Editor’s Note: Hinge Marketing is a research-based marketing firm focused entirely on the realm of professional services. Since 2009, they have been conducting research involving the buyers and sellers of professional services, with the latest round reaching more than 1,400 buyers of professional services. The last version of their e-book “Inside the Buyer’s Brain” provides an in-depth look at the results of that research from 2013. They recently followed up with a webinar of the same title that focused on a few key points of research conducted this year. The intent of this post is to communicate what I believe are important elements of the research and what they mean for you.
Hinge’s most recent round of research, conducted this year, had responses from 1,475 buyers and 3,005 sellers of professional services across seven different industries, including engineering, consulting, and construction. About 35 percent of respondents were government buyers, with the remainder from private companies. They are making the full report of results available for sale, but provided a webinar on aspects of the research that they felt were most likely to be of interest to a wide audience.
Shifting Buyer Attitudes
The webinar began by addressing how the marketplace has shifted since the research done five years ago, upon which the book was based. On the positive side, buyers place more value on service providers today than they did in 2013, by 33 percent. And they also consider professional services 56 percent more relevant to their business processes than in the previous research.
However, it’s not all good news. Client loyalty is down 20 percent in that period, and firm reputation scores are down by 7 percent. Additionally, visibility scores have declined 25 percent.
So, while buyers consider professional services more relevant and more valuable than in the past, those same buyers have become harder to attract and to keep than in the past.
The Buyer Journey
The entirety of the webinar was spent on the buyer journey, the steps a buyer goes through from discovery to choosing a provider: awareness, research, evaluate solutions, and make the selection.
The top two challenges expressed by professional service providers are competition from new firms and competition from larger firms. This speaks to the distinct pressure to achieve differentiation in your marketing programs.
The other key concept described in awareness was the value proposition matrix that buyers follow (see graphic), matching up needs to solutions. At the bottom of the point system lies the known solution for a known need. This is where commodities fall. Price is all important. That’s a difficult place to thrive. At the other end of the value scale, from the buyer’s perspective, is the situation where there is a need that may not be fully clear to be addressed by a solution unknown to the buyer. They have to achieve awareness of the need and to learn about possible solutions.
Research the Issues
In order for a buyer to get a clearer picture of the issues around any need, he has to do research. According to Hinge’s study, the top four research methods that are highly likely to be used to learn more about relevant topics are as follows:
- General web search
- Read an article or blog post
- Read a research report, e-book, or how-to guide
- Listen to an expert speak on a subject
If you aren’t visible in at least one, and preferably more than one, of these techniques, you’re not showing up in the buyer’s research process. This is why content, and the associated sharing activities, are so important to your marketing efforts.
The research also asked both buyers and sellers to name competitors for their category of service. There was only a 30 percent overlap of named firms, indicating the confusion in the competitive landscape regarding who truly stands out in the minds of buyers. Where are you, and how do you know?
Evaluate Alternative Solution Providers
Having achieved awareness of the need for a particular problem solution and researched the issues related to that problem, the buyer is at the point of evaluating possible solution providers. As with the shifting marketplace, there is good news and bad news here as well.
The Hinge study showed that buyers of professional services are more willing than ever to recommend their service provider. More than 71 percent of the buyers in the 2018 results indicated they were willing to make such a recommendation, up from 68.9 percent in 2013. Unfortunately, buyers are also less likely to ask for a recommendation. In 2013, 71.1 percent indicated they would ask a peer for a recommendation. In 2018, that number is down to 59.5 percent.
So how are buyers finding out about specific providers? Today, buyers are almost twice as likely to use an on-line channel to search for a service provider than in 2013. This reiterates the earlier point about needing to be visible, highly so, to the search engines.
Add to this, buyers are putting higher emphasis on expertise of your team, by more than 50 percent compared to 2013. Coupled with the increase in on-line searches, this assigns even greater importance to the amount and quality of the content you provide. It must demonstrate expertise and skills that are a solid match with what the buyer has determined he needs.
Making the Selection
The number that smacks us in the face from the Hinge study is that 90 percent of buyers rule out a prospective provider without ever talking to them directly. If your strategy involves getting in front of a buyer in order to impress them, you are probably missing a lot of opportunities.
How do buyers make that determination? Almost 80 percent first look at the provider’s web site to determine what type of firm they are and to what degree they offer skills and solutions that are a fit with the buyer’s need. Your web site is a critical means of communicating with prospective buyers in a relevant and meaningful way. It not only must look professional, it must communicate simply and clearly what you do, for whom, and how you do it.
What are they looking for in a provider? The research says that the number one factor in firm selection is team expertise and skills. A close second is relevant experience and past performance. Interestingly, existing personal relationship came in third as a consideration. We in the professional service industry have traditionally believed that selling our services was heavily dependent on relationships. They’re valuable, but skills and experience are more valuable to the buyers.
The E-book, “Inside the Buyer’s Brain”, is worth a least a perfunctory look, even though the research is 5 years old. At a minimum, it provides an in-depth understanding of the type of data being studied. And there may be much of the information that is still relevant today.
As to the key points made by the webinar, my interpretation boils down to four things, as follows:
- Visibility is critical: You need to be doing as much as you can to be see. This includes your web site, a blog, a white paper, a conference presentation, etc.
- Content is everything: It demonstrates skills, expertise, experience, and industry knowledge, as well as the ability to provide problem solutions.
- Don’t wait for the buyer to call you.
- Don’t rely on just personal relationships.
The better you understand the buyer’s thinking, the more likely you are to be successful with your marketing activities.