Consulting top management of professional service firms I sometimes encounter the following reasoning: “We should offer this new prospect a deal, start with something small, put our foot in the door. This way we’ll earn trust and build rapport; we’ll be milking that cow in no time.”
In part, my role as a marketing advisor is to challenge existing assumptions that appear to be self-evident. Not for the sake of challenging them but to see whether or not they make sense for a particular firm in particular circumstances.
Generally speaking, the “foot in the door” concept has its merits: a stranger does something for me and nothing terrible happens, thus it seems I can trust this not-a-stranger-anymore. The study carried out in 1966 by Freedman and Fraser showed that compliance to second, much bigger request, was highest among people who agreed with the first, smaller request.
However, does it mean that this works with selling professional services? Despite the fact that trust is crucial in buying professional services, here is how I think the foot in the door concept has a potential to backfire.
Performing a clown act
Putting yourself in your buyer’s shoes is a common exercise; it’s rather easy to do, too. Professional service firms are themselves buyers of other professional services: law firms hire accountants, engineers hire recruiters, marketing agencies hire lawyers, etc. Sometimes, however, it’s helpful to look at an issue from an unbiased perspective — that of unrelated industries.
Imagine you’re a renowned Broadway show director. You’re loosing sleep over two major problems these days. One, you need a professional yet funny clown for your kid’s birthday party (low-tier work). Two, you need a new lead performer, a fresh face and perspective, for the upcoming show (high-tier work).
Even the most talented clown that could very well be capable enough to audition for the lead role in your Broadway spectacle wouldn’t get on your director’s radar. Your perceptions toward clowns are skewed: a kiddie act, tops. You, the buyer, won’t make the mental connection between a clown act and a star performer on your own. Clowns in your opinion aren’t Broadway-level stars.
Let’s assume you’ve found yourself a new clown act for a party. Being aware of your Broadway connections and dreaming about someday becoming a lead performer (have access to higher-tier work) in one of your major shows, the professional clown decides to get her/his foot through the door by offering a discount on the clown act or doing more work for the normal fee.
When (and if) the new clown makes a dazzling performance you might consider referring the act to your friends who will expect to pay a similar, reduced clown’s fee. In effect, the entry price point of each project predisposes future engagement fees. To get on your Broadway talent radar, however, the clown has to conjure up something truly extraordinary.
The expertise ladder
Buyers have their own perceptions of the hierarchy of expertise required for the job. Excellent lower-tier engagement isn’t proof of excellence in higher-tier work. Thus, clowns typically aren’t considered viable candidates for lead star roles.
Broadway stars, on the other hand, are perceived as capable of doing the clown act (lower-tier work). Yes, it’s probably inefficient but convenient and doable, especially when you already have a star performer you know and trust. Given an opportunity, buyers happily accept lower-tier services from high-tier providers but are very skeptical about the capacity of a low-tier service providers to perform well on complex, higher-tier jobs.
Now, if you were to ask one of your lead Broadway performers for a favor — to carry out a clown act — you wouldn’t haggle about the price, right? As a buyer, you are OK with paying above the market fees because you’re paying (in part) for convenience and peace of mind. You would bargain with clowns, though; for the same gig.
Getting better by doing
While clowns diligently perform their clown acts on a regular basis, they get better at it. They still have the same 2,000-2,500 hours per annum just like Broadway superstars. Unlike clowns, however, superstars get better at being lead Broadway show performers because they don’t focus on practicing clown acts.
This line of thinking: “We’ll start off with a clown act to get our foot in the door, and then we’ll upsell, cross-sell and man the door to prevent other clowns from entering” gives firms hope. Unfortunately, the best they can hope for is becoming the court jester. At best, they’ll get to have all the clown acts.
Perhaps it is good enough for them. I do not make an attempt to denigrate neither clown acts nor clowns per se; I’ve been living in NYC and have witnessed some truly amazing clown performances. However, I want to clarify what I mean by the clown act. It is a commoditized service offering that is very fungible, thus often low in profitability or even unprofitable. Firms shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that low-tier work absolutely positively opens the doors to wonderful opportunities.
Whenever an opportunity for a major project pops up, the buyer says: “OK, we’ve worked together, fell free to submit you proposal.” The RFP process invites qualified star performers, experienced in high-tier work. And then there is one clown with excellent clown acts. Despite the fact that the buyer might like and trust the clown, it isn’t obvious that they are ready to entrust challenging project to someone who can’t prove higher-tier capabilities. Often they don’t.
Higher-tier firms can (and those smart enough will) demonstrate their experience describing upcoming challenges, obscure minefields, hidden discrepancies and advising on counter measures. Lower-tier firms, lacking the hands-on experience, can’t do that. So, by engaging primarily in low-tier work, firms limit their capacity to deliver higher-tier work efficiently if not at all. Buyers pay firms for skill and efficiency, otherwise they’d do everything in-house.
The foot in the door tactic has its flaws
To sum this all up, here are a few points on how this tactic can backfire for your firm:
- If buyer thinks you’re desperate to get in, they’ll perceive you as another vendor, not an expert, which means you are very fungible. They will be less inclined to trust in your abilities or your motives. Suspicions undermine trust.
- If the focus is on the lower price, by definition, the focus isn’t on high quality. Every professional service firm can lower its fees just this once.
- Price buyers expect to have a deal every time they shop around. They will switch to another vendor without blinking — they put little value in the relationship.
- Getting a service for free or cheap creates unreasonable expectations for similar future work.
- Putting a lot of feet through a lot of doors makes your firm — for better or worse — a discounter. Reputation is something to keep in mind.
- Firms that discount more than 10% on a regular basis, typically, win less proposals; this varies by the field your professional service firm is in.
- The initial euphoria of winning new business swiftly transforms into apathy: “We’re doing so much work for peanuts!” Demoralized teams show poor performance that spills over on all engagements and projects.
- There will be temptation to withhold effort, knowing that this isn’t a normal fee gig. At full capacity this work could get postponed or neglected. This is damaging to reputation.
My overarching points are:
- clowns compete with other clowns. It is a rare exception for a professional clown to get accepted as a lead star performer. This happens either through sheer self-confidence and determination or by a stroke of luck;
- if you want to get access to higher-tier work, you’d have to start doing that work, and market yourself accordingly. To keep the food on the plates, you’d (occasionally and reluctantly) allow yourself to take the clown’s work. No shame in that at all;
- you can get your foot through the door by other means, such as doing paid diagnostics or being helpful — giving away insight for free but never doing the work free of charge.