Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Does Free Advice Devalue Your Services?

In my last post I introduced the Service Continuum, the idea that identifying and satisfying needs should characterize your interactions with clients both before and after the sale. This philosophy is well supported by the facts: Serving prospective clients is the best way to win their business. And for professionals, that service-centered approach to selling inevitably involves sharing information and advice.

But the notion of giving away expertise for free causes consternation for many in the A/E industry. This reluctance has existed since I first entered the business in 1973, and probably before that. If you're sharing your expertise for nothing, the reasoning goes, that's bound to devalue your services. Perhaps that fear helps explain why our industry has been slow to embrace consultative selling and content marketing—the two prevalent business development trends in professional services.

Does offering free advice through your sales conversations and marketing, in fact, devalue your services? I would argue it does quite the opposite. Here are the reasons I offer to support my conclusion:

The internet has forever changed how clients buy. In the old days of selling, rainmakers were the primary conduit of information about service providers and their services. Now the internet serves much of that function. According to one study, 78% of executive buyers use the internet to search for information about professional service providers. Eighty-five percent say that what they find online influences their buying decisions. Another study of B2B buyers found that about 60% of the buying decision process is now performed online before they start talking with salespeople.

Showing beats telling hands down. The above findings make it clear that having a good website is important. Indeed, three in four buyers say the quality of a firm's website influences their decision. But don't overestimate the value of the self-promotional content that fills the typical A/E firm website and other marketing vehicles. Buyers prefer helpful content over sales copy, and expert advice over self-advocacy.

Consultant David Maister told the story of when he needed legal help with a probate matter. He was referred by friends to three law firms with expertise in that area. The first two firms he talked to expounded on their qualifications. An attorney with the third firm said little about his firm, but focused questions on Maister's needs and understanding of the issue. He offered to send Maister a checklist that would guide him through the process—what steps are needed, who to contact, and when he would need legal help.

Which firm do you think he hired? Not necessarily the most qualified, but the most helpful. Are buyers of your services any different?

Helping buyers builds trust. This is a huge issue in professional services because our services are more personal, strategic, and potentially risky than most. Thus building trust is your most important task in advancing the sales process. Yet selling is among the most distrusted professions. Why? The perception of self interest on the part of the seller.

When you sell instead of serve, you help confirm the suspicion that you're primarily looking out for your own interests. On the other hand, focusing on the client, helping solve problems, and providing helpful information and advice demonstrates concern for the buyer—the most important trust-building dimension for professional service sellers.

Trust clearly adds value to what you do. When you enable the prospect to sample your services by sharing your expertise, you remove some of the uncertainty from the buying decision. You get the chance to show your value instead of just talking about it.

Sharing expertise helps build your reputation. A survey of A/E/C service buyers by Hinge found that the most important selection factor was the firm's reputation. So how do you build a reputation that factors into the buying decision? Other than referrals or previous experience with the client, the obvious way is through your marketing. So tell me: Does touting your credentials or sharing your insights build a strong reputation?

When I worked with RETEC, people were often surprised to find that we were a much smaller firm than they had imagined. They judged us in large part through the lens of our marketing activities—numerous journal and magazine articles, conference presentations, white papers, regulatory alerts, active participation in industry trade groups, and—at one time—the best environmental resource site on the internet. Our market focus also helped; as we concentrated our marketing efforts on just four core markets.

Certainly our accomplishments (e.g., being pioneers in bioremediation and risk-based solutions) constituted the substance of our reputation. But people learned about it through the various marketing vehicles we used to spread the message. And we spread the message mostly by sharing our notable expertise with our audience. We mastered the practice of content marketing long before I ever heard the term.

Serving buyers is the best way to close the Value Gap. Ask A/E service buyers what they value most between receiving great expertise (technical value) and a great experience (service value), and the answer will surprise most technical professionals. It's 50-50. That's the finding of a survey by Kennedy and Greenberg in their book Clientship. But when technical professionals were asked in another survey what distinguishes their firm from the competition, about 80% said it was their expertise. 

The difference between those two perspectives is what I call the Value Gap, and it's substantial. In fact, I believe that closing that gap is probably the best differentiation strategy you can choose. That means, of course, providing exceptional client experiences after the sale. But it also means serving the client before sale by providing helpful advice and information—both in person and through your marketing.

We can all point to a few situations where this strategy backfired. You helped the client identify the best solution during the sales process and they hired someone else to implement it. But I can point to many more examples where giving some free advice made all the difference in winning the job—and helping build our reputation. I'll take those odds to do the right thing for the client, which is being helpful. What about you? I'd love to hear your perspectives on this topic.

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