What buyers of professional services are really looking for

7 min read

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It is one of the most famous – or infamous – marketing quotes of all time:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”

John Wanamaker (1838-1922)

When it comes to business development in professional services, the sentiment among many firms is similar: they win a proportion of the new client engagements they propose for, the trouble is, they often can’t pinpoint how or why they won the work or what exactly they did right! 

When pursuing new engagements, most firms are confident they can provide the core service elements that the buyer is looking for, and can demonstrate the requisite expertise and experience in their field – whether it’s a digital transformation project or a statutory audit – and yet this will rarely be enough to win over the buyer.

The key factors that greatly influence a buyer’s decision to choose one firm over another are often hidden or unspoken and because these critical factors are by their nature ‘unspoken’ it is hard for firms to pinpoint exactly how or why they did – or did not – win a new piece of work.

It follows that if firms could somehow determine these hidden critical elements behind a buyer’s purchasing decision – what buyers are really thinking or looking for when engaging a professional services firm – they should be able to tailor their approach and consequently increase their chance of winning new work.

Over the last few months, as part of a wider project, Openside have spoken to a selection of senior buyers of professional services from some of the world’s largest and most well-known organisations. Combined, these buyers spend hundreds of millions of pounds on professional services every year.

During our conversations we asked them what they are really looking for when evaluating professional services providers who, on the face of it, are all able to provide the service they are seeking. What are the key ‘hidden and unspoken’ factors that critically influence their buying decision and how can firms adapt their approach to business development? Here’s what they told us:

“Added services are not added value”

Many firms believe that by adding supplementary ‘free’ services to their proposals, often outside the scope of the engagement, that this will “add value” to the client. For example, firms proposing for audit work will occasionally offer ‘2 free days of IT consulting’. The buyers we spoke to said that firms need to realise that added services does not equal added value.

In fact, by offering additional services that fall outside of the scope of the engagement, firms were actually making the buying decision harder for the purchasing team. Whether prospective clients choose to work – or not – with a professional services firm, comes down to the perceived value that will be created by the firm and whether this aligns with the value they are seeking. By adding supplementary services to a proposal, firms suggest to the buyer that may be struggling to illustrate enough value within the defined scope of the engagement.

“Demonstrate how you will add value in my unique context as a client, not just my industry or sector”

Often in their proposals, firms will outline their experience in and knowledge of the client’s sector. The buyers we spoke to said this experience was often a prerequisite for speaking to the proposing firm in the first place.

What buyers really want to see is how the firm will add value based on an understanding of their own unique context – their current situation, strategic objectives, strengths and challenges. A firm’s proposal should be based on an analysis of the client’s context at an individual level, not the higher sector level.

“Don’t just sell but help. Add insight. Don’t just take me for a coffee or dinner!”

Throughout the business development process, firms have many opportunities to add value to a prospective client. The buyers we spoke to said they would much prefer firms to help them, to add value and to provide insight in these interactions, not simply take them out for a coffee and a chat.

Throughout every touchpoint in the business development process, firms should always seek to offer a point of view on the client’s current situation and add some insight. Every interaction with the client is a ‘moment of truth’ and a chance to illustrate the value you would bring to an engagement.

“What will you leave behind? Be clear about the change you will make. To be honest, we don’t want to have to use you for the same project again in the future!”

Be clear about what change you will have made at the end of the engagement. What thinking will you have changed? What knowledge will you have passed on to the client’s people?

Knowledge transfer is one of the easiest ways for professional services firms to add value during an engagement. In your proposal, we suggest you explicitly outline how you will transfer knowledge to the client in the engagement. Will you offer training to the client’s people throughout the project? Will you offer support after the engagement? The key, particularly for the buyers of consulting projects, is that they don’t want to have to engage you, or another firm, to undertake the same project a few years later.

“Ask me what I want – don’t just tell me what you think I need”

We have previously written about the problem of procrustean solutions in professional services, whereby consultants don’t listen to what the client actually wants but instead offer a predetermined and predefined solution to their problem. The buyers we spoke to told us that “procrustean solutions” regularly appear in the buying process. Too often, firms decide what you need and how they will do it, before they’ve even asked any detailed questions about the problem or the client’s context.

The key for firms is to ask questions and then actually listen to the buyer’s needs. Only then can they offer a solution. Rather than their desired goal of illustrating knowledge or expertise, firms should recognise that ‘‘asserting” their authority can create a feeling of inferiority or subservience in the mind of the buyer – which is far from ideal if you want them to engage you. Firms should ask questions, listen to the answers and frame a solution within which the client is the hero, not the professional services firm.

“Have you simply copy and pasted, or have you really put some effort into framing my problem and providing the resources needed to solve the problem?”

Universally, buyers told us they can tell immediately when a firm has copy and pasted a proposal. From their perspective, if the firm is not willing to put the effort into a proposal beyond CTRL+C and CTRL+V, is this really an advisor they want to work with? Will our organisation simply be another generic client to them?

Those responsible for business development should recognise that using “find and replace” and “copy and paste” is not tailoring a proposal. Tailoring a proposal means understanding the client’s unique context and illustrating how you will respond directly to their problem.

“Be clear and transparent about the team who will actually be working on the engagement. I want to meet those who will be on site as part of our team”

Bait and switch” is a strategy occasionally employed by unscrupulous sellers. They tempt buyers with products at a low price, only for the buyers to subsequently discover that the advertised goods are no longer available. This tactic should have no place in professional services, and yet, surprisingly, the buyers we spoke to told us it is employed by many firms in the business development process.

Firms will include sector experts, well-known management ‘gurus’ and additional specialist Partners in their proposals whom, they claim, “will provide expert input, guidance and oversight” to the project. The reality is that these additional experts will have very little to do with the engagement beyond the business development process – and buyers know this!

We were told of times when BD presentations were led by Partners who would have little or no engagement with the project, while those who would actually be delivering the project were left standing silently in the background.

The ‘bait and switch’ tactic does not leave a good impression in the mind of the buyer. Instead, they want to meet the actual team who will be working with them. They want to see whether the people ‘on the ground’ delivering the engagement will work well with their own team. Indeed, one buyer told us he considers any proposing advisors or consultants as if they were going to actually become members of his own organisation: “The name above the door is important, but those who will be delivering the project are key.”

“Show me a return on investment – make this abundantly clear”

Illustrating value in the form of financial return is paramount for most buyers. They need to see that for every pound they spend of their organisation’s money, there will be a financial return of several multiples.

Proposing firms should recognise that a financial return on investment will not simply be a key performance indicator for them but also for the buyer. By making a financial return on investment clear, firms are also helping the buyer. As Seth Godin has written, the key to business development in B2B is how can I help you look good when you are talking to your boss about the work we have done for you?

Importantly, for some professional services engagements the financial return on investment is not always obvious, at least, not in the short term. This is particularly true for consulting projects when it is often hard to determine the true value of a project until long after the engagement has been completed.

For this reason, professional services firms should also focus on other measures of ROI and value that they will create, and that will make the buyer look good. Additional (non-financial) ROI figures might include efficiency, brand awareness, customer satisfaction, CSR considerations, regulatory compliance, speed to market, future proofing and knowledge transfer.

Business development in professional services can often appear a bit “hit or miss”. That’s because the key factors that motivate a buyer’s decision are often hidden or unspoken.

In this article we have outlined a few of the key but previously unspoken issues that buyers consider when choosing a professional services firm. We hope that a deeper understanding of these hidden factors will have positive implications on the behaviour of professional services firms and their people throughout the business development process – from initial scoping and critical client conversations through to written proposal submission and final presentations – and ultimately, improve new client acquisition.