This article was written for and first appeared in Marketer, the magazine of the Society for Marketing Professional Services

While a structural engineer can precisely calculate the maximum load a structure can safely carry, marketing and business development is far less exact. Business relationships are complicated by human emotions on both sides of the relationship.

Emotion plays a large, but under-appreciated role in vendor selection. Rather than leading the decision, logic often plays catch-up, rationalizing decisions already made. Laying bare the emotional component of the decision-making process leads to powerful insights regarding a firm’s relationships with its clients. Over-weighting logic puts too much focus on the tasks to be performed at the expense of seeing the entirety of the client’s business. This is a simple concept, but not a simplistic one.

Misunderstanding the role of emotion in developing new business extracts a high cost and affects all types of firms. When it comes to generating the stream of new clients and projects that provide the lifeblood of your business, weak results can’t be sustained forever.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little

As the goal of marketing is to assist potential clients in selecting your firm, your priorities should align with what clients need to know to make the best decision for their situation. More information is not always better: Forcing too much information on them can be as detrimental as leaving them guessing.

Focusing on just the right information is a simple concept, yet in practice, most A/E/C firms weight their marketing and business development to reflect why they would select their own firm, or why clients ought to select their firm. The trouble is, clients are humans and the actual reason clients select your firm reflects their situation and experience, not yours. Their reasons might not be entirely logical.

Over-weighting your own perspective carries a high cost:

  1. You end up sounding like the other vendors. Spare me the stories of how high-quality deliverables and client service set you apart. It might even be true, but it doesn’t matter. When everyone says the same thing, any real value is submerged beneath the cacophony of sound-alike claims.
  2. You talk about yourself rather than the client. When you offer a self-referential perspective, it’s hard for the client to feel you understand their situation and needs. If a competitor does a better job connecting with the client, the business is theirs. Despite all the concrete, A/E/C is still a relationship business.

In the end, you’re left wondering how that ideal client got away. Calling it unfair or bad luck offers no roadmap to a different outcome next time.

 

Your Clients Tell a Different Story

Over the past 15+ years, I’ve conducted hundreds of in-depth customer interviews for clients. These interviews explore the deceptively complex question of identifying the key factors that win businesses for that firm against other great options.

My interviews reveal that the specifics of how a firm services its clients does far more to set it apart in the clients’ minds than task performance and cost. Clients expect you to expertly perform complex tasks, so that’s not a differentiator. Guiding the client through an uncertain environment filled with complex challenges promotes a deeper, more enduring relationship.

Internalizing the client perspective will clarify your priorities—and maybe even alter your business model. Expertise makes the conversation about you, the vendor. Offering expert advice and wise counsel shifts the focus to the client and their business. Both expert and advisor orientations are valid business models, but they imply different approaches with different priorities. Because some ways to provide great service are mutually exclusive, you have to pick. What’s listed on the invoice may not reflect your real value to the client.

Just as a building requires a strong foundation, setting priorities that connect you emotionally with clients should provide a platform for everything you do. A seriously deep understanding of why your best clients select your firm naturally aligns your priorities to ensure efficient and effective marketing and business development. The bottom line is, revenue and profits grow by having more of your firm’s ideal clients. Your ideal clients close faster, are more profitable, and more fully appreciate your firm’s specific approach.

Getting It Right

Recognizing the role of emotion and how your firm builds relationships is a bigger factor in the selection process than what you deliver creates clear and logical priorities that lead to a steady stream of new business. These client-shared priorities visibly support the growth of your firm while providing a common-sense metric of success. Don’t be surprised when clearer business development priorities produce improvement on the delivery side as well. Taken together, this is powerful stuff.