How to buy Professional Services (and how not to)
post # 15 — February 8, 2006 — a Client Relations post
In the past few months, my wife Kathy and I have been through the process of trying to buy a variety of professional services. The experience has been very educational, and made me realize that we may not have been approaching it very wisely. Just as there are tips and tactics for marketing and selling professional services, there ought to be a list of tips and tactics about how to be a smart buyer. (Does anyone know of such a list?)
From bitter experience, here’s the beginning of our list:
First, don’t trust too much up front. Because I write about and consult on professional services all the time, I have been very candid with possible professional suppliers about my buying priorities, which are professionalism first, quality second, speed third, and cost last. I thought that being this candid and open would elicit professionalism in return.
We have sometimes been lucky with fabulously trustworthy (and really skilled) providers, but our approach to buying hasn’t always worked out well. In a number of cases, the vendors heard “cost last,” saw dollar bills in their eyes and immediately jacked up their proposed bid prices. Rather than helping us, as inexperienced buyers, to understand our choices, they went straight to trying to sell us the top-of-the-line model with all the bells and whistles on it. It has made us a lot more cynical, suspicious and cautious than we wanted to be.
The second thing we think we have learned from our buying experiences is that, as potential clients, we have talked too much (no surprise there for anyone who knows me!) We were so keen to make sure that our providers understood out needs, that we ended up telling them everything about what we wanted, but never really ended the conversations in any better position to gauge their abilities, intelligence, attitudes or commitment.
We didn’t want to play games by putting the potential suppliers through a phony proposal processes or conversational gimmicks, but found that just when they were trying to get us to do all the talking, we really needed them to do a lot of the talking. We realized that we needed, as buyers, to really think through the question: “What are we trying to find out about these people, and what’s the best way to find it out?”
We concluded that maybe we shouldn’t have been so giving and open about our needs, and should have tested the possible suppliers by holding back and seeing if they were smart enough to ask astute questions. It’s sad to be this Machiavellian, but it may be necessary.
We also learned that references provided by potential providers are a waste of time. Everyone’s got them, and no-one’s going to give you the name of a reference who is going to be anything but glowing about them.
Another conclusion, obvious in retrospect, is that we needed to get to a face-to-face meeting with people as quickly as possible if we were to figure out if we wanted to hire them. Everything that happened prior to that was, in essence, a waste of time.
As a possible provider myself, I don’t like participating in competitive processes, but it was clear that, as buyers, we had to talk to multiple possible providers. Even when we had found someone we thought we wanted to go with, we realized we owed it to ourselves not to commit too early, not to rush into things, and to force ourselves to comparison shop.
There’s more, but I’m keen to hear about other people’s experiences. What do you think the rules and principles of being a smart buyer of professional services are?