Survey casts light on how clients buy services

In these still uncertain times most professional service businesses are thinking hard about how to attract new customers and win business. Many companies had no burning need for a formal approach to marketing in the boom years. They comfortably relied on repeat business and referrals and their companies grew very successfully as a result, thank you very much.

Times have changed. The old methods of lead generation are no longer sufficient. If you want your company to survive this downturn and come out of it stronger, you need to get serious about marketing.

Looking at the problem from the client perspective is a good place to start. If you understand how they approach supplier selection you can implement an informed marketing strategy with the greatest impact on your ability to win new clients.

I’ve recently bought the Raintoday 2009 Benchmark Report on Professional Services Marketing and Selling. The results of this comprehensive survey give a fascinating insight into how clients buy, and what they look for in potential suppliers. It’s a compelling read for any professional business who wants to market effectively.

Here are the highlights…..with a few comments from me:

How clients initially identify providers

Raintoday asked buyers, when searching for potential providers of consulting and professional services, which methods they use to identify and learn more about them.

  • Unsurprisingly, referrals come out on top.  Referrals from colleagues and other providers remain of critical importance to those looking to purchase services of any kind…..The challenge is to make yourself ‘referrable’ – do your contacts know what you do, who you do business with and the value you bring? Can you increase your pool of contacts?
  • Referrals have been joined at the top of the list for the first time in 2009 by ‘Personal Recognition or Awareness’. Buyers want to buy from companies they feel they know: name recognition and reputation are increasingly important…..Get your name out there and make yourself known.
  • Seminars and presentations are a popular method, as they give buyers the chance to evaluate providers in action, face-to-face. They help to position you as a leading expert in your field and are a great way to generate good leads…..a worthwhile investment.
  • ‘Influential content’ is becoming more important. Useful, educational content, disseminated via the web, is shown to be a critical element in the new lead generation mix. In the past, the only way that a potential buyer could find out about your company was via a direct approach from a sales representative. Now, prospects research you carefully before deciding whether or not to meet…..Invest in content marketing – make sure you give them the information they seek – articles, case studies, whitepapers and books – promoted via the web.
  • Social media has joined the list for the first time – c. 1/4 of buyers were somewhat or very likely to identify and learn about service providers through online media such as social networking sites or blogs…..Ignore social media at your cost.

The growing influence of the web

“83% of buyers said that the service provider’s website influenced their decision to engage in initial discussions with that provider (compared to 65% in 2005).” Raintoday report.

No debate; the first stop for potential clients is now a visit to your company website. The results show that buyers are increasingly influenced by websites when deciding who to contact and do business with. Your website is the place where buyers go to interact with your brand…..It’s never been more important to make sure that your website is up-to-date and reflects your brand effectively (see previous article on ‘The 4 pillars of a successful business website’ for some tips).

How Buyers Decide to Hire Service Providers

What factors are most important in a buyer’s decision to choose a service provider?

  • Buyers want firms to demonstrate how their services would add value and deliver results for the client business.
  • Companies tend to prefer companies who have direct experience in the field in which they work. They hire the firms that seem to best understand their problems and needs…..Demonstrating expertise and understanding in the client’s particular niche is vital.
  • Cost and fees are seen as increasingly important…..In the current climate, expect a ‘dogfight’ to win new business.

This is just a brief overview of some of the results in Raintoday report. They surveyed 200+ buyers in 8 service areas (including accounting and financial consulting; architecture, engineering, and construction services; human resources consulting; IT consulting and services; legal services; management consulting; marketing, advertising, and PR; and training services).

The research was carried out in the US and it would be interesting to know whether buyer behaviour is similar in the UK. My gut feel is that the same principles apply.

What are your thoughts? Does this reflect your experiences of how clients buy your services? Any surprises?

I hope you find it useful.

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  1. Phill

    A very good article and food for thought. You jut can’t get away from the fact the Referrals is such a big influence. Real-world delivery of excellent service continues to make a massive difference. But the social web allows us to make the referral process easier, more targeted and more direct.

    Thanks for another great article.

  2. J Perrott

    Great article. Good to see it from the client perspective! JP

  3. Jane Northcote

    Hi Sonja – another thought-provoking post! The title of this survey is, I notice, “How clients initially identify providers” – “initially” is an important word here, I think.
    My perception is that at the moment clients are sticking with their existing suppliers – people they trust, commercial arrangements that are already in place, contracts that have already been agreed. The main factor here seems to be “safety”: low risk, certainty. This factor, interestingly, does not seem to appear in the survey.

  4. sonja

    Thanks for the comments.

    Phill – isn’t it interesting to hear that referrals are still so important and I agree, social media can really help here.

    Jane – you may well be right. The survey was written a good few months ago now I believe and it would be fascinating to know how client behaviour has changed over the last year.

    I’m working on a project for a company at present, calling their customers and contacts to get feedback and find out what they really want from their services. To date , clients have stressed ‘VALUE, VALUE, VALUE’ – doing more for less seems to be the current theme.


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