Consultancies Must Rethink the Way Their Prospects Buy
“How does a prospect become a client in your consultancy?”
I posted this question to a group of senior consulting leaders not too long ago during a workshop session.
The answers varied greatly and most involved explaining a complex – and, at times, confusing – a process with continuous back-and-forth until the prospect is sent a contract for services that outlines the work and deliverables, ending in both parties signing it.
Here’s the thing, though. Most consulting firms I’ve spoken to over the years do not have a clearly defined prospect experience.
It’s not like purchasing a piece of software, for example, where you, as a prospect, go to a website, review the features, browse through reviews, sign up for a demo, then purchase the solution – the “self-checkout” process.
Considering the direction in which B2B buyers evolve, consulting firms should seriously rethink their prospects’ journey. While it cannot be reduced to the simplicity of buying products, there is a lot that consultancies can do to make the experience of their prospects more aligned with their expectations.
I’d like to discuss this in further detail in this article.
The changing behavior of B2B buyers
In the article, I explain that B2B buyers take a page from the B2C buyers’ book. They do their own research online, want to see reviews or other types of proof, and want to be able to purchase with a click.
Data backs it up. Research by Gartner shows that 83% of B2B buyers prefer ordering or paying through digital commerce.
Furthermore, when the purchasing process is led by sales representatives, only 24% of B2B buyers complete a high-quality deal. This contrasts with self-navigated purchasing processes, where 65% of B2B buyers complete a high-quality deal.
Why do self-navigated purchasing processes get better results?
The answer lies in the power of access that digital channels are giving buyers. They no longer depend on brochures and pitch decks sent to them by sales reps or scheduled demos.
Buyers expect to be able to do their own independent research, evaluate the pros and cons and compare to competitors – all before getting in touch with the vendor to finalize the sale.
On average, buyers complete 60% of the buying journey (other research even talks about 70-80%) before they actually engage the vendor. In a way, this takes most of the control away from vendors.
But that’s only if you think of the buying process in an outdated, old-school way.
I believe this empowers the B2B sector by allowing them to carefully plan out and expand their online presence, simplifying and automating the experience of their prospect.
Companies no longer have to have massive sales teams. They can create online journeys and guide prospects through content strategies that generate demand.
The most important mission of the journey: educating the prospects!
Creating an educative experience for consulting prospects
Of course, we must differentiate between buying a product and buying a service.
And most of the statistics are about products like software, where creating an online check-out process is more feasible. You can’t fully replicate it in the services industry. Consultancies sell time and expertise, not physical or virtual products.
However, changes in buyers’ behaviors do not happen in a vacuum. We develop certain habits and expectations as consumers (in fact, we all became B2C buyers, in a way).
We then start expecting similar experiences as B2B product buyers. These trends ultimately expand into every purchasing decision – be it buying a new washing machine as a consumer or a consulting service as a senior executive.
Consulting firms should pay close attention to buyers' behavior and trends in the B2C sector. It’s only a matter of time before these trends spill over into their prospects’ expectations.
And what started in the B2C space is already 100% true in the B2B space – buyers want ownership over their experience with a product or service.
They want to do their own research, they want informative websites and documentation. Academy-like. They want to quickly understand the value of what a consulting firm can deliver, validated by former clients in similar situations. They want a seamless, self-informed experience.
In short – they want the space to educate themselves before reaching out to a company representative.
Consulting websites are anything but prospects-education-driven
Despite these pronounced buyer behavior trends, most consulting firms fail to create a seamless, educative user experience.
They continue to use generic buzzwords. They continue to write braggy website copies that are all about “WE do this” and “WE are experts in that”. They fail to engage prospects by showing what problems they address and how they do it.
To understand exactly what a service from a consulting firm would entail, most consulting companies make prospects get in touch with them via a generic form on their site or an email address for one of the consultants. To put it simply, most consultancies’ websites suck.
I dive into details of what I see as the most significant problem areas in consulting websites in one of my posts if you’d like to check it out.
Increasingly, this is not what prospects expect of consulting websites and the type of information they contain!
"If your website isn’t your most effective source of pipeline & revenue, then something is wrong." (Chris Walker, B2B Marketing Expert and CEO at Refine Labs)
How consulting firms can improve the experience for their prospects
As I’ve mentioned, since consulting firms do not sell products but rather the time and expertise of their consultants, they can’t fully replicate the prospect journey of software vendors.
However, they can come close by using the most powerful weapon in their arsenal – audience education through expertise sharing.
Step 1: Get the prospects’ attention with authoritative content
This is all about establishing and growing a consultancy’s reputational footprint.
Firms should continuously produce content that generates demand through audience education. They should create social media posts, case studies, and articles that resonate with their target audience.
This means diving into subjects that prospects most care about – their pain points. And showing solutions. Offering insights that make prospects see their current state in a different light. Educating the audience.
“Your content is your first sales call with a prospect”. (Matt Scianella, Gorilla 76)
Recommended reading: Shaping Your Consultancy’s Thought Leadership To Accelerate Growth
Step 2: Demonstrate the ability to resolve pain points
The next step for consulting firms is to clearly demonstrate their ability to resolve their prospects’ pain points on their site.
This should be reflected in individual service pages. Instead of putting up a laundry list of services, firms should show how they can help with specific pain points and needs. Add relevant case studies. Include testimonials from past clients that go beyond “Consultancy X is great” and describe HOW Consultancy X helped this client go from a pain-ridden state to the promised land.
Step 3: Make the collaboration and implementation approach crystal clear
So many prospects struggle to understand what to expect from a consulting firm – what working with one entails. Is it a training session? Is it an audit? Will it take two weeks or two months? What will the prospect get as a final result (what’s the promise of a specific service)?
Once consultancies draw in their target audience through their educational content and demonstrate their ability to resolve their pain points through social proof, they need to explain precisely what collaborating with them entails – an implementation roadmap, if you will.
By clarifying all these questions in a single service page, consultancies empower prospects to decide independently.
Step 4: Encourage the prospects to get in touch
This last step is when consulting firms step into prospects’ experience. At this stage, the prospect is 90% certain they want to go ahead with the consulting firm, and it’s up to individual consultants or firm leaders to confirm and close the deal. This is done via a call, a meeting, or email communication. At this stage, it’s a matter of hashing out the specific details and price points.
"Consultancies must understand they need to help their prospects how they can move from where they are today, to where they could be tomorrow. Picturing the (self-informed) journey to help the prospect doing his/her ‘homework’ and build the business case to invest in the consultancy."
My personal experience guiding prospects to get in touch with me
My advice in this post is based on three things: (1) the B2B trends I notice; (2) the audits of business development approaches of dozens of consultancies; (3) my personal experience.
I’ve covered the first two points. So let me wrap up this post with a brief summary of my experience. Here’s how I engage my prospects:
- I educate my audience. I constantly share my knowledge and expertise. I do it through blog articles, LinkedIn posts, speaking engagements, webinars, newsletters, etc.
- I put pain points into a larger context, helping understand their urgency. This often involves explaining why specific pain points cannot be left unaddressed. I try to shift my readers’ thinking by using my expertise to help them see the bigger picture.
- I break down my services by pages. I can audit a consulting firm’s positioning and create a roadmap for improving it; I can conduct a workshop for senior leadership; or I can offer an immersive learning experience at one of my retreats. Each service page details the problem I’m addressing, why that problem matters, and how I go about helping my clients resolve it.
- I encourage my prospects to get in touch. Each service page features a form or a call-to-action button to schedule a call or get more information about that service. By the time I receive a form submission, the prospect was able to understand what I do, how it matches their needs, what specific service will help them resolve it, and what the service entails. I need to provide very little new information at this point. It’s mainly answering a few logistical questions, discussing fees, and setting timelines.
This is how independent of an experience I strive to provide my prospects. When they fill out the form to contact me, they are sold on my expertise and what I can do for them.
They already read my content. Many of them are already subscribers to my newsletter, so they are very familiar with what I do, who exactly I work with (early disqualification of non-ideal clients), how I can help, and what the process of getting started is all about.
This body of work I share and my prospect engagement channels did all the heavy lifting before I speak to the prospect.
And guess what? My prospects are happy too! At no point do they feel deceived. At no point they feel like they depend on me to get a solid understanding of my services.
They find everything that they need to independently decide whether they’d like to engage one of my services.
Wrapping up: understanding the buyers’ mind is the starting point
To create a simple, education-driven experience for prospects, consulting firms first need to map out how they recruit new clients and what the current experiences are.
To successfully redesign the experience, firms must first identify which topics their prospects would be most engaged with. Create a list of pain points and start creating content that addresses them and puts them in a larger context.
Consultancies should use their expertise to educate their audience and guide them through easy-to-understand services that offer tangible results.
Buyers do their homework. Consultancies should be the ‘master enablers’ of that homework. The best ‘homework enablers’ will be the winners of tomorrow.
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Hello, I’m Luk Smeyers, and I’m helping mid-sized consultancies become high-performing consulting firms. I have been in the consulting businesses for more than 20 years, in very different roles: as European CHRO in a global consultancy, as a founder of a mid-sized analytics consultancy, and as a leader in a 'Big 4' consultancy, post-acquisition of my consultancy. I had the privilege of achieving global visibility as a consulting leader, and I never had to sell, persuade, or negotiate as a result. I have now bundled all those experiences, expertise, know-how, research, reading, successes, struggles, and failures from managing and advising consultancies in the past years.