Harvard Business Review published a great article in 1966 that looked in detail at how people buy and sell Professional Services and how using the familiar process from when buying or selling a product can end in failure.
More than 50 years later, their advice remains valid.
With product sales, the onus is firmly on the vendor to explain why their offering is the best in terms of features and value; the buyer is essentially in "receive" mode and compares features and price against their known needs. However, with Professional Services, for the vendor to accurately identify their own needs is a challenge in itself and hence a dialogue is required right from the beginning.
This means there are shared objectives for the vendor and the purchaser with the vendor needing to help educate the purchaser but also needing to understand the purchaser's specific context. HBR breaks these needs into three parts (below) but also rightly identifies that achieving any one of the three goals greatly aids progress in the other two.
1. Identifying uncertainty.
2. Confronting concrete problems.
3. Identifying true professionals.
With content marketing (which unsurprisingly isn't mentioned in an article from the sixties) it is important to bear the first two goals in mind; if content created can help a client with either goal 1 or 2, identifying your firm as true professionals looks after itself.
HBR specifically addresses the problem of taking a "product features" approach to positioning a professional services firm, which it refers to as "extrinsic"
"This approach is used when the service organization has only minimal understanding of the client’s problem, and its primary emphasis is on extolling its own problem-solving abilities".
The extrinsic approach is contrasted with the "intrinsic"
"When the primary emphasis of the service organization is on coming to grips with a problem of interest and importance to the client"
Unless a firm is demonstrating an understanding of the problems a client has, rather than simply talking about its ability to solve any problem, then it is not helping its potential clients in their three most important objectives in securing a services provider.
Rather than talking in platitudes and extolling the virtues of a firm for having the "best people" or being "the most awarded" it's clear that from the very beginning of the client's journey (which now probably takes place online), providers must help identify and demystify real concrete problems.
To put it simply, the obvious choice of supplier is not one that talks about their expertise, but the one that effectively demonstrates it.
Having discussed generally these key elements of the buying-selling aspects of professional services, let us now turn to a more specific analysis of how they apply in the practical world of decision making about such services. Translated into specific objectives for both the purchaser and the supplier of services, these elements become the tasks of: 1. Identifying uncertainty. 2. Confronting concrete problems. 3. Identifying true professionals. Obviously, these three goals are interrelated. The accomplishment of any one greatly aids in the accomplishment of the others. However, we can examine each objective by itself, recognizing that the successful buyer, and seller, of professional services will keep them all in mind.