Sometimes a new perspective comes from a direction that you least expect. That's what happened to me on a recent trip to Istanbul.
That new perspective was on why professional services marketing so often goes off-track and how to fix it. It all started at the Bazaar.
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is a must-see on every tourist's itinerary. It's one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops, which attract up to 400,000 visitors daily. It contains everything from handmade rugs to furniture and leather goods, gold jewelry, candy (Turkish Delight), household items and much, much more. It's an assault on the senses.
Photo Credit: www.flyerizer.com
As you stroll through the bazaar, shopkeepers size you up and begin the pitch. If you pause to look at something it really starts to heat up. As a shopping experience, it's not to be missed.
That's when it hit me... this is what's wrong with much of professional services marketing. We have inadvertently turned it into a virtual Turkish bazaar.
Before you conclude that I have taken leave of my senses, consider some of the eye-opening parallels.
A stroll through the Professional Services Marketing Bazaar
As you enter the professional services marketplace you are likely to encounter many of the experiences one is likely to have in the real bazaar.
Everyone is a customer - No matter who you are or what your situation, we have just what you need. Sound familiar? We can help just about anyone with just about anything. Every firm is a potential client so we better not do or say anything that would cause someone to not select us.
Does everyone need a handmade Turkish hand-woven carpet? Well, not every potential client is well suited to the professional services you offer. You would not know this from many firms' websites or marketing efforts.
I'm your new best friend - A smile and a friendly hello are attempts to engage you and gather information. How many professional services marketing plans are built on first establishing social relationships? Admit it, you've heard it a thousand times.
While I'm certainly not recommending rudeness, is a faux friendship really necessary to provide professional services? Genuine friendships, if and when they develop, are fine.
Just tell me what you want - Trying to sell whatever a potential client wants is a slippery slope. While it may be fine to try to cater to any sign of interest in a real bazaar, is it really helpful in a professional services context?
Sometimes the worst thing you can do is giving a client what they ask for. They may not realize what their true need really is. Yet this is a trap that many firms fall victim to. RFPs can give a false sense of true needs.
The more you can afford, the more it will cost - Do you charge more for clients with bigger budgets? Welcome to the bazaar. As merchants size you up, they are calculating what you will end up paying.
There is a price for Turks (knowledgeable buyers, perhaps of limited means) and a price for tourists (uninformed buyers). The wealthier the tourist seems to be, the more the merchant believes they will pay. While pricing based on needs and level of expected services makes sense, many firms are dangerously close to a bartering mentality.
We have the best quality and the best price - Amazing, isn't it, that hundreds of merchants selling similar goods all have the best quality and the best price?
This is the same amazement that potential clients experience when they hear that every firm they speak with has... great people, superior client service, and offers an exceptional value. These sorts of unsubstantiated claims, offered without any support, ring about as true as that of the tenth merchant you've heard describe the same product in the last ten minutes of your walk through the bazaar.
Everything is negotiable - After you've claimed to have the best solution at the best price, now it's time to start negotiating. If you are offering the right solution at a fair price, how can you negotiate? Were you overcharging in the first place? Are you now going to cut corners?
While I fully understand that some industries have an expectation of rounds of biding with 'best and final offers,' it really does send a mixed message at best. At minimum it seems that a firm owes a level of transparency around its pricing practices to potential clients. Who assumes the risk of it taking longer than you estimate? Pricing manipulation is not a good foundation for a trusting relationship.
Beyond the Bazaar
One of the things that made this experience so insightful is that at the same time we were experiencing the bazaar, we were also experiencing a very different model of how to offer professional services. It all started as many professional relationships do - with a referral.
Meet the specialist - When our friends at home heard that we were contemplating a trip to Istanbul, they said that we should consider the guide they had used on their trip. Their description was reassuring as were his website and online reviews. He specialized in the needs of folks just like us, which was also reassuring. So our friends introduced us and through email we were briefed on what to expect... the choice was obvious.
He educated us - At each step along the way our guide explained his approach and why he did it that way. He pointed out pitfalls to be avoided and where unanticipated problems might arise.
But most importantly, he educated us about the traditional arts and crafts, how merchants worked and what one should expect to pay for at different levels of quality. It helped to turn an experience from bewildering and intimidating to engaging and enlightening. Is this approach right for every tourist? Undoubtedly not, but it was right for us.
He was unfailingly helpful - When we wanted to do things beyond our 'scope of work' he was there to make recommendations to his trusted sources. When there was no difference between options, he told us so.
He built trust through his actions - We came to trust his advice and perspective through the results it produced, not through false friendship or hollow assertions. He was an individual and a professional doing his job well. What's not to trust? He delivered on his promise.
He was transparent about pricing - When it came time to consider the usual souvenirs, he had them available through his trusted sources. No pressure. No trying to talk us into a purchase that would benefit him but not be the right one for us. In short, his services and products were ideally suited to our needs and expectations.
When this contrast struck me it became clear why content marketing or expertise based approach works so well for professional services firms. If you feel that your services are commodities, you will be drawn to the 'bazaar' model.
The inevitable result is that potential clients will feel both confused and manipulated. You will encourage them to barter on price and under value the services you offer. And perhaps worst of all is knowing that it doesn't have to be that way.