Monday, January 21, 2013

Understand Your Clients? New Study Casts Doubt

There have been relatively few client studies done specifically for the A/E industry. So I'm always glad to discover a new one, especially when the results are made available for free. The latest is generously offered by Hinge, a marketing consulting firm that has become one of my go-to resources. I highly recommend that you to download their report: How Buyers Buy for architecture, engineering, and construction services.

This study has one of the larger sample sizes that I've seen for our industry—438 buyers were surveyed. I mention this because I suspect that small samples have contributed to the contradictory findings in some previous such studies. Hinge made the study even more interesting by adding 84 service providers to the mix, asking them how they thought clients would answer the survey questions.

By interviewing both groups, the Hinge report illuminates a problem I've written about in this space before—we don't know our clients as well as we should. The report highlights several discrepancies between what buyers say matters most and what sellers think matters most to buyers. Recognizing those differences—what I call the Value Gap—is important to your ability to succeed in both selling to and serving your clients.

Below is my take on some of the study results that I found most interesting:

Your firm's reputation is critically important. In one of the starkest differences between the two groups, 81% of buyers said that developing a reputation for delivering results was the best marketing approach, while only 3% of sellers concurred. A good reputation also topped the list of selection factors, with 58% of buyers identifying it as important. A/E/C sellers were closer to the mark in this case, with 51% concurring.

So how do you sell a good reputation? The study results offer a clue. When asked to rate the reputations of those firms they worked with, 65% of buyers gave them a rating of 9 to 10 (interestingly, less than half of sellers expected clients to give them such a high rating). But when buyers were asked to rate the visibility of those same firms in the marketplace, only 28% gave them a high rating.

That reinforces the role of marketing in building a strong reputation. Most clients in this survey see the strengths of the firms they work with, but question whether those strengths are evident to other buyers in the marketplace. The best approach to marketing your reputation is not self-promotion, but demonstrating it through content of value to clients (see also this summary of best marketing tactics).

Sellers underestimate the value wait, overestimate the value of service. This one took me by surprise. When asked by Hinge what factors ultimately swayed the selection, only 4% of buyers indicated good client service. Similarly, only 2% of buyers said that avoiding poor service was an important factor in choosing a firm. A/E/C sellers thought this factor was much more important to clients—38% expected service to be a top selection factor.

If you've followed this blog for any time, you know that I consider service excellence a great opportunity to differentiate your firm. The Hinge study findings hardly reinforce my point. But I have other evidence to back my conclusion, including interviews about service with hundreds of clients over the last decade. Why the difference? I suspect the lack of a consistent definition of what good service entails in our industry (a topic I plan to address in my next post). 

For example, buyers said that the two things they most wanted to avoid were broken promises (32%) and working with firms that were just like everybody else (22%). Those both sound like service issues to me. In my experience, when clients are unhappy with A/E firms not doing what they said, it almost always involves service matters rather than technical ones. 

I also know that firms are much more likely to distinguish themselves in how they serve their clients (i.e., not just like everyone else) than in their technical expertise. And when clients fire their A/E service providers, it is far more likely to be service related than based on technical failure. So I'm sticking to my guns despite the apparently contradictory evidence.

Another surprise is that a third of buyers thought that service is a critical selection factor. My observation is that A/E firms generally give little emphasis to service in their sales process. I've reviewed hundreds of proposals, for example, and rarely find any substantial reference to client service or the working relationship (the two are synonymous in my mind). Nor is this likely to be discussed in sales calls, other than perhaps throwing out a few empty marketing slogans (e.g., "we really listen to our clients").

Referrals are the best way to start the sales process, but clients aren't being asked. Hinge found that 62% of buyers learn about new A/E/C service providers through recommendations from friends and colleagues. And 32% indicate that referrals are a best practice for marketing your firm to them. No doubt referrals contribute substantially to your perceived reputation, as highlighted above.

The good news is that 68% of buyers said they are likely to refer or recommend the firms they work with. But...80% of buyers haven't given referrals because they haven't been asked; only 5% haven't referred because they're unhappy with the firm. See an opportunity?

Even when clients are fully satisfied with your firm, most don't initiate giving referrals. They wait to be asked, either by you or another buyer. So clearly, learning how to ask for referrals is another high value marketing tactic—and an obvious topic for another future post.

How Buyers Buy offers many other interesting insights, so check it out. It can help you close the Value Gap between you and your clients. But the best way to understand what your clients are really looking for is to ask them yourself. That sounds like another great resolution for the new year!

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