Understanding the Buying Cycle: It’s not WHY Clients Buy, but HOW?

by | Business Development, Marketing Strategy

Professional services buying cycle

Professional services firms spend tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars trying to understand WHY clients choose to work with the firms that they do.  Let me give you a gift and save you the money.

Every market research study I have seen (and I have seen many) returns the same findings with very small nuances. Clients choose firms for three reasons. The weight and priority put on the reasons may differ buyer-to-buyer and situation-to-situation, but the Big 3, do not change.  They are:

  1. Expertise (i.e. What knowledge–competency or industry–do you have that I am willing to pay a premium to get?)
  2. Results (i.e. Do you provide value? If I hire you to do X, can you deliver it on time and on budget?)
  3. Relationship (i.e. Do I like and trust you? Are you easy to do business with?)

Consequently, they invest all their marketing budget and efforts into developing vacuous taglines and marketing messages aligned with these three drivers that are undifferentiated, silly-sounding, and virtually worthless. It’s smarter to invest your marketing efforts to differentiate, substantiate, and build brand relevance for numbers one and two. Your consultants, processes, and culture address number three. “WHY?” is no longer the question. The more important question and the priority is understanding HOW clients select a firm and refocusing your marketing accordingly.

Let me illustrate.

Think about the last time you had a health issue and needed to see a specialist. Let’s assume that an insurance company did not dictate your choice and that the symptoms you were experiencing were too personal to discuss with friends. You naturally went online and checked out Wikipedia, Mayo Clinic, WebMD or an ailment-specific site to begin your research. You explored the basics: symptoms, detection, diagnosis, and treatment. Then you moved into reading discussion boards. If you were brave, maybe you started a discussion or asked for recommendations for the names of experts. Perhaps you saw interesting posts from experts and then googled them and their websites. You consumed all the information you could on the issue, THEN you reached out to doctors accordingly.

Similar fact-finding searches for the specialists are occurring in the professional services world. And, the specialists are completely ignorant of the fact that the potential client is searching and evaluating their expertise and results before they have the time to “sell” him.

This is why understanding the HOW is more important than the WHY.  The way clients choose has fundamentally changed, but firms’ marketing has not. Most marketing is still focused on the firm from beginning to end. What is needed is a more client-centered approach.

RELATED:  Stop Branding, Start Nurturing: Professional Services Marketer’s New Priority


When a potential client is determining if she has a problem–and if she even wants to solve it with outside help–she is asking a specific set of questions. Your marketing must answer these questions and nurture her through the stages of HER buying process–not your selling process

Understanding the Client Buying Cycle: Yes, There is a Process

There are 5 “gates” prospects pass through before they buy and become loyal clients.


professional services buying cycle


  • What symptoms am I feeling?
  • Do I have a problem?
  • Why do I have this problem?
  • What does this problem cost me?
  • How badly do I want to fix my problem?
  • Who do I know who has had this problem?


  • How do I fix it?
  • What are the risks if I don’t fix it?
  • How much effort does it take to fix it?
  • What benefits do I receive if I fix it?
  • When do I want to fix it?
  • Who can help me fix it?


  • What is the best way of fixing it?
  • Who is the best at fixing it?
  • Who seems credible and trustworthy?
  • What does it cost to fix it?
  • How do I know it will be fixed?
  • Who has demonstrated results?

Gate 4 – CHOICE

  • Who understands me?
  • Who understands my business?
  • Who do I trust?
  • Who do others trust?
  • Who is the least risky for me to choose?

Gate 5 – LOYALTY

  • Did you fix it?
  • Did you do what you said you would do?
  • Do I feel good about my experience?
  • Do I still trust you?
  • Do I want to continue our relationship?
  • Do I want to tell others about you?
  • How do I tell others about you?

I suspect that if you are like most partners, you found the questions pretty intuitive and probably consistent with your personal experience. But as you assessed your firm’s or practice’s marketing, it was probably focused either on Gate 1 with lots of white papers or on Gate 4 with a focus on more effective sales techniques. Gates 1-3 are rational decision points for a prospect and are about building the credibility that gets you “invited to the table.”  Gates 4 and 5 are about chemistry. These are more emotional decision points. They are irrational and largely out of your control.


RELATED: How to Easily Invest Your Marketing Budget


We all know that the web has been changing industries for more than a decade.  Blogs, social media, and the increasing number of boutique consulting firms have accelerated change in the professional services world. Content marketing and the meteoric rise of marketing automation have added fuel to the fire. It is absolutely necessary for firms to adapt to a prospect’s buying process.



Adaption begins with understanding the “HOW” and realigning your sales and marketing efforts.  When you align your marketing messages (i.e. your client conversations) with HOW your clients buy, almost everything about your marketing thinking and approach changes. The substance, tone, tactics, channels, and metrics fundamentally shift.  I encourage you take the time to examine how client-centric your marketing is and where you can be better attuned to the client’s experience of choosing. And invest that money earmarked for “WHY?” research on client-centric marketing with a much greater ROI.

Be prudent.

About the Author

Jeff McKay
Founder & CEO
Prudent Pedal

As a strategist and fractional CMO, Jeff helps firms set smart growth strategies in motion. He was the SVP of Marketing at Genworth Financial, the Global Marketing Leader at Hewitt Associates, and held senior roles at Towers Perrin and Andersen. Learn more.

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