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a brand is a distinct identity...based on a promise of value that is different from any other

A distinct identity is hard enough. A promise of value—real, desired value!—doubles the difficulty. But to appear to buyers to be “different from any other” in a crowded marketplace is a challenge few meet in the world of professional services.

Advertising, brochures and websites do not sell professional services. The right person with the right service in front of the right audience at the right time sells services. Selling services is fundamentally a relationship business. However, well-done marketing communications do serve two important functions: They condition the sale before you meet your prospect, and they reinforce the sale after you succeed. This happens by establishing a visible persona that is your firm/company in the minds of its various publics.

Most services concern themselves with substance; they scorn preoccupation with form. But, if only substance was important, magazines would publish typewritten articles, and in-house counsel would choose the unattractive and unlikable lawyer as easily as the attractive and likable lawyer. Buyers—even those who buy complex business services—are not immune to the form. Good design adds substance. And, whether we like it or not, people make buying decisions in part based on form. Form does not rule over substance; neither does substance rule over form. Use them both!

How People Find And Choose Services

All buyers (whether sophisticated or not, and whether they're buying candy bars or cars or complex business services) go through distinct stages in the buying process. You need to address them all.

Finding A Service Provider

The "finding" or "information-gathering" phase begins before people decide to hire outside counsel. Most buyers start by calling people they trust. Our research shows they are equally likely to ask someone inside their company for referrals (42 percent begin this way) as they are to ask someone in an outside firm (41 percent). To find the "right" service provider, buyers also attend seminars, read ads and articles in firm-sponsored and independent media and, of course, search the Web.

The list of candidates usually narrows down to no more than three or four, though the shortlist may double if the matter is highly important to the company. However, once the shortlist is created, all candidates are functionally equal; that is, one candidate may have more-appropriate experience, but the other may be more likable. One may have the international offices that would be helpful, but another may have more experience in your industry. The finding or information-gathering process is predominately intellectual, but once all the variables are weighed and valued, the process becomes predominately emotional.

Research shows the most important factors in the finding process are:

  • expertise (prior experience with the same type of matter with positive results)
  • cost (not the lowest hourly rate, but the best value when all factors are considered)
  • reputation of the provider
  • innovation (fresh way of treating a routine matter, or an innovative approach to a complex one).

Other factors that buyers consider, which may be more or less important, include knowledge of the buyer's industry and company, chemistry, firm reputation, billing practices and client orientation. Some of these factors can be learned through brochures, newsletters, or other communications, while others require in-person meetings.

Choosing Service Providers

Typically, people make decisions only because they run out of time—the matter is urgent, supplies have run out, or the car is waiting. Think about your own decision-making behavior. At the decision point, because choices cannot often be measured on the same type of scale, the buyer must make a predominately emotional decision. This important fact of buyer behavior is at the heart of all advertising and other marketing communication tools. You must make the buyer feel good about the decision he or she is about to make and feel good afterward.

Two factors dominate the process of finding and choosing a service provider: Expertise is usually the top criterion, and cost/value considerations rank second, becoming relatively more important in the selection stage. However, in the choosing stage as the list of possible firms has narrowed, personal chemistry and reputation move up the ladder of importance. In our research, the reputation of the firm became the most important factor for some (19 percent). That's not surprising, because those who regularly buy services must often justify their choices to management upstream. Strong name recognition and a favorable reputation make that chore decidedly easier.

Other important factors include knowledge of the buyer's industry, location(s), billing practices, responsiveness and prior experience with the firm. Notice that the factors are slightly different—and in a slightly different order—than in the finding stage. Some service providers are surprised to learn that responsiveness is so far down the list. But responsiveness is, in marketing jargon, a "post-purchase evaluation"—something that cannot be measured until the service relationship begins. Studies show that prospective buyers consider providers responsive if they return a call within forty-eight hours. To prove you are responsive, start being responsive right away. But beware of building a market position premised on “responsiveness.” For two reasons:

  • Every firm promises responsiveness so the claim rings hollow
  • Until you can control the behavior of every lawyer in the firm and are willing to punish unresponsive behavior, your claim remains at risk. Better never to make a promise that cannot be kept than to promise and fail.

Prior experience with the firm is also near the bottom of the list in choosing service providers. That should terrify every service—and with good reason. On average, companies use many service providers—to insure no single provider will hold the company hostage and to keep their providers competitive. Your firm will always be competing with others who have a piece of the same business. So, marketers, the best defense is a good offense: Keep in touch with clients through regular communications, preferably phone calls and letters, or newsletters and other communications.

Buyer's Remorse

Anticipating the buyer's emotions immediately after the sale is as important as understanding the emotions immediately before the sale. "Buyer's remorse" is that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, the fear that you've made the wrong decision. Everyone goes through this stage, just as certainly as everyone goes through confusion in the finding and choosing stages. You can address this issue through reassurance programs. For example, after buying a car, did you ever receive a communication shortly afterwards, with some reassuring message such as, "Hope you're liking your new Jeep Grand Cherokee. Come in after three months and get a free oil change”? This message really says, "You were smart to buy from us." Sellers of services can benefit from programs like this as well. The reassurance can be simple, such as a letter or useful gift (perhaps a booklet with the direct-dial numbers for all the key contacts in the firm).

Why is all this detail about buying patterns important to the marketer? Imagine your brochure to be a hammer and your ads a power sprayer. Imagine your newsletter to be a drill and your announcements, saws. Each tool has a defined use and does poorly at the job designed for another. Understanding buyers' minds and habits will allow you to understand and use your tools efficiently and precisely. For example, if you understand all the strategic roles a brochure can play, you will recognize that many different brochures are possible—as many as there are types of hammers! Successful marketing begins with research into buyers behavior, then responds to behavior with appropriate actions.

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