Closing the Perception Gap, Closing the Sale

by 0 10/15/2013

What are the elements that make the biggest difference in your conversion rate?

You might be surprised.

Keep reading to learn the one often-overlooked element that’s most likely to help professional service providers close more sales.

The surprising perception gap

When it comes to the psychology of professional services buyers, you don’t encounter too many sellers who will cop to cluelessness. On the whole, service providers tend to think (or at least claim) they know exactly what their clients and marketplaces value, not to mention the best ways of closing the sale and delivering that value.

But this masks a murkier reality, one where the priorities and perceptions of buyers and sellers are badly out of whack.

The Hinge Research Institute’s ongoing studies on the professional services marketplace made this dysfunction all too clear, and we wanted to get to the bottom of it. So we conducted new independent research in an effort to better understand the relationships between professional services buyers and sellers, mapping common gaps in perception – and finding how the most successful sellers crossed them.

The results revealed a professional services landscape of almost theatrical irony.

This study shows that sellers frequently stress qualities that simply aren’t top of mind for buyers. And these same buyers seek services in the sellers’ areas of specialty – but overlook them as potential partners because they failed to adequately communicate their full range of services.

These disparities in perception and gaps in communication are particularly striking when you take a close look at two areas of particular concern for professional services buyers: the seller qualities they’re looking to avoid, and the seller qualities that put a prospective partner over the top.

Apply these findings to your own marketing, and you may be surprised at the resulting boost in your conversion rate. Let’s take a closer look.

What buyers really don’t want

We asked both buyers and sellers what buyers most want to avoid in a professional services partner. At 40%, a preponderance of sellers gravitated toward the same answer:

perception gap 1

Overwhelmingly, sellers believed that cost-related frustrations like overpaying or overruns represented buyers’ biggest concern. But only 10% of buyers agreed.

Instead, the top items on buyers’ do-not-want list were broken promises and a firm that is indistinguishable from similar firms. Sellers underestimated the importance of both of these factors, and dramatically so on the question of distinction.

Many of these sellers expend significant effort persuading prospects that they won’t overpay, when what prospects are really looking to avoid is a generic, cookie-cutter partner with no specialized skills or experience.

Ironically, because so many sellers are aligned in their eagerness not to appear too pricy, this can lead them to take similar, indistinguishable approaches to defining themselves.

Tragic, right?

This is a trend we observed again and again in our research: sellers overestimating the importance of price, to the detriment of everything else. In this case, buyers indicated a largely unrecognized emphasis on sellers who keep their word and sellers who have something special to offer.

Tipping the scales

As much as one might like to think otherwise, a competition between one’s firm and another might not be particularly clear-cut. So we wondered: in cases like these, with all other things being equal, what quality tips the scales for one firm over another?

When closing the sale, what quality separates a winner from a runner-up? Again, we asked both sellers and buyers, and again, the contrast spoke volumes.

perception gap 2

Sellers widely believed that at the end of the day, it was their expertise and experience that made all the difference in closing the sale. And they’re important, to be sure. But sellers overestimated the importance of these qualities to sellers in the decision-making process.

Note that buyers and sellers don’t always see totally different worlds: both agreed in their emphasis on existing relationships. But the quality that beat out existing relationships for buyers was dramatically underestimated by sellers, and that quality was reputation.

Reputation has the power to unseat an incumbent, because when a seller’s reputation is powerful enough, buyers will feel that they know that firm already.

Moreover, reputation is the quality that allows a seller to communicate their specialized expertise and experience – to make it visible and thereby make it work for them.  And for professional services sellers, that’s the most important lesson to carry away from this research.

Reputation is a multifaceted beast, and nurturing it means many different types of work, from keeping your promises to crafting a powerful brand. But that work is crucial, particularly in today’s professional services marketplace.

Careful control of one’s reputation is the most effective way to close the perception gap on your firm, aligning your firm’s self-image with the firm that buyers see.

To see the full results of the study, download a free copy of our new book Inside the Buyer’s Brain.

About 

About the Author: Lee W. Frederiksen, Ph.D., is Managing Partner at Hinge, a marketing firm that specializes in branding and marketing for professional services. Hinge is a leader in rebranding firms to help them grow faster and maximize value. Lee can be reached at LFrederiksen@hingemarketing.com or 703-391-8870.

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