Life’s a Pitch: An Analytical Look at Why Clients Buy Professional Services

December 06, 2016 John Simpson

As someone that both leads and serves professional services organizations, I understand the intrinsic differences between businesses like ours and B2C organizations, or more product-based businesses. I know that we sell our people and their ideas, and the value that our professionals provide our clients is not quickly or easily replaced. I know our clients’ buying decisions are collective and collaborative, and the buying process is often a long one. I know that current clients are a critical source of new revenue, and what they think and say about our businesses strongly impacts the decisions of others in the market for our services. And because of all these truths, I know that strong relationships are the foundation of success for organizations like ours.

I also know that technology has transformed how we all conduct business. It’s made sparking, cultivating and sharing relationships exponentially easier. It provides us endless tools for creating compelling digital brand experiences. Technology has also put so much more information at the fingertips of our buyers. They are now more informed and self-directed than ever before. In fact, according the Corporate Executive Board, the average B2B buyer is already 57% through their purchase decision before they contact you or anyone on your team.

We know our buyers are doing their research and qualifying us as partners before we even have a chance to give our sales pitch. But what are they looking for exactly? What does their decision-making process look like? What does it take to be included in their initial consideration set? What do they expect to learn along the way about you … and what do they expect the experience to be like afterwards?

To answer these questions, we have to get into the mindset of the professional services buyer. One North recently partnered with Greentarget Global Group to commission research that analyzes the attributes of a professional services firm that have the most influence on buyers’ purchasing behavior. We surveyed key decision makers at more than 80 of the largest companies across the U.S., with 51 percent reporting $10 billion or more in revenue, and determined the criteria they use to evaluate and hire professional services firms, including what is necessary to win their business.

I had four main takeaways from the survey, which I will detail below. To read the full report, Results, Reputation & Relationships: What Professional Services Buyers Are Really Looking For, visit http://bit.ly/r3insight.

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#1 – Don’t Leave Referrals to Chance
What the data said: When asked to indicate their preferred method for learning about Professional Services organizations, 86 percent of our survey respondents chose referrals from a trusted source. However, something important to keep in mind is what happens after a referral takes place. Although referrals may be given more weight than a firm’s website, thought leadership or advertisements when buyers are building their initial consideration set, all these methods play a critical role in keeping the conversation going after you get your proverbial foot in the door.

A recent Hinge Research Institute study on referral marketing found that 52 percent of buyers rule out referrals before speaking to them. They cite an unimpressive website (30%), poor content (23%) and not showing up in online searches (16%) as reasons for passing on these referrals. Our survey respondents ranked articles, newsletters and/or whitepapers (35%), presentations or speeches (31%) and firms’ websites (30%) as important assets they utilize to learn about a professional services organization they’re considering.

Takeaway: Recognize how your assets work together, and don’t leave your referrals to chance. Digital can help you demonstrate your experience and past results, and your potential buyers will use it to corroborate the information they’re receiving about you from their peers. Make sure you’re painting an accurate picture of your expertise and telling a compelling story around what it’s like to work with your firm.

#2 – The Right Relationships Matter
What the data said: We know that relationships can help open the door, but when it comes time to make a decision, buyers regard quality (89%) over a personal relationship (11%) when evaluating a professional services organization. Strong performance and proven value can lead to better relationships, but a relationship alone does not mean you’ll continue to win new business.

Takeaway: Leverage your relationships only when you are in a position to win. Just because you have a relationship and can get a meeting, doesn’t mean that you should be bidding on, or even performing, that work.

An Analytical Look at Why Clients Buy Professional Services

Know when to pass. Consider the chart above:

  • Reap the rewards: If you have both the past experience and a personal relationship, go pitch that work. You’re likely going to win AND keep clients happy.
  • High risk, high return: Maybe you don’t have the personal relationship, but at least you have the past experience and you’re qualified to do the work. If you’re lucky enough win the work, you have an opportunity to move that client into the Reap the rewards quadrant in the future.
  • Live to fight another day: When you have the personal relationship, but you don’t have the experience, you should consider passing on the work, and even pitching for it. Not passing could set you up for a difficult conversation when your client must tell you they are using another vendor because you aren’t qualified. Should you somehow win the work, a failed delivery will ultimately strain the entire relationship.

#3 – Firm and Practitioner Are Not Mutually Exclusive
What the data said: Reputation is an important factor for PSO buyers. 30 percent of our survey respondents chose it as the most important attribute they look for when deciding whether or not to hire a professional services firm. But how they evaluate reputation is complex. It’s a delicate balance between what the firm brings to the table as a whole, and how its individual talent members contribute to that experience.

“Every firm says they’re the best and has some Top 10 list to prove it. That is totally irrelevant to me. I want to trust the people, and be impressed by their intelligence and integrity first and foremost,” said one survey respondent.

41 percent of the buyers we surveyed said a professional’s reputation or history was more important to their decision-making process, while 48 percent said both the professional and the firm’s reputation are equally important. Only 11 percent ranked the firm’s reputation as more important.

Takeaway: For relationship-based businesses, firm brand and professionals’ brand are inextricably linked. The most successful marketing highlights the experience of the professionals in the context of the organization.

#4 – You Get What You Pay For
What the data said: Price is not as much of a driver in a B2B context as it is in the B2C world. We found that the cost of your services matters less than their perceived worth. Hiring companies are willing to pay more for quality work. 72 percent of respondents felt client service was more important than price.

Takeaway: Counter price objections with service excellence. One way to do this is to let your current clients attest to the client experience and value you provide. Just as referrals carry weight with potential buyers, testimonials can help give the them an idea of how your experience and expertise has helped other businesses like theirs succeed. Seeing proven results in the context of similar organizations and industries helps minimize uncertainty and helps articulate value.

You can also consider providing a service level guarantee that outlines exactly what your clients can expect from an engagement with you. This holds you accountable for the premium services you’re promising and makes your clients feel like they’re not only paying for the golden standard, but they are guaranteed to receive it as well.

These are just a few of my takeaways from the research we conducted. To go deeper inside the minds of professional services buyers, check out the full report, Results, Reputation & Relationships: What Professional Services Buyers Are Really Looking For at http://bit.ly/r3insight. And for more on the takeaways I discussed here, check out a session I presented at One North’s 2016 Experience Lab this past November here: https://youtu.be/jDclTGu2VnU.

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John Simpson Chief Executive Officer

John Simpson is one of One North’s founders and serves as the Chief Executive Officer. For more than 20 years, John has been helping professional services marketers engage with their clients and grow their organizations through brand-based digital marketing experiences. He is a frequent author and speaker as it relates to relationship development, digital strategy and marketing innovation.

  • Favorite season: Summer. Summer makes everyone feel like a kid again.
  • Super power: Positivity. A psychology professor once told me that humans are predisposed to be positive. His logic was that the cave man faced so many challenges … sabre tooth tigers, starvation, cold weather, disease…that they had to be positive just to survive until the next day. I can’t say whether or not this theory has scientific merit, but it’s good enough for me!

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