Buying and Selling Services

When it comes to buying or selling intangibles, the pain is on both sides of the table. For the buyer, that which is undefined and unknown is frightening. For the seller, demonstrating value and forming a clear picture of what is required is daunting.  Here’s a few tips that might help us all.

Buyer tip: You’ll need a different process to buy.
Buying consulting services, web development, marketing, accounting or any other intangible services is nothing like buying paper clips or office furniture. The very nature of the services precludes the standard approach. Most often, this approach is in the form of an RFP.  The very nature of your need for services is the problem with this approach – the only way to write an effective RFP is to know exactly what you want and in what form the solution will take. Unfortunately this is rarely the case. The danger is that the RFP specifies the wrong solution to the wrong problem or that it isn’t specific enough.  Either problem makes it almost impossible to evaluate the responses in terms of the potential effectiveness of the solution.

Instead, create a short list of potential resources, issue an RFQ (Request for Qualifications) and allow the firms to implement their process to identify the need and develop a scope of work based on your requirements. In other words, don’t make the mistake of prescribing the solution without fully understanding the nuts and bolts of what is required to deliver it. Put the problem out to the short list and enlist their expertise to identify the write solution and budget.

Seller: Get over yourself
I can’t count the number of professionals who believe that they are above “selling”. I suppose they believe this because they have a preconception about what it means to “sell”. If they believe selling is what used car dealers and that annoying Slap Chop guy does, they’d be correct. However, if they view this activity through the lens of working to solve problems and improve their client’s situation, I have a feeling that they would get over it. Ask yourself this: “If I saw a solution that would put significant additional revenue in my client’s coffers, would I be willing to help?” Of course you would. That’s not selling. That’s providing a valuable service that your client appreciates.

Buyer: Find your inner trust
This one is difficult. We’ve all been the victims of incompetent service providers who talked a great game but didn’t deliver on their promises. However, approaching the buying process rooted in distrust will only make you vulnerable. The good news is that we are all hardwired to judge whether someone is trustworthy or not – as long as we don’t allow our preconceptions to block this intuition. When you form your short list of potential service providers, ask around your network to get some insight into how they do business. Look at their  list of clients. Your gut should tell you who you can trust – then you can be open about your needs and the outcome you desire.

Seller: Don’t mystify – CLARIFY!
I have met many service providers who really believe in the “baffle them with bullshit” approach to selling. They love opaque jargon and meaningless but important sounding words and phrases, all the while thinking they are showing the prospect how much more they know about their area of specialty than the buyer. This is not a good strategy. Instead, strive for establishing true understanding – share information that the prospect can use to make a good buying decision – even if that decision isn’t in your favor. Service providers need to be educators.

The buying and selling dynamic is often described as a “dance” or a “game”. This is only true because people are simply not transparent during the process – each side deeply worried about being taken advantage of. If both sides focus on solving the problems at hand with open and honest dialog, everybody wins. And that is the best outcome of all when buying or selling intangible services.


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