Why Value Changes Everything

David Maister has been a huge influence for me.

David Maister Book Collection

Back in the 90s when I first read Managing the Professional Services Firm it was like the scales suddenly fell from my eyes and I could see the world of consulting as it truly was.

It was what first got me interested in understanding the business of consulting, rather than just being a good consultant.

His explanation of the Professional Pyramid, in particular, was groundbreaking and explains why - to this day - the big consulting firms still rely on hordes of junior staff on projects.

And a decade or so later it was a short little online video from him (which you can see below) that helped me realise why I was making such a mess of my marketing.

Let's rewind back to the early 00s when I was working for a big consulting firm. I'd just been promoted to run one of our major client accounts and was now responsible for the zillions of sales we needed to get from them.

Being promoted was great, but with it came something I found rather uncomfortable.

My relationship with my clients changed too.

Before that moment I was a consultant they valued speaking to because whenever I called or emailed it was always to share something useful or to talk about a project we were working on.

Now I was an "account manager" the reason I called them was to try to sell them something.

At least that was what I thought I was supposed to do.

You see, back then, my view of marketing and sales was very "opportunity driven".

To me, marketing was all about finding people who needed what we had to offer and then convincing them that we were the right people to help.

So I'd try to get in front of buyers and decision makers to find out what they needed and then match up what we did.

I started spending a lot of time on the phone or email trying to get "exploration meetings" set up where I could ask them about their problems to try to spot an opportunity to help.

Or I'd go to events looking for "hot leads" - buyers on the cusp of a purchase.

I guess you could call it opportunity-based marketing.

Everything was geared round finding people who were ready to buy what we had to offer.

I was confident we were good at what we did. And over the years I'd got good at the whole "consultative selling" thing where you ask clients about their challenges and issues, diagnose them then propose a solution.

The problem was that clients weren't that interested in me grilling them about their problems. Or in me telling them about what we could do.

Because 90% or more of the time, they weren't looking to hire anyone yet. So they'd get no value from that kind of meeting.

Opportunity-based marketing works really well when you have a big pool of clients looking to buy very soon.

It doesn't work so well when the vast majority of them aren't ready yet.

And it's even worse if you need to build significant credibility and trust before they'll be willing to hire you. Because that doesn't happen overnight. 

I found the harder I pushed to get meetings, the more clients stopped taking my calls or returning my emails.

It reached a point where I was getting rejected so often I just stopped trying. It was too painful.

But every now and then, something came along which I found much easier and which worked much better.

Something which clients were actually enthusiastic to meet up to discuss. And which often led to sales in a very natural way where the clients themselves led the process.

It was when we had new research or ideas to share.

Every year we did a big research project in my client's sector where we interviewed our clients, their customers and various industry experts and compiled a research report which we then published and offered to present to our top clients.

When I called or emailed to offer the presentation the answer was almost always yes. Because the clients I was calling knew they would get a lot from the meeting.

And often the presentation would lead to discussions about problems they were having or something they wanted to achieve in an area the research touched on.

And pretty soon we were scoping out a project that we could do for them.


Both sitting at the same side of the table.

Not me trying to grill them about their problems and them sitting stony-faced unwilling to open up.

Not me trying to persuade them to hire us by telling them what a great job we'd be able to do for them and the amazing benefits they'd get.

Instead, they were happy to talk about the problems they had because we'd shown we understood them. And they knew we could do a great job because of the quality of our research. They knew they could work with us because of the way we worked with them in the discussions.

Sales coming from those research presentations (and others where we shared valuable new information) basically kept me in a job. Because I wasn't getting any from anywhere else.

Of course, I didn't put 2+2 together at the time and realise that this was a different sort of marketing. One that really worked.

I still kept this unhelpful perception in my head that marketing was about chasing opportunities.

And I still had that mindset when I hit my dry patch years later when I'd started my own business.

I was still looking for hot leads and not finding them. Trying to get meetings to ask people about their problems but finding that wasn't something they wanted to do.

But then, just by chance, I spotted a little video on David Maister's website about winning new clients. It was a clip from a talk he'd done where he told a story about how he'd been successfully marketed to by a lawyer when he had to deal with his aunt's funeral.  

The story starts at 5m14s in...

(Trigger warning: David says some mean things about lawyers...)

(David's now retired, but his website is a real treasure trove of insights and common sense for any service professional. And I'm sure he'd still appreciate it if you bought one of his excellent books).

The talk is from 2007 and the story is even older as it involves a fax machine.

But the lessons are just as valuable today. Perhaps more so since clients have much more choice today and can easily screen out messages that don't help them.

Hearing David's story made me realise that I'd done pretty much the exact same thing as the successful lawyer back in my big consulting days with the research project. 

I just hadn't realised it.

In his words: the way you get somebody to hire you is to earn the relationship by giving first. You say 'let me do something for you so you can come to your own conclusion about two things: One: you will be able to tell for yourself whether I have the qualifications to serve you. Two: it will tell you what I'll be like to work with'.

Understanding that changed everything for me.

I realised that since the vast majority of my potential clients weren't ready to buy when I first got into contact with them then trying to push them into talking about their problems or discussing how I could help just wasn't going to fly.

It was way too early.

If someone is in the early stages of exploring their new found problem then hiring someone just isn't on their mind yet.

They're not going to be interested in you coming in to grill them on their problem and proposing a solution. They don't see that as valuable yet. 

You need to do something for them that's valuable to them right now.

In fact the key turns out to be understanding what stage of the buying process your potential client is at and always giving them something that's valuable at that stage.

If they're just starting out looking at a problem, then some form of diagnostic tool is incredibly helpful. As is an overall roadmap of what the journey might look like, or information on how others have tackled the problem.

As they get closer to being ready to buy they start to value information on different potential solutions and what the success factors for a successful implementation are.

And as they begin to take the decision, they'll get value from a specific implementation plan or a risk analysis. Or a set of decision criteria others have used in similar situations.

And, of course, if you want to be top of mind when it comes to decision time, you've got to keep in touch.

But "keeping in touch" doesn't just mean calling them to ask if they're ready to make a decision yet. It means knowing how they take their decisions and giving them something valuable at every stage of the process.

And that, in a rather long-winded nutshell, is Value-Based Marketing.

Once I changed my mindset from "how can I find hot leads ready to buy" to "how can I give value to this person right now so that when the time is right, I'll be the person they turn to" everything became much simpler.

Who should I focus my marketing on? The people I can give the most value to.

What marketing techniques should I use to get into contact with people? The ones that best allow me to add value to them during that contact.

How should I follow-up with people so they remember me when they need to hire someone? By adding value with each interaction.

How can I get into discussions about working together with clients? By offering them something of value to discuss.

Of course, there's quite a bit more to Value-Based Marketing...

You have to do it a certain way. And most of what you hear from marketing experts actually takes you in the wrong direction.

But it all starts with that mindset switch.

Once you get that right, you can stop flipping from tactic to tactic to try to find the magical one that generates tons of leads easily. You'll generate leads using any decent tactic because you're offering value.

You can stop chasing after "hot leads" ready to buy, because you'll be nurturing relationships with people who trust you and who'll turn to you first when they're ready.

Focusing on adding value first makes all the difference.

Click continue to find out how Mark (remember him?) and you can implement Value-Based Marketing...

Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie

(Bit of a David Maister fanboy)