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Episode #145
Tony Hughes

How To Make Consulting Sales During Turbulent Times

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People look at adversities as mere problems that hold us back from getting to where we want to be. But really, these obstacles and challenges are what build us as better people. Joining Michael Zipursky on the show today is Tony Hughes to talk about how adversities build resilience in people and lead them to be better businessmen. Tony is a leading professional selling educator and is highly recognized in sales leadership. Listen in as he talks more about achieving consulting sales success during these turbulent times.

I’m here with Tony Hughes. Tony, welcome.

Michael, it’s good to be on the show. Thanks for having me.

I’m excited for this. Tony, companies like Salesforce, Oracle, and Red Hat hire you for your decades of expertise in sales and sales leadership. In this episode, I want to uncover and explore how you got to where you are. Let’s start at the beginning because reading one of your books, Combo Prospecting, you did not have an easy start to life. It struck a chord with me as I was reading through this. I thought maybe if you could start us off and let everyone who’s reading know how you got started, what were some of the challenges that you faced growing up in those early years.

I don’t want to talk about myself much. I’d rather focus on what I know can maybe help people that are reading this, but certainly, adversity is what creates resilience in anybody’s life. I believe that success in life, especially as a consultant and in business generally, it’s more a factor of your ability to put up with crap and continue to soldier on as much as it’s about being clever with what you think represents good product market fit. The reality is for all of us, our clients have got lots of choices out there. There are many others that can do the job for them but it’s our ability to find a way to breakthrough. To be relentlessly all about them, improving their results and put up with the disappointments and the rejection and all of the other things that go wrong in life and just keep going that determines success.

The reason I bring this up and I appreciate that you want to spend this time focusing on adding value for everyone. When people hear a success story and the typical publications, they just focus on the success aspect. They don’t talk about what people had to go through and when I was reading through your book, you faced a death in the family. You faced all kinds of challenges. Could you share a short version or a couple of points, because I want people to see that, “Look at what Tony has gone through and look where he is now. If he can do it, you can as well?” Lay it down very quickly.

Life is cyclical and life has seasons. All of us will go through periods where things will be tough and where things will be good. Click To Tweet

On my 25th birthday, I’m living in America. I built a manufacturing business in Australia and we sold it. I took the business to the States, young and ambitious and gung-ho. On my 25th birthday, I get a phone call from my stepdad to say that my mother back in Sydney has got liver cancer. Seven weeks later, I was back in Sydney and we nursed her at home and she passed away. My sister tried to commit suicide. The family dog got run over. Our car got stolen. Our biggest client in America for the business that I owned went bankrupt. Our joint venture manufacturing partner went bankrupt. A giant multinational who should know better and have ethics, airfreighted our product back to Japan and copied it and said, “You don’t have patents in Japan. If you’ve got an issue with it, feel free to talk to any of our 37 lawyers in LA.” I decided that I needed to stay in Sydney for my family. I walked away from my business in the States. The big thing I learned in America is that if you can’t personally sell, you are nowhere in businesses and entrepreneurs.

We were getting royalties for twelve years after selling the business in Australia so I had a non-compete. I had to do something different. I thought, “I’m going to learn how to sell,” and it’s a life skill that I need. I was rubbish at it in the beginning, but I quickly became good because I worked hard and had a great mentor as a sales manager that helped me. Also, I set sales records that have never been broken and ended up moving up in the ranks of larger corporations and ultimately for the last twelve years of my corporate life ran the Asia Pacific region as CEO for North American multinational software companies. I left the corporate world and went out on my own. On the back of my first book, I’d published the dependent business bestseller to be a consultant. That was a very big adventure. We’ll talk about what it takes to be successful as a consultant.

I want to encourage everyone to check out Tony’s book, Combo Prospecting. We’ll tell you where to get more info about that. I can assure you that Tony has glossed over some of the challenges that he went through. It’s a testament to your mindset. I guess the question I have for you is, during everything that you had going on, which was death and depression and there were some issues bordering even on murder or things connected to that that you didn’t mention about that would have stopped a lot of people in their tracks and you kept going, what propelled you? You didn’t give up. You didn’t sit and become an alcoholic. You continue to move things forward and here you are. For those who might be facing some challenges in their lives, the stock market has a magnificently terrible drop. People are freaking out all over the world. In times like these, what lessons have you learned? Looking back, what propelled you forward? Any advice that you could offer people who might be in a bit of a funk, as we might say, and they’re not playing at their full potential, but they should?

We live in the age of catastrophism and where everybody wants to do a whole lot of virtue signaling. The reality is, life is cyclical and life has seasons. All of us will go through periods of things being incredibly tough and periods where things will be good. The stock markets had a massive correction, but the market will come back. Coronavirus is temporary. If you watch the media and listen to the press, you think the world’s coming to an end. The reality is in my country where I come from, every winter, our flu season kills about 900 people a year. One person has died of Coronavirus and they caught Coronavirus on a cruise ship offshore. It will all get managed. China will start manufacturing and shipping goods again. The stock market will come back. Wherever there’s a problem, there’s also an opportunity. The same word in Chinese for crisis also means opportunity. In my view, just recognize that there are seasons in life and it’s all about our resilience that determines success.

If someone doesn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, then you end up dwelling on the negativity. I think that’s where a lot of people are, watching news headlines or focusing on all the things that could go wrong. Even though we’d like to think that as humans, we know we are able to multitask, the reality is we’re not able to do that very well. If you’re spending your time focused on the negative, it means that your ability to focus on the positive is significantly reduced. What I’m hearing you say, Tony, for everyone out here is, recognize that you’re going to go through some tough times and challenges, but you’re going to come through the other side as long as you keep moving forward.

CSP 145 | Consulting Sales


Let’s talk a bit more about business development and pipeline building because that is your sweet spot. For every consulting business, having an actual pipeline is without a doubt, the most important part of a business. If you don’t have a pipeline, if you don’t have opportunities, you don’t have a business. There are many people out there, many consultants, especially at the small to midsize firms or even independents who aren’t willing to take the steps necessary to reach out and follow up with our ideal clients consistently. What have you seen in your own experience, Tony, that holds people back from committing in an intentional way to building their pipeline of business?

The thing that holds people back is a mindset issue. They fear rejection, but most people, when they think about business development, they look at the phone and treat it like it’s covered in spiders. They worry about botching the conversation, about being rejected and that’s all okay. The thing is you can be fearful and just do it anyway. I’ve done lots of things in my life that I’m a little fearful of. The first time I learned to barefoot water ski, you’re very fearful about face planting at horrendous speed on the water and having stacks, but you do it anyway. You do have a few falls and they’re not as bad as you think. The thing is it’s a mindset. We worry about either botching it or being rejected. We then default to channels where we don’t feel we can get rejected and where we can endlessly polish a message like an email. The problem is long emails don’t get read by anybody.

The average executive receives 120 emails a day. They’re busy and they are in the mode of skimming and ignoring or deleting anything that looks like selling or marketing and anything from people that they don’t know where there’s nothing in it for them to open the email. What we need to do is to get back on the phone and we need to have the right conversations. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I had a bestselling book on selling my first book, The Joshua Principle. You’d think I’d be good at selling, I was. I’d settle these records, but people would say, “Tony, you’ve left the corporate world. You’re at doing your own thing. What’s this RSVP Selling company you’ve started?” Not for five days, not for five weeks, but for five months, I had the world’s worst answer to the question.

I talked about what it is that I was doing. The penny dropped for me that no one cares about me and what I do. All they care about is themselves and their own results. I learned to stop talking about what I do and instead talk about their opportunity for improving results. If your whole ethos is that you want to make a positive difference in the lives of your customers both personally and professionally, if that’s what you’re all about, then you won’t be fearful in calling someone up and sending them an email and a LinkedIn message and texting them to find a way to get into their world because you genuinely believe that you can help them. We need to build the right conversations.

Someone would recognize that and go, “That makes sense.” For someone who has gotten most of their business from referrals or their network, or maybe even someone who’s transitioned from the corporate world into consulting, they may not be 100% confident that they know what the true problems are that their ideal client is facing. They may not know yet what to talk about or maybe they’ve tried some messaging, but it hasn’t gotten the response that they want. They’re sending things out, making some calls or sending some messages, but they’re not getting a high level of response. What would you say to that person? What are some best practices or what have you found can work well for someone to identify what message they should be putting in front of a prospective client?

Wherever there's a problem, there's also an opportunity. Click To Tweet

Every consultant in the world needs to think about a number of things. The first is we need to think about product-market fit. Are we solving a significant problem where there’s money associated with it? Because if we’re not, we’re going to struggle forever. Look yourself in the mirror about product-market fit. What problem do you solve and for whom? The next thing is clearly defining your ideal customer profile. Don’t live in the diluted belief that the whole world is a prospect. They’re not. Think about, what does my ideal target client look like? How big are they? Where are they located? What is it they believe? Are they in growth? Are they in crisis? Are they seeking to expand overseas? It will be different, but think, what defines my ideal customer profile?

The third thing is, who are the buyer personas? What are those buyer role types that I need to engage with in those organizations in order for them to be a successful client? It depends on what you’re doing, but you may say, “I need to have a relationship with the CFO, the head of treasury, the CEO, and people in culture.” You might in your world say, “I need to have a good relationship with the CIO, the head of customer success, and the head of sales and heads of marketing.” Whoever those people are, you need to document your buyer personas and understand how those people are measured in their roles and what their typical priorities are. Because if you don’t understand those things, you’ve got no chance of building the right conversation.

For someone who goes, “I understand that. That makes a lot of sense,” how do I get that information? When you’ve entered a new market or when you’re working with someone that wants to increase their overall sales or build their pipeline, are there sources or places the people can go to get that information?

The most powerful source is your existing clients. Go to your best clients and there are powerful questions. Say, “Mary, we’ve been working together now for two years. What happened inside your organization or your world that started you down the path that led to me? What happened to cause you to want to look at improving things in this area?” The next question is depending on their role, but you would have had to put some kind of business case up internally to justify working with us. “As consultants, what was in the business case? Is it being delivered on? You promise the business improved results, some way to fund what we’re doing together. What was that and is it happening? If it’s not, I want to work closer to make sure that it is.”

What that does is it creates enormous customer loyalty because customers will be loyal to us if they believe we committed to them improving results and that we genuinely care. They tend to leave if they feel that we’re taking them for granted or not helping them drive change. Those questions are powerful, but what they do is they inform who we should talk to. They tell us what the trigger events are that go on that create awareness or interest in what we offer and it tells us what the business case is that justifies making the investment with us. Customers are very powerful. The other thing you can do is simply google the role of the person in their industry and the words performance metrics. What you’ll find is you get a whole lot of things come back.

CSP 145 | Consulting Sales


You might find a CFO is measured on DSO, Daily Sales Outstanding as a metric of cash collection. If you google performance metrics for the role, you’ll start to get a clue and then you build a conversation narrative that does not have arrogance. It has humility in saying, “Mike, based on working with other CFOs in our industry, the common thing I’m seeing is if that’s something you’re also struggling with, I’ve got some ideas on how I think you could.” You talk about the opportunity for improved performance. Whether we did anything or not, you’ll get something out of the conversation. How’s your calendar? You easily get meetings and you take the pressure off.

It’s not that you want to sell and pitch, you’ve got a worthwhile point of view about how you suspect they could improve results in their role. You’re happy to share what you’re seeing others do. You never betray the trade secrets of one company to another. You’d never do that with Coca-Cola to Pepsi. You’d never call Pepsi up and say, “I work with Coca-Cola. Let me come and share with you what they’re doing.” That’s unethical. You can talk in more broader terms, but that’ll get you meetings and it takes the pressure off.

To break down what your process looks like for dealing with the complex sale, because as consultants, most of us are selling into established organizations, whether large or small. It’s a complex sale or has many moving parts. Before we break that down, what should someone expect? For every 100 people that they reach out to, what kind of response rate have you seen that is standard or should be expected when this is done fairly? Maybe they’re not a Tony. They’re not doing it at the highest level, but they’re working towards it. If they have the right elements in place, what does that look like for them?

There are a lot of things that make this depend on credit variables. The first thing to be aware of is that at any given point in time, only 3% of the market is going to be in the buying window for what it is that you sell or offer. If you phoned 100 people and miraculously they all answered, three of them would be in the window of looking at buying something. The problem when that’s the case is, they’re already talking to your competition and I’ve got a predetermined favorite in mind. It sounds like, “That 3% is good if I’m in there.” No. Your competition is normally already working with them. We’ve got to find a way to break in. If you’ve got clarity about ideal customer profile and buyer personas, then you monitor for trigger events, things that happen in the marketplace that create awareness.

For example, you might do consulting around helping organizations scale more effectively. Anybody who does a merger, acquisition, announces an overseas office or the launch of a new product or service, they are trigger events. If you called up and said, “Mary, congratulations on the expansion into Asia. I was wanting to get together with you for twenty minutes. I’ve got some ideas on how I think you can de-risk market entry and accelerate your revenue growth,” you build your narrative on whatever it is that you do. If you leverage a trigger event for strong context and then you’ve got an insightful narrative where there’s some value in the conversation before that ever look at buying your services, then you’ll normally always get your meeting.

The thing that holds people back is a mindset issue. They fear rejection. Click To Tweet

I want to get your take on this as well, but the phone is a scary thing for many people. It’s the one thing that people hesitate the most around, yet you suggest in one of your books anyways that that should almost always be a starting point or one of the first things that you do. Break down for us, Tony, what does a typical process look like in terms of an outreach campaign to work towards setting up appointments and meetings. Walk us through step by step from a high level, what does that look like?

To go deeper, people should buy the book Combo Prospecting. I explained it all there. The whole idea is we’re seeking to pattern interrupt the way that people are wide to ignore all sales and marketing content or people that don’t know. We need to get back on the phone. There have been a lot of lies pushed out in the market in years about social selling. No one answers the phone anymore. It’s all of our social. The truth is social and digital channels are clogged. There’s this white wall of noise that people are facing every day when they go to work. Look at all of these digital channels. To break through, we’ve got a pattern interrupt, the ignoring, and we need to do it where the competition is not. Find people and have a human conversation. It’s very easy to source people’s direct cell phone numbers now and direct email addresses.

You phone, leave a voicemail, send an email and you do all of that within 90 seconds. You don’t send an email on a Wednesday and then phone on a Thursday, because there’s a big gap between, and it’s one thing that you’ve done in the mind of the person and they ignore single things. What you want is if this person is on the subway in New York or something, or they’re in London on the Tube, they’ll have their phone out. As everybody does looking at it, skimming through their inbox, deleting emails to get down to a manageable amount when they get into the office. They’ll be looking at their phone and it will ring and they’ll go, “This person’s not in my phone book. I don’t know who they are. I’m not taking that and I’m certainly not talking on the Tube, the subway, the train or in this crowded area.” They let the phone ring out or they dump it, then they go back to looking at their email.

I go, “They left a voicemail.” They’ll listen to the voicemail and in your voicemail, you don’t give your whole narrative. You just say, “Mike, it’s Tony from XYZ Consulting looking to get into calendar for twenty minutes next week. I’ve sent you an email.” You don’t give them a sales pitch like, “I wonder what that’s about.” They then go back to their phone skimming their email and your email turns up in their inbox. Ninety-five percent of the time, they will open the email. If you hadn’t phoned and left a voicemail and then instantly sent the email, they would not have opened the email. You do this at the time of day when you’re likely to get the most engagement.

When is that?

CSP 145 | Consulting Sales


In most Western societies from 8:00 to 8:00 in the morning, up until 10:00 to 9:00 in the morning. It’s more than an hour but that golden hour of the day is before the rest of the company is turned up. All senior people start early. It’s the only chance they get to do their real work before people are standing at the door endlessly and they’re dragged away into meetings. The other thing is the shoulder of the day at the other end. Most senior people stop booking meetings at about 4:30 in the afternoon because they want to clean up their day and prep for the next one and get home to their families to have dinner. From 4:30 until about 5:50 in the evening is a great window to call. If you time block those periods for doing outbound and you phone, you leave a voicemail, and you send an email. If you want to up your game, you add a text message. You add an InMail. You do video messaging.

All the different channels that you can use to get in front of your ideal client. Let’s take the example of a consultant that maybe it’s just them or maybe they have a couple of people working. Everyone on the team is spending most of their time delivering client projects, yet they’ve woken up and recognized that they don’t have a strong pipeline. The referrals that they used to receive are drying up and they’ve made the conscious decision to work on their marketing to try and build a pipeline. How should they spend that limited amount of time that they have, which in their mind is not very much on doing this? If we’re talking about reaching out to hundreds of people leaving these messages within 90 seconds, that sounds like there are a lot of moving parts or some complexity. Simplify it for us. What is the best way for someone who doesn’t have a big sales team, who is the owner of the firm or they’re even the sole operator in the firm, how should they go about thinking to apply this kind of methodology and this approach to get the most out of it if they have a limited amount of time?

The first thing is choosing your customers. Think about what your dream customer looks like. I talked previously about Ideal Customer Profile, ICP. Based on knowing your ICP, you go and pick the organizations you would love to have as clients. You then get into LinkedIn. You should subscribe to a LinkedIn tool called Sales Navigator. It will give you amazing intel about an organization’s roles, who knows who, common connections, surfaces, lots of information about the organization. Create a list of all of the people that you think matter inside that organization and put it into your own CRM system. If you have a spreadsheet, find and use a spreadsheet as your CRM. Every business needs a CRM system. Get their contact details, start to take some notes. Do some pragmatic research and then think about why the conversation would matter in their eyes. Build a narrative where they are the hero of the story, not us. Don’t tell them about what sort of consulting you do. Talk about their opportunity to improve results in a particular area and be happy to share some insights.

Give away some of your IP. Provide some insights on how you think they can do it. Just think, “I’m going to provide some value for them, whether they become a client or not. I’m going to make them the hero. I’m going to have a point of view about how they can improve their results.” If that’s your message, you won’t cringe. You won’t feel that you’re being a sales pest. You’ll feel you’re providing some free consulting for them, then what you do is you time block. The good news is if you’re busy delivering, that’ll be in business hours. What you can do is book 40 minutes every morning of your work life to do outbound, and at the end of each day, make sure you’ve got your list of who you’re going to call when the morning done. You work on little pragmatic templates. You don’t need a whole lot of expensive tech to be able to do this. You can create a Google Doc or a Word Doc and have little templates of LinkedIn connection requests where you’re not trying to connect and sell.

Tony, just to clarify in your experiences, 40 minutes each day, Monday to Friday. Is that sufficient time for someone to start creating some results and booking meetings, appointments, and conversations?

Build the right conversations. Stop talking about what you do and instead talk about the opportunity for improving results. Click To Tweet

Yes, it is, but everybody needs to reverse engineer their own metrics. Everyone reading this as a consultant, you should be analytical. You need to reverse engineer your metrics. You think, “We offered a revenue target that I want to hit. Here’s how I’m tracking. I’m this far behind plus a good oldest revenue to get.” You start thinking, “For every three proposals I put in, I get one client.” If I need seven clients between now and December, I need to get 21 proposals in. For me to do a proposal, I need to have met with this role type in an organization and had at least three meetings. How many of those meetings do I need to do to be able to do 21 proposals?

For outbound sequences, these combos, phone, voicemail, email, text, how many of those do I need to do to be able to get in front of people? Work your numbers back and then you go, “I can do a combo in 90 seconds, but then I need to breathe between.” You should go, “I can do a dozen combos in twenty minutes or a dozen combos in half an hour.” If I’m going to do twelve outbound sequences every day for five days, that’s 60 a week. You’ve got to answer your own question, “Is 60 of those going to give me my meetings and my proposals that get me my clients?”

That’s an important exercise for people. We have a very similar approach called the Magic Number that we take coaching clients through as soon as they come into the program. It starts to answer some questions and give you clarity like, “Here are my goals. Am I doing what is required or am I going to be way over or way under it?” It sets a bit of firm ground or a realistic viewpoint on are your actions and your mindset equal to where you want to be. You can adjust before you even get started. Tony, you are a big proponent of prospecting. It’s what you’ve written books about. It’s where you spend your time and you developed your expertise, but you have also spent a lot of time writing articles.

You have on LinkedIn and your blogs. You’ve developed content in terms of books. It’s a big question that a lot of consultants have, “Should I spend time developing content or should I spend time doing business development and doing direct outreach to clients?” What’s your perspective for someone who is running a business and things are going but they’re nowhere near as good as they believe they can be? How would you guide them? How would you suggest that they spend their time? Should they be focusing more on content or more on prospecting?

The big thing that people need to focus on is to build a strong personal brand and creating content is part of that. If they are thinking about responding, three-quarters of those people will come and have a look at your LinkedIn profile. Sort your LinkedIn profile out. Michael, I’m happy to send you a link to an article I published about creating a good LinkedIn profile, and it includes a whole lot of tips on how to create content as well. Writing content is time-consuming. I’ve published 500 articles.

CSP 145 | Consulting Sales


I’ve got 500,000 followers in social media, 350,000 in LinkedIn and I’ve become the most read person in the world in LinkedIn on the topic of B2B selling, but it was an insane amount of work to do that. It’s not a case of publishing tons and tons of content. It’s a case of when they come and look at your LinkedIn profile or they look at your website, do they see insights and in this article that you can share with people that I’ll send through to you for everybody? It talks about the types of articles or blogs that you can write. They’re things that start to set the agenda on value. They preemptively had objections that you would commonly get off the past. It will help you decide which content you’re writing. It’s both, but it’s around brand.

To summarize what I’m hearing from you, use content not necessarily to generate leads directly, but more to support the outreach, prospecting, and sales activities that you’re doing otherwise. They’re both important, but when you’re doing content, you’re not only thinking about it generating direct leads. It’s there to support your brand and to support the outbound or the outreach that you’re doing.

It’s easy for a consultant to waste massive amounts of time trying to become a marketer. When the truth is knowing your ICP, create a list of dream potential clients, get sales navigator, and phone them up. Use a combo to break through. You’ll find that it’s far more effective than you trying to become a marketing person because building a marketing machine that has outbound that creates inbound is a difficult thing to do. It’s great if you can afford to do that, but it’s like a full-time role in a business to make all that happen properly. What any consultant can do is say, “First thing in the morning, before I’m onsite with my clients doing consulting, I’m going to dedicate 40 minutes a day to create good quality sales pipeline based on knowing the buyer personas within the organizations I would like as a dream client and I’m just going to create a point of view that provides some value in the conversation for the person and just be human.” That’s how you create a sales pipeline.

Tony, I want to thank you so much for coming on here and sharing some of your best practices with us. There’s a lot more that people can learn from you. For everyone who’s reading and wants to go and check that out right away, where’s the best place for them to go to learn more about you?

Connect with me on LinkedIn. Search for Tony Hughes. You can find me on and

Tony, thanks so much.

Thanks, Michael.

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