group. Then you can begin to engage them. Because they’re local, the best way to gauge them is to get them into a room somewhere. Whether it’s a professional networking thing, you’re going to bring in a speaker that’s going to be of value to them. For me, that that was the best way to start to initiate those relationships.
To get things going, those are some of the approaches that you took back then. How about now? In terms of you building your business, getting new clients? What works best for you at the moment?
That’s still what we’re doing for opening those new relationships with people. We still bring people in for groups and trying to build the relationships. It’s a relationship business, the whole thing about people buy from people who they know, like, and trust. You have to figure out how you’re going to develop that knowledge, that liking, and that trust. This is one of the ways that you begin to do that. What I was going to say is that I know that everybody’s talking about thought leadership, and content marketing. If you’re good at it, and you know what you’re doing, that’s great. Most people that I know in the small consulting area aren’t, because it takes time, it takes investment, it takes costs, and you have to get involved in it. It’s very difficult to do well as a small consultancy.
We spent lots of time at it, effort in the writing, and the content creation. For me, the results never got to where they were hyped up to. What we found instead was the content that we created and the website, which were very important to have, we’re not our lead generators. They were our lead confirmers, so that when we could get people into the room and we’d talk about something, they’d go back and they think, “That was interesting. I wonder what else they have.” They would go back, and they’d say, “I was at this thing and I’ve found it interesting, you should check it out.” They’d give them the website, and then they’d go. It was a different audience in that setting that we were setting all that up for. That’s how we have used our online presence for the most part, is to be targeting people who we know are being referred to us rather than trying to use it as a SEO, and generate traffic, and get all this stuff coming in, and you’ve got this big funnel, and they’re going to all funnel down. In the market that we work in with large companies, I found that’s not how it works.
For you, the go-to approach has been tried and true over the years. It’s identifying the ideal client, and then creating a list of them, inviting them to a group on LinkedIn, but only for local people, only of other peers and people of their caliber, and from there bringing them into an actual physical room where you can all sit around and talk about a relevant topic, which you are facilitating that conversation and people are seeing you as the authority and expert.
It sounds old school, but what I found is in the corporate market, for me, that’s mostly what works. I know that as the millennial market and population has grown, that dynamic is changing. If you’re a young consultant, you’re probably going to be listening to me going, “He’s an old fuddy-duddy or whatever,” and I get that. You’re in a position to be appealing to different kinds of decision makers. The decision makers I’m appealing to are not in that same group. That depends on who your market and who your decision makers really are, and ultimately that’s what it comes down to. We’ve pursued ours. Anybody who’s doing this needs to know who theirs are and pursue them in the right way.
If there’s one or two keys to getting people to come to that room or to join the group and to engage them, what would they be? What ultimately gets people to come to the event? Where do you find it very easy? You just invite them, and they tend to show up, or is there a lot of follow-up required? Is there a certain kind of message that’s critical to be in there?
It depends on where you are in it. The first times, it’s a lot of work. You want to call people, you want to email them, you want to LinkedIn message them. It takes personal individual work to get people there until your meeting has a reputation. If you’re doing it once a month, then people start to word of mouth it, and they start to talk about it, and share with others. Some of the research that we’ve done over the years across almost every industry I’ve ever done with in terms of customer buying processes is that in the old days, when people were trying to figure out, “Who should I consult with? Who should I find out about something from?” What they did was they would consider primarily their bosses. Within the corporate structure, they might go down the hall and ask somebody who they thought, or who they had confidence in as an outside vendor, consultant.
All those applied, but what was been interesting in the last five years of doing research on these things, more and more, that’s not who people are going to. Instead, they’re going to their online communities of peers who are performing the same function in other companies. That’s one of the reasons why I think these groups, when you can find a way to deliver that kind of peer-to-peer value, it becomes interesting. If you’re in the corporate giving world, your boss may not understand what you’re doing, but the person who’s doing corporate giving for X, Y, Z company and A, B, C company and D, E, F company, they understand your challenges. If they are using X, Y, Z software, that’s a validation to you, and you go ask them. Most people have been seeing more and more as we’ve done this research. Where do you get your information when you’re making a decision like this about a software product? I go to my peers. If you can create those peer connections, you’re helping people, and more people are working in that way.
What mistake do you see consultants making when it comes to growing their businesses? Something that you see a lot of people doing that you look at it and go, “I wish they wouldn’t do that,” or, “They shouldn’t do that if they wanted to reach success faster.”
If the way you’re growing the business is to do business with large companies, then there’s a number of mistakes that you see people start to make because they don’t understand the environment they’re in. One of them is typically one of the places people start as they’ll start answering RFPs. They don’t understand that the RFP is already rigged because it’s been written by their competitor. They go in, they started cold calling. Cold calling is hardly even work. They’ll go into a big, large corporate entity and look for decision makers. The reality is there aren’t any decision makers. Decision makers are the people who get fired because they take responsibility for all of the decisions that are being made.Decision makers are the people who get fired because they take responsibility for all of the decisions that are being made. Click To Tweet
Most decisions in a corporate setting are made by a committee, and people at all levels have to be dealt with and satisfied in order to get the decision in your favor most of the time. There’s all kinds of things about selling at the large corporate environment that people don’t understand. You think they’re shut out because there’s a preferred vendor list. You’re not shut out because there’s a preferred vendor list. If you get somebody who’s a champion, they’ll get you on that list, in most cases. There’s all kinds of different subtleties about that environment that people frequently don’t understand, and that makes them limit their success in that particular environment. That’s probably the biggest one is understanding it.
You mentioned about there is no decision maker, that most decisions within large corporates are done by committee. If there aren’t decision makers in your experience or things have been shifting, how do you then know who to approach? In your case, when you are creating that list of people to target in, to invite to these groups or events, who do you target or how do you decide the right person within the organization?
There’s going to be a champion. It’s going to be the person who has the most interest in what your solution is. Who’s going to have the most at stake with it. For us, it was mostly the person who was in charge of a new product launch. That person was measured on whether or not that product succeeds in the market. We could have an interesting good conversation with them about that. If you think that because I’ve got that person on board, and they say, “I’d like to do this with you,” that you’re done selling. That’s where the mistake is.
One time, at one of my clients, I was with the Senior Vice President of Marketing in one of their business units. They had all kinds of problems and he had made three proposals. I made the mistake of thinking he was the decision maker. I said, “This is great. He’s the guy.”He told me to go home and write some proposals, and I did that. I went back in to present the proposals, but I didn’t know was, when I went back in with the proposals, he had also invited one of his underlings to come in, who I had not talked with before about this. I said, “He’s here.” Now I sat down, and I went, “Here are the proposals.” I had gone through it, and as I’m talking with this guy, the senior vice president, he’s giving me all the buying signals. He’s nodding his head, he’s like, “When do you think we’d get this started?” All those right things, and I’m thinking, “This is great. We’re going to get this done.”
Then, as we got close to the end, he turns to the underling and he says, “What do you think?”The underling says, “I’m not sure we need this.”That was the end of the sale, and we never did get the sale. While I was in there with the guy who had all the “power”, the sale was killed by the underling. Who’s the decision maker? You see what I mean? My mistake was that I didn’t uncover, ask questions from the guy, “Who else will be involved with this project? who else needs to think about this? Who else should be at the table?” I had not gone out and done the work to work with the underling to get him on board with me. That’s what I mean by selling by committee, you decide by committee. Typically, almost everybody at the table, has veto power, but almost no one has the willingness to say ‘yes’, but alone. That’s what I mean by that.
That’s consistent with a lot of clients who are working in the corporate setting as well, definitely that is the direction and happening much more often. It’s important to ask that question to find out who else is involved in that decision-making process, and then getting their voice to be heard before spending the time on the proposal. That story illustrates it very well. Thanks for sharing that Tony. I really want to thank you for coming on here and sharing, but for everyone that wants to learn more about your work and what you’re up to, what’s the best way for them to do that and to connect with you?
Our website is at Signorelli.biz. That’s where we primarily talk about our corporate work. We also have a Facebook page for more for the consultants if they’re interested. Facebook.com/CrackingTheCorporateCode. There’s other information there about some of the things that we can help people with if they’re trying to sell into that space.
Thanks so much.
Thank you, Michael. Appreciate it.
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