It was perhaps one of the more interesting tweets that I’ve seen all year. It was simple in it’s focus and deep in it’s meaning. It was from a friend of mine, Kari O’Brien (@KariOBrien): “that’s it i’m in love with #quora. i use it almost as much as google/bing, and it’s not a hassle like blekko.” I knew immediately that I had to speak with Kari. We did. I then spoke to a few others, and the pattern began to emerge. Sure, each person, from Kari on down, had a different “use case” for Google, Bing & Q&A sites. But what was common between them all was that Q&A sites like Quora and Focus were, in fact, taking mind-share away from the traditional search engines. Not much, but enough to indicate a fundamental shift in the way that people were using the internet for research and information. [side thought: take a moment to consider what you see as the differences between information and knowledge...]Go back a year ago – if you wanted information, or knowledge, you went to search engines, typed in a few keywords, or the general subject you were looking for, and 324,541 websites would appear. Best of all, it cost you nothing. That was the age of information as a commodity, and the tools you used to find that information were search engines (like Google and Yahoo-Bing). Yes, the knowledge was there, but you had to dig (often deep) to get it.But the new use of Quora, Focus and similar sites has changed the way the game can be played. These are Question and Answer sites. You ask a question, and anybody can answer it. In turn, you can answer anybody else’s question. If others like your answer, they can, in a crowd-sourced manner, vote up your answer. Answering a question, and having it voted to the top of the ranks, implies Knowledge of the subject matter of the question.WHAT ARE KNOWLEDGE AND COMMODITIZATION?Before I dig any deeper, let’s take a quick look at what Knowledge and Commoditization really represent. According to Wikipedia (which references the Oxford English Dictionary):
Knowledge is “(i) expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject; (ii) what is known in a particular field or in total; facts AND [my emphasis] information; or (iii) to be absolutely certain or sure about something.”
Wikipedia’s definition for a Commoditization is much simpler, but equally telling:
“Commoditization occurs as a goods or services market loses differentiation across its supply base, often by the diffusion of the intellectual capital necessary to acquire or produce it efficiently. As such, goods that formerly carried premium margins for market participants have become commodities.”
Let’s put these two together in light of Kari’s statement (and my subsequent conversation with her and a few others): When they are looking for information or knowledge, they may still use Google or Bing. But when they are looking for Knowledge, they increasingly go to Q&A sites. Not only do they get to see the top rated answers, but they also get to see differing, alternative answers and viewpoints (and thus can make their own decisions about the value of the answer). And it costs them nothing. Knowledge, like information, has become commoditized. Q&A SITES AREN’T NEW, BUT THEIR USAGE, AND IMPACT, IS.Ask.com has been around for years. The same is true for Yahoo Answers. Even LinkedIn Answers and Facebook Questions are jumping onto the Q&A bandwagon (many people already use the social media site Twitter as a Q&A tool). But what has changed is the type of “content” that people are searching for, and the search tools they use to find it. While Google & Bing are great free tools for finding massive amounts of raw information, sites like Quora and Focus have become the free search engines for Knowledge – and the popularity of these Q&A sites is indicating both a shift in the relative value of information vs knowledge, and the commoditzation of both. HOW DOES “CONTENT OF VALUE” EQUATE TO COMMODITIZED KNOWLEDGE?I’m not arguing that there still isn’t “content of value” that will always carry a premium price (especially in the upper-end of the analytical and investigative analysis/research), but for the mass market, this is a profound change that certainly has implications for those who previously provided “Knowledge” as part of their business or value proposition. For those in the Professional Services industry, here are some questions to consider:
How does the commoditization of knowledge impact your Professional Services business?
What if your client already has a pre-conceived notion of the “right” answer that just isn’t “right” for their particular situation?
How do you add value – and improve upon – the knowledge that a client may have gathered from a Q&A site?
How does commoditized knowledge help you improve your “value-add” services? Can you leverage this same information to improve your own offerings?
For a continuation of this discussion, and a slightly different business perspective, check out “Professional Services: What is your Product?” by my friend Marcio Saito (@Marcio_Saito). He’s got some interesting insights, and questions, from his unique business perspective that are well worth the read.
To keep up with all my posts, you can subscribe to my Email feed or RSS feed. Thanks for reading – Fred.
A man runs into Superhero, Inc., charges up to the store owner and says “I’ve got a major problem! Can you help me?” The owner calmly replies “Of course.” He then goes into the back room and returns with Jimmy Olsen. The man is immediately suspicious. “That looks like Jimmy Olsen… I was hoping for Superman.” The owner takes Jimmy back into the back room, puts a Superman suit on him, combs his hair in the other direction and brings him back out front. “There,” he declares, “Superman.” The man is a bit hesitant, but satisfied and turns to leave the store with Jimmy Olsen in tow. On his way out, the store owner says “Remember to bring him back by 9pm, and don’t let him try to jump off any buildings.”It’s human nature for people to seek out the Superhero who will save the day. But in the real world, unlike comic books, Superheros only have so many hours in the week, and can only be in one place at a time. Equally important, not all problems require a Superhero, and can easily be handled by a Sidekick (sure, they work as a team, but sometimes Robin, the boy wonder, can match or out-perform his more famous mentor, Batman).THE PROFESSIONAL SERVICES DILEMMAIn the world of professional services leadership, the “Superhero Syndrome” is a part of everyday business. Clients want the Superhero professional, while professional service providers face the task of balancing out what is really best for the client.If you are a sole practitioner, this may not be much of a problem – you are your firm and it becomes a matter of time allocation. But as you grow your business (and your partnerships), role players become an increasingly important part of your overall capabilities and offerings. Unfortunately, while you may be growing and expanding, your clients may still view you as the Superhero and pay little or no attention to the excellent staff, and their strengths in various roles, that you have built around you.As your firm grows, this problem can become a recurring event, as your employees begin to attain their own level of “Superhero” status in the eyes of your clients, many of whom will come to expect that they will always deal with their preferred member of your staff, and the reality that they can’t always have access to that individual can be a harsh pill to swallow. In some cases, the client may be willing to wait until that individual is available, but what if that individual isn’t (in your professional leadership opinion) the best role player to handle the job that the client needs for a particular task? This often occurs when a client’s needs change over time, yet they only feel comfortable dealing with the individual that they have worked with in the past.THE VALUE OF BEING PROACTIVEWhen building out your firm, and dealing with an increasingly large number of clients and employees, the best way to address the “Superhero Syndrome” is often through a proactive approach. While there are always going to be unforeseen issues that you need to deal with on a daily/ongoing basis, here are three proactive-oriented thoughts to consider:
Are you marketing yourself or your firm?
Do you promote a Collaborative Project environment?
Are you unintentionally playing into a Bait and Switch game?
These are merely starting points. Properly managing both staff development and client expectations & satisfaction is an ongoing, evolving task, that may differ given on the type of services being provided or the market that you are servicing. What are your thoughts? Have you encountered the “Superhero Syndrome” in your business? How have you dealt with it? What strategy worked for you? Add your thoughts below and share it with our community. To keep up with all my posts, you can subscribe to my Email feed or RSS feed. Thanks for reading – Fred.NOTE: We’ll be discussing this topic in more detail on Thursday, March 3rd during the #ProfServ Twitter chat (10pmET). #Provserv is held on alternate Thursdays at 10pm ET. Hosts are Alan Berkson (@berkson0), Kelly Craft (@KRCraft) and Fred McClimans (@fredmcclimans). Come join us for discussions on the issues facing consulting professionals! Share your insights & experience as: Legal, Analytical, Business Intelligence, Financial Advisors, Accounting & Audit, Public Relations, Sales, Operations, Management, Marketing, Interactive, Entertainment, IT, Social, Software consultants. It’s all about sharing techniques, tactics and building a community of trusted professionals.
INFLUENCE. Sometimes a simple introduction and handshake is all you need.Influence is all around us, present in almost every aspect of our lives. We live through it in school, through our teachers, mentors and friends. We see it in our family lives, as our children are influenced by our own behavior and morals. We especially see it in the broader society where people are often influenced by their favorite stars, idols or athletes – perhaps even going so far as to emulate their behavior in the misguided belief that if their idols are cool and liked, they can be cool and liked if they adopt the same behaviors or lifestyles (and no, it doesn’t work that way in real life).INFLUENCE AS WE TYPICALLY SEE ITIn all of the situations mentioned above, we are dealing with influence from the perspective of a direct cause-effect relationship that involves an influencer and an influencee. Most commonly, we see personal influence where a person, or group of people, has direct influence over another person, or group of people (classic examples involve politics and peer-pressure).We also often see influence in business and marketing, with companies striving to sway entire markets to purchase their products, often through educational campaigns (providing the consumer with the advantages of their product, its features and why it is a better option than rival products). In other cases, they may lean towards more subtle neuromarketing strategies, while others simply resort to blatant “value by association” techniques (if my favorite movie star uses that product, it’s probably a good product…).We can even take a more observational view with regard to events and actions, tracking the influence that a particular event (or group of events) today, or in the past, may have on future events (witness the history of political upheaval in one nation helping to influence, or even drive, similar upheavals in other nations suffering from similar internal or regional issues).
“Influence is much more than just changing or causing a behavior”
But there is another type of influence that is more subtle, less direct, yet often more effective at achieving a long lasting impact – and all it takes is an introduction.THE VALUE OF INFLUENCE BY INTRODUCTIONWhen we talk about introduction-based influence, we are referring to the bringing together of two or more people (or groups) that have the ability to complement each other for mutual benefit. In this case, there is no typical influencer – influencee relationship. Rather, the influencer is acting as more of a facilitator – an enabler of sorts – using the introduction as a way of creating an environment where ideas and collaboration can be fostered between the groups being introduced.
“Influence by introduction can produce some great, and unexpected, results”
Influence by introduction does not work well when there is a fixed outcome that the influencer is hoping to achieve (i.e., a specific course of action). Where it does work, however, is where the outcome that the influencer is hoping to achieve is less for their benefit and more for the benefit of the parties being introduced, or in situations where the desired outcome isn’t a particular action but rather a type, or level, of action. Perhaps the parties being introduced are an analyst and a vendor – each looking for information and insight from the other. Or perhaps the parties being introduced each bring a particular strength or talent that, when combined, can create a powerful, collaborative working group, perhaps even identifying and developing solutions to problems that none of us, myself included, may have thought about on our own. It’s all about opening up new opportunities.
“Any business can benefit from influencial introductions”
From my perspective, successful introductions are definitely a form of influence. Positive influence, like leadership, is based on trust, and introductions only work well if all parties trust, and respect, the person making the introduction. Who doesn’t like to hear from a friend or advisor: “I think you two both have some great ideas and skills – you should definitely get to know each other“? It’s more than just a pat on the back, it conveys a sense of value, potential and belonging to the people being introduced. They may not even recognize that there is a subtle form of influence at play.
So how do you or your company view influence? Most view influence as a means to drive an outcome with a specific goal in mind, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But have you taken the next step? Are you willing to use your influence, with your name on the line, to make that introduction, acting as the catalyst to allow others to create value on their own, where the outcome is far less certain, but perhaps with the potential to benefit us all?I value your opinion, and all comments are greatly appreciated. You can also subscribe to my posts via Email or RSS. Thanks for being part of the discussion – Fred.
GAMIFICATION. I just love that word. Maybe it’s the similarity to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song “Californication”. Or maybe it’s the fact that while it isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it sure sounds like it belongs – especially the way it has become such a part of mainstream business culture today.Unfortunately, as more and more businesses rely upon gaming models to drive up their user base and increase their revenue potential (leveraging social media, increased social collaboration and the proliferation of mobile devices), there is also a growing risk of these game-based business models being gamed themselves. Let’s take a look at Foursquare as an example – how does somebody “game” a business model that is essentially built as a game? This question touches on two critical, yet very different, aspects of business gaming: gamification (the creation of a game) to drive business, and the devising of a way to “game” (or cheat) the game. And when I say cheat, we’re talking more than just counting cards in blackjack, a favorite game of mine, we’re talking aces up the sleeve at the poker table.GAME-BASED BUSINESS STRATEGIESFoursquare is a social media company designed to help drive consumers (Foursquare users) to merchants (Foursquare business partners). In this way, Foursquare can be considered a social media alternative to mainstream advertising.To encourage people to use Foursquare (and thus achieve the consumer-merchant connection), the company uses a process called gamification. Gamification is the application of a competitive game-like environment to a non-game business model that is competitive and offers rewards for those who play the game regularly.
“Gamification is a means to an end for a business, but often just a game for its users”
In this case, the Foursquare game is played by users, via a cell phone application, who “check in” to various merchants that they frequent, with the hopes of gaining discounts and special deals from the merchants. To make the game interesting and competitive, Foursquare allows game players to earn badges and points for frequenting both new and previously visited merchants, locate/follow friends, broadcast their own check in locations and boast of achievements to their friends via social media (“I am the Mayor of Starbucks!”).That is the gamification of Foursquare – leveraging a game-like system as a way for Foursquare, and their merchant partners, to drive business in a “fun” way.“GAMING” THE GAMENow to the issue of “gaming” Foursquare. When we talk of “gaming” a game (like Foursquare), we are essentially talking of a way to beat (or cheat) the system. People who “game” Foursquare are looking for ways to “win” without having to actually play the game on a competitive level with other players. The easiest way to do this is through checking in to merchant locations without actually physically being at the merchant location (they currently restrict check-ins to one per day per location, so sitting in a coffee shop and checking in every 5 minutes won’t get you any Foursquare points).
“Gaming the game is nothing more than cheating.”
Checking in to a remote location is fairly easy, especially if the user is using a cell phone with limited geo-location awareness – a critical point since Foursquare uses your cell phone’s “reported” location (a Location Based Service feature), via either GPS or cell-tower triangulation depending upon the phone, to find you and suggest nearby merchants.I stress the word reported since the accuracy of geo-location depends highly on both the cell phone manufacturer (who may restrict GPS usage to save battery life) or the service provider (who may not be able to accurately pinpoint a phone’s exact location due to cell tower locations).
Note: For an interesting take on Location Based Services, check out my friend Ray Wang’s excellent post on why he is checking out of location-based-services based on some serious privacy concerns. You can also check out some amazing statistics that Foursquare has gathered on its user base.
In the early days of Foursquare (yes, 2009 counts as the “early” days when they only had coverage in about a hundred cities), many cell phones had limited or no accurate geo-location system, making gaming the system much easier, since it was more difficult for Foursquare to accurately pinpoint your exact location.
NOTE: On a purely anecdotal note, I have a friend who pointed out that at one point during 2010, the “Mayorship” of their local coffee shop was suddenly dominated by a group of individuals that not only didn’t appear to be frequenting the shop, but based on their profiles appeared to be living in a different country at the time.
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2010 that Foursquare opened up the ability to check in anywhere on the globe and began to actively sign on big-name “partner” merchants (you can even create your own locations if they aren’t already mapped, with certain Foursquare “super users” having the ability to edit locations and self-correct/moderate the system).
“Want to check into a flight? Try Foursquare…”
But back to the “gaming issue: From my own personal experience, Foursquare (through my iPhone app) routinely offers up check in locations from over 20,000 meters away (~12.5 miles), including, interestingly, airline flights (with point credit!) both inside and outside the range of my local airport (I’m thinking “vertical” here?). With a 12.5 mile radius, I can check into almost anywhere in northern Virginia without getting up from my desk, and that is exactly what some people do. So if you want to get kicked out of Foursquare (and be the Mayor of Nowhere), that is how you “game” the game of Foursquare.FOURSQUARE ISN’T ALONEUnfortunately, Foursquare isn’t alone in this situation. As I’ve delved deeper into gamification strategies and ways to leverage gaming to improve business models, I’ve come across some other potential cases of abuse. In one situation, I found what appeared to be a group of individuals collectively “upping their ranking” on a popular “Question & Answer” site – they (as a collective group) seemed to be voting up/down particular users or answers to questions – their own particular way of attempting to ensure that certain individuals “rise to the top” in terms of points, expertise, influence, clout, etc.In theory, a group of people could create a multitude of alias accounts and very quickly game themselves to the elite list of community members. This would not be that difficult in an open social network where anybody can join and the business model requires that the number of users continues to rise to remain viable or profitable (perhaps an interesting comment on the value of focused or selected user groups?). Interestingly, I’ve run into more than a few people (especially in the case of Foursquare) who say they aren’t “gaming” the system, they are just pushing the boundaries of the rules (or technical limitations) put in place by Foursquare. Their opinion is that if Foursquare wants to stop this type of abuse, change the system to actually require a person to physically check in (perhaps via Bluetooth?) to a device at the merchant location (while possible, this would be a financial disaster for Foursquare).
“For me, gaming the game to fix it is more fun than the game itself.”
None of this is to say that the use of gaming in business strategies is bad, or that there isn’t phenomenal value to adding a gaming component to areas such as marketing, consumer retention, or even collaborative problem solving (an area of personal interest). But what I do believe is that as we move into this area – fueled by the incredible development of technology and the willingness of consumers/users to participate in social games, we need to be diligent in making sure that the very gamification systems that we deploy aren’t being gamed themselves. That means devising gamification systems in such a way as to anticipate, and preclude (as much as possible), abuse of the system. If you’ve seen this in your own experience, or have a thought on how to help improve the application of gaming into business models, drop a comment below and share it. Gamification has been around for years (just like the McDonald’s Monopoly Game), and isn’t likely to ever go away. The more we discuss this topic, the better prepared we will all be to leverage it for success.
To keep up with all my posts, you can subscribe to my Email feed or RSS feed. If you found some value here, or have an opinion, leave me a comment or share this post with your friends and colleagues. I appreciate your feedback, and thanks for reading – Fred.
[Updated 1/21/11] A few weeks back, I was having a great discussion with my friends (and fellow Twitter #ProfServ chat moderators) Alan Berkson (@berkson) and Kelly Craft (@KRCraft) regarding our December 23rd, 2010 #ProfServ chat on Value Pricing.As we discussed and dissected the Value Pricing chat, and how it had evolved over the course of the hour, two themes kept floating to the top of our discussion: 1) how to deal with Professional Services that had become “productized” (sold on a fixed-price basis in a product-like manner), and 2) at what point does a Professional Service cease to be a Professional Service and become a mere service-related add-on to a product sale. Why is this important? Because almost every industry, from Hardware to Software to true/pure Service industries, uses the term Professional Services, but in slightly different ways that often result in confusion on the part of many consumers. Clarifying these issues helps both set proper expectations across market sectors and can also be useful for service providers in determine pricing strategies – especially in situations where services are customized verses productized. More importantly, many enterprise customers (especially in large corporations or government organizations) have different pools of budget money for items such as products, support services and pure consulting or business advice services.
PRODUCTS vs SERVICESAs we worked through this discussion process, we found that defining a product was the easy part – any fixed, material good that is sold on an as-is or semi-configurable basis.
But the definition of a Professional Service, or even a hybrid service/product (and the line where a Professional Service becomes a product) was a bit more difficult, including the debate over similar-but-different services such as a barbershop vs. a hair salon or a neighborhood kid with a lawnmower vs. a professional landscaping firm (outstanding service doesn’t necessarily make it Professional Service).
“Un-professional service is not the opposite of Professional Service,
it’s just poor service.”
Let’s use software as an example:
Having a software developer design a custom software application is clearly a Professional Service.
Purchasing an off the shelf application is clearly a product sale.
But what about when you purchase an application and somebody installs it for you? Professional Service? Not in my opinion. It’s product + install.
Does it become more of a Professional Service if you purchase software and somebody customizes it for you? Perhaps that is a bit closer to a Professional Service, but not, in my opinion, if the software costs $50,000 and the customization is included in the price or if the actual customization fee is nominal.
THE ISSUE OF MARKET SECTORSThis issue becomes more complicated (and important) when you consider the definition of Professional Services across different market sectors – especially with firms that offer a combination of products AND services. For example, many product vendors have Professional Service Groups who provide both pre-sale on-site surveys and design services (usually part of a product sales strategy) as well as post-sale configuration and support (usually part of an ongoing customer support/retention strategy). But their overall goal is to sell products – making money on services is a value-add or bonus (although many firms treat their service organizations a independent profit centers). As such, I would consider this to be a product-oriented firm with supplemental services offerings.
In contrast, let’s take a look at the business services sector (I’ll include strategic planning for business operations, marketing, social media and public relations as good examples here) where a service is being offered, but often results in some type of fixed deliverable (a report, a strategic plan, marketing or advertising materials, etc.). In this situation, I’d clearly lean towards describing any material deliverable as being more of a result of the services being provided, and thus treat this business as a more of a services business than a product business.TOSSING IT INTO THE CROWDAfter some good back and forth on this particular subject, we opened it up to the members of our Professional Services Roundtable group on LinkedIn which generated some additional, valuable discussions. We further discussed the topic on our January 20th #ProfServ chat, which brought out even more opinions -all equally valid but many differing considerably in scope and open to a wide range of interpretation.
“I may not be able to define a Professional Service, but I know one when I see one”
Through all of these discussions, from the original conversation with Alan and Kelly, through the LinkedIn group and into our Twitter chat, there was one constant: while we could all come up with consistent/agreeable answer to the question “What are some examples of Professional Services?” (Attorneys, Civil Engineers, Architects, Consultants, Agencies, Strategic Advisors, etc.), we were unable to agree on a clear-cut definition of just what is a Professional Service and what are the defining criteria. Even trying to scope the issue through a series of questions was helpful, but didn’t lead to any general agreement:
Does the ability to value price contribute to the definition of a Professional Service? <Some agreed, some did not – personally I think the answer is yes.
Does the way you view your consumer help define a Professional Service (does a “client” denote more of an ongoing Professional Service relationship than a one-shot “customer”)? <There was no clear-cut answer to this one, although all generally preferred to have clients over customers.
TOSSING IT TO THE BIGGER CROWD: YOUIn a way, this entire exercise reminds me of US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s oft-misquotedstatement from his 1964 opinion on an obscenity ruling, paraphrased here as “I may not be able to define a Professional Service, but I know one when I see one”.Maybe we’re looking at this from the wrong perspective. Instead of trying to come up with a unified description of Professional Services, perhaps it’s more important to answer the question “What is the need for Professional Services?”, a point brought up by Marcio Saito (@Marcio_Saito) during our last #ProfServ chat.In that regard, I feel confident in the notion that (with a tip of the hat to Geoffrey Moore and his excellent book Crossing the Chasm) Professional Services fill the gap between what a consumer needs and what is available.
So now I’m tossing the question out to you. If you’ve got an opinion or a thought on this issue, please voice it – we’d all welcome your input as we continue to delve into issues of what it means to provide Professional Services.
To keep up with all my posts, you can subscribe to my Email feed or RSS feed. If you found some value here, or have an opinion, leave me a comment. I appreciate your feedback.And thanks for reading – Fred.UPDATE NOTE:This post was originally written, in a shorter format, as a lead-in to the January 20th, 2011 Twitter #ProfServ chat. After the chat, I decided to rework the post a bit to incorporate some of the insights gained from the chat as well as expand upon some of my thoughts that I was only able to briefly address in the original post.
I was talking recently with my #ProfServ co-moderators Alan Berkson and Kelly Craft about Value Pricing and all I could think about was McDonald’s. No, I’m not a fan of their food and haven’t eaten there in ages – it was their product & pricing strategy that kept coming to mind, what they call their Meal Bundles: the Dollar Menu, the Extra Value Meals, the Mighty Kids Meal and the every-kid-must-have-one Happy Meal.McDonald’s became a leader in the fast-food services industry in part by bundling groups of items, offering certain loss-leader products and building a multi-faceted “loyalty” approach that kept people coming back for more (games like Monopoly and indoor play-houses are good examples here). Forget about the actual “cost” of their product, they created a fun “experience” that people are amazingly willing to pay for. Even my son admits that their burgers aren’t as tasty as the ones that we grill in the back yard, but every time we pass a McDonald’s his 8yr old brain shouts “Can we play at McDonald’s? Can I get a Happy Meal with a toy?”
McDonald’s has Value Meals, not Value Pricing.
Thinking back, that is not that dissimilar from what we did at my first consulting firm. We offered bundled packages of services, we gave away a certain amount of loss-leader content (writing, white papers, telephone calls) and almost always included some type of longer-term retainer to monitor the progress after we had completed the initial effort (and build that long-term, come back for more, relationship). But unlike McDonald’s, we had the ability to create a flexible pricing structure and we leveraged that as much as we possibly could.In the beginning, our pricing structure was designed to cover our expenses and make a certain level of profit on each engagement. Across the board, our pricing was fairly uniform client-to-client. But over time, as our “brand” grew and our client base expanded, we gradually adopted a different approach that took advantage of the demand, or value, that we were providing to our clients. Rather than trying to maintain a certain level of profitability, we started to look at how much certain clients were willing to pay for our services. Gone were the fixed hourly rates, replaced by a flexible pricing approach that was different for each client. It was, for us, the beginning of Value Pricing.
Value Pricing is about finding a client’s pain and fixing it. More cure = more value.
In Value Pricing, the goal is to match your price to the level of value that the client receives from your services. Forget about what your competitors are charging, or what your costs/expenses are, focus on the value that you bring to the client. To be more precise, think about the value the client believes you are providing. If they believe the value you are bringing to the table is high, price accordingly. Conversely, if they believe the value you are bringing to the table is low, you probably shouldn’t be there in the first place.Here are some guiding principles to Value Pricing that help define the concept as it applies to professional services:
Value Pricing is NOT the same as “Compensating for Value” in the financial market.
Value Pricing is determined and agreed to by the customer ‘up front” in advance of the actual engagement.
Deferred “bonus” payments – typically based on operational or sales improvements – can be considered part of Value Pricing if you really intend/expect to meet or exceed the clients goals.
For Value Pricing to work in the professional services sector, my experience has shown that there are several key items that need to be in place:QUALITYYour “brand” and reputation must equate to quality. If you aren’t bringing extraordinary quality to the table, you will never be able to convince a client of your true value. The interesting part about quality is that it goes well beyond just the service that you deliver, it’s something that must come through in all of your dealings with a potential client, before, during and after the engagement is over.TRUSTIf a client doesn’t completely, totally, without reservation trust you, Value Pricing is simply not going to work. Trust is most often conveyed through experience and references, but it is also something that you must proactively promote. How? Ask your past clients for that reference, the letter of recommendation, the endorsement. And when you get it, don’t hide it, put it out there. Especially in the era of social media, get that word out there. Or better yet, get others to promote it for you.UNDERSTANDINGIn order for Value Pricing to work effectively, you have to really understand the needs (and urgency) of the client. Taking this further, you need to think like the client – put yourself in their position and figure out where their real pain point is and how quickly it really needs to be solved. Often, what they really need and what they say they need are two totally different items. Many times I’ve gone into a potential client meeting to discuss a particular subject only to find that there is a different, perhaps more urgent, issue that needs to be addressed. In some cases, these needs are totally unrelated to the original need, in others, they are the root cause of problem they need fixed. The only way to figure this out is to listen to the client, analyze their business model and start asking questions. Sometimes you’ll be surprised at the opportunities the answers lead to.GUTSHere it is in a single word. Guts. You have to have (as my grandfather used to say) the “gumption” to take the risk and Value Price your services. I have yet to see a client offer to pay me more than I’ve asked for. If you aren’t willing to ask your client to pay based on the client’s perceived value, you are better off sticking with your standard hourly rate.There are other factors that go into making Value Pricing work for your business, and being able to not only sell the value of your services but understand the perceived value that a client is receiving is not always an easy task. But when it is done right, it is a win/win for both you and your client.What are your thoughts? Do you use Value Pricing as part of your business strategy? Has it worked, failed? Leave me a comment below and let me know. The more we share about our own experiences, the more successful we all become, and the level of client satisfaction that we deliver improves.To keep up with all my posts, you can subscribe to my Email feed or RSS feed. Thanks for reading – Fred.UPDATE: Note that his post was updated after our last #ProfServ Twitter chat. @Provserv is held on alternate Thursdays at 10pm ET. Hosts are Alan Berkson (@berkson0), Kelly Craft (@KRCraft) and Fred McClimans (@fredmcclimans).Come join us for discussions on the issues facing consulting professionals! Share your insights & experience as: Legal, Analytical, Business Intelligence, Financial Advisors, Accounting & Audit, Public Relations, Sales, Operations, Management, Marketing, Interactive, Entertainment, IT, Social, Software consultants. It’s all about sharing techniques, tactics and building a community of trusted professionals.
It started with a single, simple, question put to me by a good friend: ”What are the key qualities needed to be a leader in customer service?” There are, of course, a great number of existing text books, essays, blogs, etc. that address “best practices” in customer service, so answering the question with an easy answer was, well, easy. Too easy. So, as I often do, I stepped back and took a look at the question in its true context.The question was an outgrowth of the merging of a continuing series of conversations that I’ve been involved in regarding both business leadership and customer service. As I began considering the question in the context of these two somewhat independent discussions, a single point began to crystalize in my mind: Good customer service – industry leading customer service – involves all aspects of a company. It’s not just a customer service issue by itself, it’s a mindset or business ideal that is shared by all aspects of a company.
“Great Customer Service is a corporate mindset, not a job description”
Looking at it from a different perspective, leadership in customer service can be thought of as a trait of companies that have strong corporate leadership – leadership that values a high level of customer-centric focus, strong business ethics, team empowerment and corporate-wide cooperation. I’ll emphasis the last point in particular, because customer service is but one single piece in what I’ll call the customer cycle – the series of events and processes that exist in most successful companies.With this in mind, I’ve compiled a list of traits of companies that I consider to have outstanding customer service – those companies that are not only leaders in customer service, but influence the business and customer service models of their competitors and the industry.PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT: Leaders in customer service include their prospective customers in the development process, helping to refine both product features and availability/pricing.A great product idea is only a winner if it is high quality, addresses a customer need at the right time, in the right place and at the right price point (think of how many products failed because they were either ahead of their time or late to market – ditto products that didn’t fit the value/dollar realities of the market at that particular time).CUSTOMER ACQUISITION: Leaders in customer service don’t just sell a product, they sell the value of the entire company, including customer service. Contrast two competing vendors with exactly the same product at the same price and the same quality. The vendor that introduces the prospective customer to their client service organization – or their specific customer service representative – will win the business every time.CUSTOMER SERVICE: Leaders in customer service place value in, and empower, their customer service representatives.Employees in the customer service organization are representatives of the firm, not “agents” as they are often tagged. As such, they represent the company and are often the most important (and in many cases the only) person that an actual end user will interact with. Representatives who are empowered have the ability to follow guidelines, not scripts. They can escalate when they feel necessary. They listen to what the customer has to say and in turn, they are listened to by their corporate management, and the knowledge they gain from their customer interactions aren’t just mined, they are sought out and encouraged on a personal level (and then fed back to product development, marketing and sales teams).Leaders in customer service also recognize that each customer is different, and their needs are different. In turn, they offer a variety of means for a customer to receive support and assistance, including every social media venue where their customers are active (both listening and in two-way communications). They also provide different levels of support, allowing a customer to choose as little or as much personal contact as they require.CUSTOMER RETENTION: Leaders in customer service recognize that great customer service leads to great customer retention, and great customer retention leads to great customer advocacy.The value of retaining a customer can never be underestimated – especially if you listen to them, learn from them and adapt your products to their changing needs. I remember the days when we would set up “VIP” user groups, get everybody together once a year at a major conference and tell them how much we appreciated them.
“Customers who are partners are also part of your sales team”
With social media, leading companies are encouraging the creation of online user communities that are open to all and discussion, praise and dissent are encouraged and shared. Customers that feel you are a partner are much more likely to offer advice and suggestions to products, rather than look for alternatives. In turn, they become your best customer advocates, influencing others to consider your product through their own product loyalty and satisfaction shared in these open (not just for customer) forums.MY THOUGHTS. YOURS?These are just some of my thoughts on the characteristics of companies that are leaders in customer service. I believe that if they have these characteristics, while they may not be the largest vendor in their market, they are most likely the most influencial and will ultimately rise through the market-share ranks.Are there other characteristics or “must have” items for a top-notch customer service organization? Absolutely. Let me know what you think some of those are – I’d love to hear your opinion on what qualities are needed to be a leader in customer service.
It’s hard to think of any aspect of any market sector that doesn’t involve, or revolve around, influence. Back on October 7th, Steve Loudermilk (@loudyoutloud) and I tried a novel approach to our Analyst Relations/Influence chat (#ARchat) by engaging in a joint chat session with #B2Bchat, the B2B chat hosted by Ksenia Coffman (@kseniacoffman), Jeremy Victor (@jeremyvictor), Andrew Spoeth (@andrewspoeth) & the crew at @b2bento. During this chat, we focused on market influencers, specifically, what role can, or should, Analyst and Influencer Relations have in the B2B sector.Tonight we’re firing it up again with the #B2Bchat team for our 2nd look at influence in the B2B sector. This time, however, we are taking an inward-looking approach regarding how firms themselves influence their market, the importance of defining an “influence strategy”, working with new influencers, and measuring a firms “influence impact” on the market.Questions that we will discuss include:
How do you presently identify your own firm’s “influence” in the market?
How do you measure your firm’s influence against your competitors?
Who drives your corporate market influence strategy (both customer-side and outside influencers)?
What steps can be taken to improve your influence (How key is traditional marketing vs SM in these efforts)?
How do you spread your influence to “new influencers” like bloggers who break news stories and analysis faster than traditional influencers?
How are you thinking about your “influencing” strategy from an in-sourcing or outsourcing approach?
Please join us tonight, December 2nd at 8pm ET for this “influencing” event. We’ll be using the #B2Bchat hashtag – hope to see you there.
Along the way, we hit some key topics, such as the definition of “passion” and how is it nurtured or developed, how vision and passion relate, the dual/symbiotic roles of passion and enthusiasm in leadership, the ways that passion in leaders can drive passion in others (as well as attract people who share the same passion) and how good leaders often know when to step aside and let others utilize their own passion, building both team spirit/focus and a common sense of purpose and ownership.
I hope you enjoy the transcript as much as I enjoyed participating in the chat, and I encourage you to follow both this chat and the people below – they are some of the brightest people I know.
Feel free to continue this conversation in the comments section below, and if you like this transcript and feel others might as well or would benefit from our discussion, please RT liberally – it’s all about the conversation. And please, remember to read from the bottom up!
#LeadershipChat is hosted each Tuesday at 8pmET by @LisaPetrilli and @swoodruff (mug-shots below). This week’s chat was an “open-mic” format: bring it, and discuss it. We spent a good bit of time discussing the differences between Leadership, influence, motivation and manipulation. We also discussed the hiring/firing of bad apples and what it takes to be a leader – even if you are not in a leadership role. There was also an interesting discussion about surrounding yourself with the right team, prompted in part by @LouImbriano, and some interesting marriage-related comments by @berkson0 - all in all a great “open mic” discussion. I hope you enjoy the transcript as much as I enjoyed participating in the chat. And please, remember to read from the bottom up! One additional note: If you’d like to see this type of summary for the Analyst/Influence chat that Steve Loudermilk (@loudyoutloud) and I host each week, let me know and I’ll hire somebody to make it happen =:-)