I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the notion of client risk when choosing to hire us – us being defined as management consultants, financial advisors, attorneys, architects, etc. – those of us in the professional services. In my last post, I wrote that understanding client risk is one of the keys to winning more business.  I’d like to dive a bit deeper into this – especially the aspect of client risk that relates to our professional competence.

As I’ve thought more about the client’s buying decision journey, I’ve come to appreciate the difficulty clients have in discerning how good we are at what we do.  Whatever it is we are experts at – law, accounting, building design, or financial analysis – it is universally true that we know more about our profession than our clients do.  We have years  (possibly decades) of education and experience in our field, and our prospective clients don’t.  When they hire us, they are faced with the difficult task of trying to assess “how good we are at what we do”.  And, “how good we are relative to others in our profession”.

Competence risk lies at the center of why selling professional services is much harder than selling a product – even an expensive product.  If you doubt the truth of this claim, explain how we can make a purchase decision on our dream home after a one hour walk-through – even if the home is north of $1M – yet struggle for months when deciding which architect to hire to design our dream home.  The difference lies in the gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what may be’. 

Yale University’s Paul Bloom speaks to this in his highly-regarded 1984 article in the Harvard Business Review titled Effective Marketing for Professional Services:

“Because buyers of professional services are often uncertain about the criteria to use in selecting a professional, they tend to focus on one question: Have you done it before? People prefer to use accountants and management consultants who have worked in their industry previously, lawyers who have litigated cases like theirs, architects who have designed buildings like the one they want to build, and surgeons who have performed the needed procedure hundreds of times.  Using an experienced professional makes a risky purchase seem less risky.”

Prospective clients look for clues to our competence, because they don’t know of a better way to truly evaluate our competence.  These may come in the form of:

  • University degrees and the relative prestige of where we went to school
  • Our certifications (such as a CPA, PE, etc.)
  • Examples of our work (buildings, legal cases, IPOs, etc.)
  • Interviews by reputable news sources (magazines, newspapers, TV, etc.)
  • Published works (books, articles, etc.)
  • Industry awards and accolades
  • Recommendations from prior clients
  • And, as Paul Bloom indicates, prior work that is very similar to theirs

Understanding that a prospective client is struggling with this assessment of our professional competence is key to us demonstrating our competence.  Clients don’t want to be our learning curve.  We may know how good we are at what we do, but we can’t assume that the client has drawn this same conclusion.  It is up to us to patiently demonstrate our ability.  Rushing through this phase can lead to future delays in the client’s decision – or worse, the client choosing to work with another individual or firm who did a better job at demonstrating their professional competence.

When speaking with a prospective client, remember to meet them where they are in their decision journey.  Ask yourself, “have we clearly demonstrated that we have experience that fits their needs?”, “have we built a compelling case that we are their best option?” and “have we demonstrated our abilities to all that may influence the decision?” Showing our professional capability isn’t just marketing hype.  It is a vital step in the client’s decision making journey and the better we are at recognizing this milestone, the better we will be at winning client business.

There are other important factors as well in the client journey – such as integrity and diligence and timing – but we’ll save those for another day.

Happy holidays, friends!