As work becomes commoditised there are ways to add value, lift yourself above the competition and earn the respect of clients. Begin by challenging your clients and demanding answers. Here's how.
You’re an accountant and need a new kitchen in your house. You and your partner, a school teacher, draw up what you think would be the perfect design, then invite three kitchen companies in to quote. The first two look at your design and offer competitive costings.
The third, after carefully considering your document and asking questions about family, lifestyle and more, suggests changes. They draw on decades of experience to show you where your design is lacking and how it could be enhanced with a different layout, new materials, better lighting and unique fittings. Their changes result in a far more efficient, modern, stylish and exciting design. They charge 25 per cent more than the others, but suddenly cost is not so important.
In this example, your “schema” has just been shattered, says Gavin Freeman, performance psychologist and director of Business Olympian Group. A schema is one’s image of the world. It’s your picture of how things should be. The couple who collectively had zero experience designing a kitchen developed an idea of how the space should look. The first two businesses supported their schema, but the third offered an argument strong enough to completely reshape it.
What does all of this have to do with business? Its shows the differences between businesses that accept they have been commoditised and those that refuse to, says Blair Enns, CEO of sales and pricing training business Win Without Pitching. If a business or consultant hopes to earn respect and succeed financially rather than join the race to the price basement, this example is an important guide.
“If you can get the potential client to rethink their assumptions about what their problem is and what their solution should be, your likelihood of wooing the business goes up significantly,” Enns says.
“If I went to a cardiac surgeon and said, ‘I have a pain in my chest and I think I need quadruple bypass surgery’ and he said, ‘OK, lie down on the operating table’, he would be guilty of malpractice. Some of the professions that have a high barrier to entry take such an obligation seriously, to the extent that you risk losing your credentials if you violate that principle of diagnosing before you prescribe. Then there are others who tend to think of themselves as being in the service business where there are no professional or trade implications around prescribing without proper diagnosis.”
Enns says people in professional services are taught to believe they are in the business of service. Behaviourally, this means companies focus on keeping the customer happy. It also means they rarely challenge the client.
“If you see yourself as being in the service business, you will find yourself in situations where you are nodding ‘yes’, but thinking ‘no’,” he says. “It results in situations where you think a certain path of action might not be the ideal solution, but you want the business, so you quote on it and do it anyway.”
It is vital for professionals to first realise they are in the business of expertise. In doing so, they reclaim the high ground in the client relationship, or at least put themselves on an equal footing. At that stage, a productive conversation can take place around how the client best moves forward with a project, incorporating the consultant’s expertise into their decision-making process.
“People are sometimes worried about having direct conversations because they’re worried about offending the client,” Enns says, “but as we get into training on some of the key principles around this idea, those fears usually evaporate. Almost everybody eventually sees that the bigger crime is not serving clients properly.”
How to question without offending
When a client or potential client approaches a business and asks for a quote on a specific piece of work, how does the company or consultant respond with a question, instead of an answer?
Ceinwen McNeil, managing director of consulting firm First Follower, says it’s important to begin by understanding that people tasked with writing a request for a proposal or designing some other sort of work request are often doing so in isolation. They might consult others and they might speak with stakeholders, but they are in an environment likely lacking the detailed knowledge and experience of an expert.
Consultants and specialist businesses, on the other hand, do their work all day, every day, across a wide range of industries and often internationally.
According to McNeil: “That means most often you’re in a better position to say, ‘That’s a really interesting way to look at that problem, but have you thought about these factors? Have you considered what it is going on here and what it is you’re actually trying to achieve?’ That’s one way to move the conversation to a different point.”
Recently Freeman’s consultancy was approached by a multinational firm for a quote concerning a leadership development program. The firm had never worked with Business Olympian, so there was no prior relationship and therefore no trust. The firm developed its own idea of what a leadership development program might look like, then asked for a costing.
Freeman says it wasn’t a good model for a program, “so I simply said, ‘I’m not giving you a quote for that, but I’d like to help you out. I’d like to give you three hours of my time, and in return I’d like you to offer me three hours of your time. We can spend this time together, workshopping a model for the program.’ They loved it because it was enormously helpful for them. Of course, it also built trust and mutual respect.”
"Without asking questions, you usually don't have enough information to present the right options and therefore to do a great job." Ceinwen McNeil, First Follower
McNeil offers another case study from one of her clients, a medium-sized legal practice specialising in family law. Its clients, during divorce proceedings, for example, seemed completely focused on minimising costs by staying out of court and utilising the law firm as little as possible. The focus on minimising costs meant legal processes were slowed.
It was the final quarter of the calendar year, so McNeil suggested the firm experiment with different types of offers. Rather than simply offering a standard bill of fees and a time-and-materials quote, it could offer two options. One would be the standard quote, the other a model that involved doing whatever was necessary to have the divorce proceedings settled before Christmas.
“The law firm was amazed when the client took the settled-by-Christmas option, paying a premium that was almost three times the amount of the time-and-materials quote, because they wanted to enjoy Christmas without the pain of the divorce process hanging over them,” McNeil says. “It’s simply about asking different questions at the beginning of the client relationship in order to find out what the real goal is, or what the real goal should be.
“Whether your business involves engineers, architects, lawyers or accountants, we’re all people with technical expertise and that’s what we get paid for. It’s important that we listen to what our clients are saying, but then ask questions rather than say, ‘Here’s my bill of rates. Here’s the cookie-cutter response.’ Without asking questions, you usually don’t have enough information to present the right options and therefore to do a great job.”
Don’t think of it as a challenge
Enns says this strategy is not about challenging for the sake of challenging, nor is it about challenging for the sake of winning business. Instead, if you can use your deep knowledge and experience in an authentic manner to convince a client to rethink assumptions about their problem, and what the solution should be – or their path to procuring that solution – then your reputation and standing will in their eyes be dramatically improved. This builds trust and respect, which, of course, is good for business.
“If you acquiesce at that moment and simply give the client what they’ve asked for while you’re doubting whether or not it’s in their best interest, you have surrendered the high ground to them,” he insists. “Even if you win the business, you’re now in a vendor position, with little power. You have impaired your ability to do your best work for the client.”
Experts should see themselves as the prize to be won in the relationship, he adds. Once you see yourself as the prize, the client is more likely to see you as such, rather than vice versa.
Enns tells a story of a friend who hired an architect to design his new home. He paid and briefed three architects to come up with concepts. He and his wife provided the architects with a list of everything they wanted in the home. They weren’t impressed with the first proposal, but the second was a great success. Architect number two hit everything on the couple’s list, which they initially didn’t think would be possible. However, the third architect disregarded their list and instead said, ‘Let me show you what a great house looks like’. It was a radical rethink of the couple’s plan and would cost 50 per cent more than architect number two’s plan. Of course, architect number three won the job after successfully transforming the couple’s schema.
Much like the story of the kitchen renovation, it is a tale of experience and expertise winning out over price and commoditisation. For businesses and individuals who recognise and value their own worth, it illustrates a process that provides a perfect differentiator for those who have earned, and therefore deserve, respect.
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