How many times have you advised a prospect only to witness them take a different route which eventually culminated in an outcome that invoked in you a “Told ya so” exhale of sorrow? You’ve seen too many buyers make similar mistakes too many times over, and you feel a little bit sorry for them, but you also feel a little bit frustrated and a tad resentful too: “If only they’d listen!”
Alas, buyers of professionals services keep stepping on the same rake relentlessly. A general manager of a construction company I worked with confessed his not-so-uncommon experience that, in effect, summarizes the client-vendor relationship across all professional services industries:
"We told the prospect that with their current $X budget they won’t be able to complete the project as they had envisioned. They either had to scope down or increase their budget by extra 30%. The prospect said they can’t afford to pay more.
“Two years later the same prospect had already paid twice their initial budget, changed 4 vendors, and today the project still isn’t near completion. On top of that, there were severe safety violations onsite, and, as a result, the prospect now, for all intents and purposes, acts as an onsite foreman.”
Why buyers make the same obvious mistakes?
At first, it might seem that buyers are either greedy, retarded, deaf, arrogant or willfully blind. I can assure you, most of them aren’t. Just like you and me, when we ourselves become buyers of professional services, we act primarily in a way that is (apparently) best for us.
As a service provider, you can’t know what’s best for a particular buyer until you get to know them well. And they aren’t going to reveal all of the information they’re taking into account to you right off the bat. The shorter the relationship with you, the less they trust you, the less information they’ll disclose. Sometimes clients themselves aren’t sure what’s best for them, too.
Despite all of that, there is one thing you can be certain of: buyers act in best self-interest to the degree they can define it. Thus it is your foremost professional responsibility to actively listen to your prospects, ask questions and clarifications. Based on their input you’re supposed to forewarn them about upcoming challenges with the project: educate them, give them options, explain advantages and disadvantages and consequences; and let them decide which route they want to take.
Whatever their decision — even if you fail to understand their reasons — it will be made based on what buyers deem best for themselves in the given circumstances. Therefore, remember that buyers don’t think of themselves as the ones making a mistake. The realization might come later; or it might not.
My brother painted the red brick chunks of the facade of his house in black color using regular (inexpensive) facade paint. A professional builder had suggested to clean the walls, prime the surfaces and use multiple layers of a more expensive paint because that would guarantee the paint doesn’t peel off in a couple of seasons. This was a genuine attempt to help the buyer avoid an obvious mistake, as far as the builder was concerned.
“Why did you decide to go with a cursory process, since you were forewarned the paint was probably going to peel off the next season? The redo is going to cost a lot more, you know,” I asked my brother.
“I don’t care,” he shrugged, “I just want the facade to look cooler right now, and I didn’t have the budget for a bigger project.”
Why is it always about the price?
Buyers have a deep dream-like desire to get what they want, how they want it. The price is often envisioned as a constituent of that perfect picture. “We will build / create / have this for that price and it will be amazing. Whatever the issues other buyers might have had, this won’t happen to me. I am building my (insert any project) dream house, and in my daydreams it doesn’t have any imperfections. Nothing can go wrong.” We tell these sort of stories to ourselves all the time.
Once we believe in our own stories, we won’t accept them to be untrue. Anything and anyone who dares contradicting the stories we’ve told ourselves are either dismissed or rejected. “We’ve (already) built such a beautiful, cohesive future state. We won’t let those party-poopers rain on our parade.”
This is especially true when selling to creative and entrepreneurial types: marketing officers, equity partners, founders, etc. But procurement officers in larger organizations aren’t much different, too. They tend to believe that a 20% discount is some sort of a lifeline for their job security.
Some of the reasons why price becomes a primary stumbling block in selling professional services (apart from the obvious):
- buyer doesn’t have full information about the constituent elements of a service offering and their quality;
- buyer has formulated an opinion based on that incomplete information and will attempt to defend their opinion;
- buyer tends to be skeptical about service providers’ motivations: “these guys always push for more hours, excessive services, larger scope, higher fees, etc. They aren’t very much concerned with my interests.”
- there is an itch and the buyer only wants to scratch it — they don’t want a cure at the moment.
No point in proving you are right
Beware of being “right”. Being right implies that someone must be wrong. It’s paramount not to argue yourself into the situation where the client thinks: “He smart. Me stupid.”
Clients whose projects eventually fail don’t want to return to the seller who’ll rub it in. Told-you-so attitude won’t land you many clients, unless they are very very desperate. If they were, this wouldn’t be a great start for a new relationship either. Such buyers jump at the next available opportunity to restore their sense of control.
Clients often reason: “I understand your motivation. You want me to be wrong, because you’re looking forward to selling me your (overpriced) services, the extent of which I probably don’t even need. But I get it — it’s your job to persuade me.”
Confronting the client with counter-reasons will make them more defensive. They hold dear that which they currently believe in. Whereas your arguments are an attempt to uproot and dispose of that which is part of themselves. This will never be easy nor welcomed.
As a service provider who knows more than the buyer, your best bet at eventually winning the business is to acknowledge their point of view as valid and, to your best knowledge, offer viable alternatives.
“Dear client, your points are valid and I understand where you are coming from. The reasons you’ve laid out make sense. Your approach could actually work if: A happens, while B is in place and C doesn’t do what C usually does. In my experience, this doesn’t happen, but then of course, there’s an exception for everything.
“You are acting in your own self-interest, and know better than I what’s good for you, so I hope this project turns out well, because it might. Please accept this three-page article outlining common challenges buyers are typically faced with at similar projects. There are also ten most common mistakes to watch out for.
“It also outlines several alternatives buyers tend to choose given their circumstances. And if you ever need my counsel, I’m looking forward to our next conversation.”