Note: This post is geared mainly to professional service providers and the decision-making process of their clients although it certainly has implications for others.
I love being a professional service provider and so do most of my colleagues or they get out of it quickly. However, despite loving what I do, engaging a client in buying services is often frustrating and challenging for many reasons:
- Professional services are intangible.
- The buying process is personal.
- It typically involves a longer sales cycle.
- Professional services focus on an area of technical expertise, which the client may or may not understand.
- The actual buyer may be difficult to reach.
- The decision-making process is complex.
- And so on…
You know the above because you live it every day.
Unfortunately, we make this challenging decision-making process even more difficult for a potential client. As professional service providers, we often do a poor job helping them in the decision-making process whether online or offline.
Maybe we do this because we are afraid that when we start defining who we work with (the dreaded “target market” declaration) and what we do, we will lose some business. While this appears true, we fail to realize that the business we think we are losing is likely business that would just be a bad fit anyway.
Each of the following three things is a missed opportunity for professional service providers to connect with potential clients on both a logical and emotional level. (It is also a good exercise in thinking through your target market.)
1. We don’t tell potential clients who is our typical client in terms of business characteristics (e.g., industry, organizational size) or personality characteristics (e.g., values, attitudes). We can’t work with everyone and shouldn’t try. (There’s that target market idea again.) How is a potential client to know whether we are a good fit or not? Do you really think a potential client is going to contact you and say “I can’t really figure out if you work with companies like me. Please take the next 15 minutes and let me know.” No. Instead, that potential client is going to feel confused and move on to another possibility.
Go through your client list for the past 2-3 years. Categorize them by both business and personality characteristics. Look for trends that you might have missed.
Solve this problem by creating a short summary of your typical clients. If you are worried about making your target market too narrow, add in the phrase “We primarily work with…” that leaves you some wiggle room for working outside those target markets as appropriate.
2. We don’t tell potential clients when to call us or when we are best utilized. Most professional service providers are not in a position to provide every service to their clients. We can’t be everything to everyone and shouldn’t try. Do you really think a potential client is going to contact you and say “I can’t really figure out when would be the best time for me to work with you. Please take the next 15 minutes and let me know when I should call you.” No. Instead, the client is again going to feel confused and move on to another possibility. (See how we continue to confuse our target market?)
Gather some informal research. Start asking all your clients what the precipitating event was for their call to you, i.e., “What made you pick up the phone to call me?” You will then be able to start seeing trends regarding when clients are calling on you. As a result of conducting a client survey for a management consultant last year, we found that her clients called on her during three major points in their business. This finding now makes it easier for her to talk with potential clients about their needs and her services.
Solve this problem by telling potential clients “Our clients typically call when they need ABC” or “Our firm is best utilized when clients are experiencing XYZ problems or transitions.”
3. We don’t talk about the outcomes we deliver in the client’s language. Last year we completed a competitive analysis for a mental health agency. When we looked at how each agency described the outcomes for clients, each of them used phrases such as “serenity,” “live to the highest potential,” and “personal growth.” As a psychotherapist for many years, I can personally assure you that 99% of clients do not come into therapy asking for those outcomes. They come in talking about things like “I need to rebuild trust in my marriage,” “My kid is out of control and I need help getting him in line,” and “I’m so depressed and want to feel better again.”
Solve this problem by asking clients you have already worked with how they would describe the outcomes you provided. Use the language of your target market, not your language.
During the decision-making process, think of everything you do or say as a mirror that has three potential outcomes for the client. The client sees herself in the mirror, doesn’t see herself in the mirror, or can’t see anything (or sees everything) in the mirror. The first two outcomes help you and the client decide whether or not there is a good fit. The third outcome is just a waste of time for everyone.
What else can professional service providers do to help the decision-making process of potential clients?