Buyers: How Clients Buy Professional Services


Buyers, the second element of the Client Management Model™, explains:

• the Client's buying process;

• how to profile the buyer;

• buyer motivations and influencing roles;

• analysing the decision-making unit and its power and influence;

• organisation mapping;

• the importance to Clients of hiring top talent;

• the value of referrals;

• how international Clients buy.


• Can we work with these people?

• Are they competent to do the work?

• Can they deliver on time and on budget?

• Are they reliable?

• What is their track record in our sector?

Initial Thoughts

The purchase of professional services can often be quite complex for both parties involved. Although Clients are essentially 'buying' people, reputation and experience, the decision to buy relies to a great extent on the eventual development of trust between supplier and provider. At the early stages of considering purchase, the person with buying authority must carefully evaluate the people who aim to deliver the service, the reputation and quality of that service and likely value for money. At this introductory stage, there is usually no commercial relationship between buyer and supplier. Procurement of professional services usually involves a number of people at different levels and with differing interests and agendas - these multiple decision makers can reside in a complex web, so it is important to have a process to understand and map these.

Compare this relatively complex purchasing situation with buying a product which you can try out, examine and even try before you buy. Due to the nature of advice given by professional services firms, it is not always possible to know the overall scope and cost of a matter or a project, so the development of trust between Client and supplier is critical. Of course, this takes considerable time and only develops once an engagement occurs, the true test of how the two organisations will work together.

How Clients Think and Feel

Many people often take for granted that all buyers are similar and will negotiate their suppliers down to a price regardless of the type of service required. While many consumer or service industry companies have identifiable buying teams, the 'buyers' of professional services can be found in many parts of the organisation depending on where the need arises.

Buyers of professional services generally go through a logical thinking and procurement process, given the relatively complex nature of the purchase. The following exercise, based on surveys and business development feedback, was used in workshops, particularly with partners of accountancy and law firms who were interested in understanding more about buyer thinking and behaviour.


Your Account Manager and a prospective Client have had a really good meeting. During the meeting, the Client noted eight points.

Put the following eight statements[1] in the order in which you think they occurred in the mind of the prospect. For example, if you think that statement F is the first, place a I next to that statement and so on.

Table 2.1 How Clients Think and Feel



Your Order


That idea will help to develop our business.


1 am not certain whether they can be consistent.


They are concerned about our company's performance. Normally suppliers are only interested in getting more business from us.


Let's hope their support team understands the details.


1 need to have a revised timetable.


1 hope that they can explain how this will work.


On balance, 1 think that we will give them a chance.


It's interesting that they asked those questions, it happens to be a critical issue for us.

For the most likely order, see Appendix I.


A property surveyor wanted to increase the current 20 per cent rate of conversion from leads to firm instructions, so it was decided to hire a consultant to create some land agent-seller scenarios. The consultant spoke with a number of partners across their agency network and came up with six different types of seller, representing the main source of enquiries received by the surveyor's agents. Six different agent-seller interview scenarios were created and each would feature a partner who had to take turns as an agent in one scenario and a seller in another. Partners were given time to prepare for both sessions. Each interview was filmed and non-participants could watch the meeting from an adjacent room.

What became clear early on in the first interview was that the agent was not really listening to the seller but was keen to explain how good his firm was in selling land. In other scenarios the sellers gave out a number of interest signals that were clearly missed by the agents. It was also evident that agents were not giving sellers enough reasons to use their firm.

Each scenario was reviewed by the participants and their colleagues, so that opportunities and pitfalls could be highlighted. After six of these sessions the partners agreed that they should listen much more closely to establish the requirements of the seller and present clear benefits of being instructed.

The process was rolled out countrywide to other partners and then senior managers, and resulted in the conversion rate rising to over 30 per cent within six months.

A bonus from the exercise came when a number of Clients gave feedback about how engaged they felt during their meetings.

  • [1] Adapted from the original, attributed to my colleague Anthony Culley in Marketing Improvements Group.
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