“Most professional services firms understand WHY clients hire them, but they don’t really understand HOW they do” — Jeff McKay.
The vast majority of firm websites I visit reinforce this for me on a daily basis. An incredible amount of thought is put into what the site says and how it says it. Yet, frequently, very little thought appears to be put into how someone actually becomes a client. This article highlights:
- The Difference Between What’s Important to Buyers and How They Buy
- 8 Stages of the Client’s Buying Process
- 2 Stages Where the Website is Most Critical
- 3 Recommendations For Applying the Learnings
It’s one thing to attract a potential client to your site, it’s another thing for them to actually initiate a meaningful conversation with your firm. And, it’s an entirely different thing altogether for that potential client to eventually become an actual client, isn’t it?
For someone with a complex problem considering hiring an A/E or consulting firm providing a complex service, this isn’t just one, or even two visits, is it? It could be six, seven, ten, fifteen, twenty? Couldn’t it?
Clearly, if we want the site to help us truly create new client relationships we have to look more closely at what’s happening in the buyer’s journey and during those site visits don’t we?
What’s Important to Buyers is Not The Same As How They Buy
I’ve seen a few research studies lately into “how clients buy.” While they’re all quite interesting, I usually feel as though they’re only telling a small part of the story — what buyers say is important to them in selecting a professional firm based on a large survey of buyers (after the fact).
That’s interesting information, but it’s just a moment in time. It’s a snapshot documenting what was perceived to be important at the moment of selection when we reflect upon it. How clients actually go about finding, evaluating and hiring a firm is more like a long, poorly lit home video. There are a lot of activities, people and criteria that influence things along the way, but it’s a bit fuzzy figuring out what’s really going on.
Logically, firms recognize that their websites, and their content, play a pivotal role in all this. The surveys tell us so as do the dollars being applied by firms large and small to continually enhance their online presence.
Yet, much of what’s happening on most firm websites looks an awful lot like that simple snapshot I described above. Much of the web experience is geared towards that single moment in time shortly before selection. This is abundantly clear when you look at how poorly firms handle their calls-to-action — the only CTA most sites provide is “call us”; sometimes it’s paired with the email address and the mug of a practice lead. When a firm does this, they’ve essentially collapsed the whole buying process down to the end; the point someone picks up the phone or completes a contact inquiry. Yet, when we do this we’re grossly oversimplifying the complexity of the task at hand.
So, if we’re really going to position ourselves, through our website, as a valuable resource at many points along the client’s journey, we have to take a bit more introspective look at the buying process and the website’s relationship to it.
Eight Stages of the Buyer’s Journey
There are plenty of sophisticated models we can use to describe the process a client goes through to hire a firm, but for our purposes, I’m going to consolidate it to these 8:
This is the pre-problem zone; the client has no known or perceived need.
At this point, the client has identified either a specific business problem or some indicators of one. They’re either looking for ways to diagnose what’s causing the problem, to figure out how to solve it, or to find a firm that can solve it for them.
The research phase generally involves a wide range of “traditional” activities — reading and learning from articles written by known subject-matter experts to talking to co-workers, colleagues, friends and trusted advisors. And, it involves a range of “less traditional” activities — researching online (Google, social media platforms and prevailing industry websites). The latter represents one of your best ways to get your firm in the conversation when a client already has peers and trusted advisors they’ve turned to for advice.
The client may involve potential firms in some preliminary conversations here or they may do all their research without direct contact. Depending on the complexity and cost of inaction, the research phase could last as little as a few weeks or stretch well into months or over a year. Regardless, of how long it takes, the research phase isn’t concluded until the client feels they have a clear grasp of what’s causing the problem coupled with a sense of how to fix it. Usually by the end of the research process, the client will have identified a short list of potential firms and developed some opinion of the cost, resources and time needed for the investment.
Now, comes what may be the hardest part of the client’s journey; resolving to do something about the problem. Resolving may be as simple as the leader of an organization or business unit building up the confidence to commit to changing their organization. Or, it could involve a few people developing an initial business case for presentation to senior leaders. Regardless, at this point in the process, buyers are looking to build a vision of a better future reality — both for their business and for themselves personally. Usually, this is a period of time where the client goes away and works through a variety of internal activities to move forward.
Firms need to be clear about the fact that they’re not just competing against other firms. They’re also competing against other alternatives — solving the problem in-house or doing nothing altogether. A lot of business is lost during the resolving phase because firms don’t know whom or what they’re competing against.
This is the critical stage where the client finalizes the business case for investment. This is when the client commits the resources — time, people and money — necessary to move forward.
At this point, the client generally has a vision of what needs to be done, though it may still be a bit fuzzy. They’ve likely established a preliminary timeline to get there, and have steeled themselves for the investment of resources necessary to do. Generally, a budget has been assigned, but this isn’t always the case.
Yet, they’re still in deep learning mode. The learning that occurs during this stage can completely change the trajectory of many solutions. But, the learning that happens at this stage looks almost nothing like the learning that occurs back in the research stage.
At this point, they go back into the short list of viable partners identified at the onset and vett them. Essentially, they’re exploring these folks in more detail — who they are, who they’ve worked with, what they’ve done, and most importantly what they’d be like to work with. Generally, the evaluation stage occurs both online and “in-person.” A client tends to cycle back through a firm’s web presence at this time to try and get a sense of what it would be like to work with them. They may schedule a series of informal conversations with firms. Or, they may establish a somewhat more formal interview or RFQ/RFP process. Regardless of how it’s organized, the key activities in this stage center around getting a sense of what it would be like to work with a handful of firms and trying to get a feel for the perspective each firm might bring to the situation. This phase may culminate when the client issues an RFP or begins direct negotiations with a firm or handful of firms.
The first 5 steps of buying are very rational activities. The action step is essentially the “blink” moment for the client. And, it’s often largely irrational and emotional. At some point during the evaluation process, something just tells the client the right firm and right solution for their situation. Generally, the client makes the decision that just “feels” right and post-rationalizes the decision later.
7. Sold & Servicing
This is the period of the engagement; the client is actively working with the selected firm to implement the solution.
This is the period after the engagement when the client is advocating on the firm’s behalf around the efficacy and impact of the relationship.
Two Stages Where the Website is Critical
One of the things we’ve been using marketing automation for is to study how clients interact with our website in relationship to the conversations we’re actually having with them. Based on our dialogue we have a sense of where they are in the buying and with our automation system we can see how they’re interacting with our site over time.
What we’ve found is that prospects are most likely to spend meaningful time with our website when they’re Researching and Evaluating, and here’s loosely what that seems to look like:
Three Recommendations for Applying These Learnings
Here are three things I think you should do with this information:
- Content. Do a quick inventory of your site content. Make sure you have a healthy balance of content appropriate to the 2 stages of buying when clients are most likely to be on your site. I’m willing to bet that you’re overweight in one or the other. My guess is you want something like an 8:1 or 10:1 relationship between content for researchers and content for evaluators.
- Calls-to-Action. Make sure you’ve identified relevant and appropriate calls-to-action for potential clients at each stage of buying where they’re spending time on your website (both Researching and Evaluating). Be thoughtful about this. When you stop and think about it. There are a lot more ways to encourage a client to take action beyond “initiate a conversation.” Your CTAs can actually help you determine where someone is in their buying journey.
- Stop and Think. What would your website look like if it existed entirely for researchers? For resolvers? For planners? For evaluators? For active clients? How would it impact your business if your site could be valuable to clients at more points along the buying journey than it is now? Would your firm be THE trusted advisor if it was adding value at each step along the way?
This article was intended to lay a framework for this topic. Here are some additional useful related posts:
- A/E Firms — Mapping Your Website Content to the Client’s Buying Cycle
- Consulting Firms — Mapping Your Website Content to the Client’s Buying Cycle
- Why Conversions Matter. The Importance of Calls-to-Action on Your Firm’s Website.
- Jeff McKay at Prudent Pedal was both the inspiration for this article and a contributor to it. Many of the comments about buyer psychology within the 8 stages of buying were adapted from his feedback and candor.
- The 8 Stages of Buying were adapted from a webcast conducted by noted business development consultant, Blair Enns.