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Passion, People and Principles

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?


Matt Moore said:

A section in “Freakonomics” deals with white collar crime and ends with the comment along the lines of: people can be trusted about 87% of time.

You continually reinforce the need for professional services firms to build trust with clients. And likewise a client needs to build trust with a professional services suitor. So as a buyer, you don’t want to just give your trust to anyone – how do they earn it?

I suppose if as a b

Both sides are probably honest 87% of the time…

posted on February 14, 2006

Matt Moore said:

That last comment got unexpected curtailed. There was going to be a section before the final sentance that went along the lines of:

If you are going to play “hard to get” the question is when? And the answer in most relationships is that this is appropriate at the start but less so later on.

posted on February 14, 2006

Miriam Lawrence said:

RainToday, which David happened to mention in an unrelated post, actually published a study on this topic a while back, called How Clients Buy (http://www.raintoday.com/product/5_how_clients_buy.cfm).

Interestingly, it seems that while David would have preferred that the vendors listen less and talk more, most clients in the RainToday research said the opposite. They report that prospective buyers were most frustrated by inattentiveness (41% said providers did not listen); cluelessness (40% said service providers did not understand their needs) and lateness (38% said service providers did not respond to their requests in a timely manner).

Furthermore, the report finds that if providers listened more and better understood prospect needs, 74-76% of buyers would be “much more likely” to consider purchasing their services.

This all begs the question, where is the sweet spot? While it seems like most vendors talk don’t listen well, it seems that there are at least a few out there (and David ran into one) that take consultative selling TOO far and don’t know when to turn the spotlight on themselves. In consultative selling they generally teach that you should spend 80% of the time listening and just 20% talking. Is that in fact too uneven? Should it be more like 50/50?

posted on March 17, 2006

Shaula Evans said:

David, I have been thinking about this post since you first published it. I was reading through some older posts on the site today, and I decided to belatedly join in the conversation.

I know that you and I agree that many people approach business relationships like a romantic courtship: they put their best face forward, make outlandish claims and set incredibly high expectations, and then, over time, they fail absymally at the impossible standards they’ve set and great frustration (and often high drama) ensues for everyone.

My approach (when I’m on my game) has been the dead opposite: I tell the other person all the very worst things about me, all the things that make me hard to work with or that might make him or her choose a different partner. In business situations over the past several years, this has meant making business partners and clients aware that I am dealing with chronic health problems that currently include insomnia (which can make scheduling calls and meetings a little extra challenging). If partners want to proceed in full knowledge that my health requires certain accommodations, great! And if not…it is not like I would be able to hide the truth for long.

When I’m off my game, by the way, which is usually if I am feeling under pressure or insecure, I will start to want to “puff myself up” and pretend to be things I’m not. And typically, I fight down the urge to present a facade, and the relationship goes well, but when I succumb to the fear-driven need to be something I’m not (which happens less frequently, fortuneately, as I get a little older and a little wiser), the story usually ends in disaster.

My most successful use of this technique wound up getting me married. My husband and I met online (through an email discussion list for professional actors and directors), and fell madly in love before we even realized it. Unfortunately, he was in Charleston, South Carolina, and I was in Vancouver, BC, Canada, and we had no prospects of meeting in person until a convention for actors came up in Las Vegas (roughly half way between us!) that we were both planning on attending. We proceeded to chat on the phone, and did everything in our powers to each drive the other one away—exposing all of our worst flaws and telling all our worst secrets.

Our reverse psychology trick worked: I proposed an hour after we met in person for the first time, he eventually said yes (after he got over his initial tongue-tied shock; I really threw him for a loop since he had been planning to propose to me and he didn’t see my proposal coming), and we have now been blissfully married for over 5 years.

Back to the mundane world of business. When I have been sharp enough to try to “scare the other guy away,” my results always been (almost) as good. Being brutally honest about my own flaws and weaknesses and particular needs seems to have encouraged the person or people on the other side of the table to respond in a direct, honest way (instead of an over-inflated, artificial way), so we could have a real conversation about whether we met each others’ needs.

When I worked as a technical and executive search recruiter, I used this technique, too: telling a candidate all of the worst parts about a job or employer, to find out if they were really interested; and presenting a very balanced and honest picture of the strengths and weaknesses of my candidates to my clients, so they could fairly judge if the candidate was a good match for the opportunity at their organization. In this way, I built up great, trust-based relationships with both my candidates and clients—and it was much easier to take care of everyone’s needs.

Of course, not everyone responds well to this approach. Some people are really baffled when you break away from the received conventions of social ritual, and their reactions can range from offended to upset to extremely hostile. Fortunately, such a response is usually a pretty good indicator that our communication styles won’t mesh and I’m better off not starting a relationship with that person. (“A bullet dodged,” as my husband would put it.)

You can call this “reverse psychology,” or “demonstrating trust in other folks to elicit their trust in you,” or “telling the (ugly) truth”—it all boils down to tell the other people in the conversation what they really need to know, to figure out if they want this relationship, and to have the information they need to move forward on a secure footing. In a way, it’s an anti-game approach. And the great thing is, you can initiate this strategy from either side of the table.

If you ever try to start a new business conversation by outlining all the reasons the other person shouldn’t take your business…I would be very interested to hear the results.

[PS You’ll note that I’ve broken one of my own blogging guidelines by leaving you this very long comment instead of publishing it as a post at my own blog and along with a link and a trackback to you. I hope I can beg your indulgence if I recycle this comment as a post—with a link and trackback, naturally—when my company blog goes live later this year.]

posted on April 26, 2006