On tangors and other ‘exotic’ fruit

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Improving client relationships and loyalty requires clearly articulating value.

My oldest daughter Rachael recently turned 12. For her birthday, she asked that my wife Jennifer and I take her to Seattle for an “overnighter.” It was a great trip. The highlight was an afternoon spent wandering the Pikes Place Market. If you’ve never been there— it’s a special place— especially if you enjoy food. Like most farmers’ markets, Pikes Place has an odd collection of food, produce, and craft vendors. At one fruit stand, an energetic man selling tangors (tangerine/orange hybrids) approached us. He stood in front of a huge pile of well-sorted, colored fruits from exotic locations. He offered a wedge of tangor from California, a slice of a new apple variety from Chile, and a free exotic plum (origin unknown) for the birthday girl. My wife and I spent $20 on four pieces of fruit, including a $5-per-pound pair of apples. I laughed as we left the stand, recognizing I had bought more than just fruit.

My realization wasn’t regret. The price wasn’t too high. We bought great produce, learned the origin of the tangor, tasted several unknown fruit varieties, and gave my daughter a new experience. Oh, and I found a subject for my next The Zweig Letter article! Twenty dollars well spent.

Recently I also sent a client a disastrous fee proposal. I enjoy working with this client, although I know he often shops my proposals. Admittedly, I prepared the proposal in haste. It was the end of the week and I was trying to get away from the office to take my daughter on a weekend birthday trip. Not surprisingly, this client called on Monday to complain about my fee. I had the typical reactions: he didn’t understand the scope, he doesn’t appreciate our value, and he is looking for a commodity. I also questioned, “Is he a client we should be working for?”

Perhaps these reactions were appropriate. However, I also recognized my proposal was weak. It was a typical letter proposal: “Thanks for the opportunity,” and included lists of assumptions, proposed tasks, excluded services, and a price. I didn’t include the equivalent of an education on the origin of the tangor, tastes of previously unknown fruit varieties, or other new experiences. In other words, I did not sell our real and unique value. This isn’t a sales gimmick. Relief to real client pain provides value. Good clients pay for value. We err when we assume our value is implied and easily recognized. Worse, we downplay our value and promote lowest price buying by focusing on specifications and fee-breakdowns.[callout]We err when we assume our value is implied and easily recognized. Worse, we downplay our value and promote lowest price buying by focusing on specifications and fee-breakdowns.[/callout]

Instead, sell value by:

1) Clearly communicating your client’s need or pain. If you don’t understand what’s really driving their purchasing decisions, you haven’t done your homework. The consultant who best shows they understand their client’s needs wins.

2) Painting a vivid picture for true project success. Sometimes, my clients mistakenly assume that success is merely a completed road design, sewer solution, or project entitlement. This is transactional, commodity thinking. Instead, communicate the impact your services have beyond the completed task.

As an example, I have a client who is extremely price sensitive. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a client who watched his expenses as closely. However, I have continually knocked the ball out-of-the-park for this client. I’ve connected him with profitable partners, I’ve negotiated him sweetheart agency entitlements, and I’ve resolved significant conflicts. We’ve rarely put those services on our timecards or invoices, and this client would struggle to properly value them. Price for this client is now a distant consideration. We’ve redefined for him project success.

3) Explaining how only your firm can best relieve your client’s real pain and achieve true project success. This step is familiar territory. Only now you are explaining your approach and qualification on your own terms. Be specific. If executed well, this three-step approach will redefine the services your clients buy and educate them on the tremendous value you provide.

And, on a personal note, I’ve found the understanding gained through this process dramatically improves my client relationships.

This article was originally published in the February 26th Edition of the Zweig Letter.

Derrick Smith is a partner with consulting firm MacKay & Sposito, Inc. (M&S), an infrastructure planning and design firm based in the Pacific Northwest. M&S services Water Resources, Energy, Community Development, and Geospatial clients and markets throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Derrick publishes regularly in several regional and national journals that focus on business development, project management, and human resources topics related to his industry. Derrick Smith’s thoughts and past articles can be found at www.derricksmith.net. He can also be followed @derrick_smith.

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