Doing It Through A Blanket
post # 162 — August 15, 2006 — a Client Relations post
A number of my clients have been asking me how you sell to a corporation where you do not have the opportunity to meet the “real” client executive who is going to use your service or product, but have to “sell” though a consultant who has been hired to run the client’s buying process. They say they want to use the principles in my book The Trusted Advisor approach in their selling, but don’t see how you do that if there is a gatekeeper. (They describe this to me a tryng to make love through a blanket!)
There’s probably been a lot of research on this topic about which I am not aware, but I’m fascinated with how much this approach to buying has grown and spread. It happens in corporate purchases of :
- Public relations
- Asset management
- Large management consulting projects
- Law firm selection and monitoring
- and many other services.
My curiosity is aroused in trying to explain why this is expanding so much. Why don’t corporate officers select and choose their own outside providers? Why do they need the consultants to advise them?
I can see why you would need an advisor if you were a one-time buyer, buying only periodically, or buying something particularly big. Then, you would want to tap into the specialists’ expertise and greater knowledge of what’s out there, and who’s good. It would save you search time. We’ve all used people to perform that role for us at one time or another.
But what if you buy the product or service all the time? What if it’s your JOB? If you are, say, the investment officer for a state pension fund, wouldn’t it be your job to know who’s out there? Or if you’re a marketing manager who’s been in place for 5 or 6 years, shouldn’t you know who the possible agencies are and what their reputation is?
My guess is that these buyers DO know, and are employing “consultants to the process” to achieve other goals. If we are to successfully “penetrate” this layer between ultimate client and vendor, then we must understand what the buyer is hoping to achieve by putting it in place.
There are a number of possible purposes, including:
- By using third-party consultants, buyers can make the buying process appear more formal and detached, and give the appearance to their corporate masters (or Wall street Observers) that they are being diligent and responsible in their buying. They are buying affirmation, reassurance and cloud-cover against attacks that they were “soft” or relied too much on things like “relationships.”
- Putting the third part y in place allows all sorts of buying games including “Good Cop / Bad Cop” (Client/consultant) The hired-gun gatekeeper plays tough guy, while the client (who has to work with the service provider afterwards) can remain above the negotiating fray and preserve the bases for a good working relationship.
- Some consultants could offer a lot more than just a “gatekeeper” function. The client may have only an unfocused understanding of his or her own needs, and what the consultant is doing is providing a “strategic navigator” service, so that the client can understand which outside service (a pill, a nurse, a brain surgeon) he or she really needs to buy. By separating the diagnosis from the execution, the client benefits by not having biased people (the vendors) always selling what they have, rather than what the client needs.
I have some additional thoughts, but let me find out if this is a topic of interest to anybody out there. The questions for you (all) are:
- Are there other reasons companies hire consultants to advise them on their buying?
- How well do the vendors understand the real reasons?
- What are the implications for the DIFFERENT rationales for how a vendor should respond. Does the vendor do different things if the client is using consultants for different purposes?