Marketers in the professional services industry are trying hard to differentiate their firms from the crowd, but there is little evidence of success so far. To many outsiders, it is hard to distinguish one firm from the others, especially their direct competitors.
Peers in the industry seem equally sophisticated in deploying marketing activities, platforms and techniques, equally hardworking in producing a large volume of content, and equally eloquent and creative in communicating almost identical value propositions.
How should marketers go about solving this problem?
How human beings make decisions
To solve the problem, firms and marketers first need to address the most fundamental question: how do human beings make decisions?
The answer can be found by looking at our own decision-making process on all fronts, not only professionally but also socially and romantically. What are the driving factors that make us choose certain kinds of companies to work for, certain friends to socialize with, or a romantic partner over all other men and women we meet in our life? A deep investigation will reveal that we are always driven by two factors: desire and fear.
These two driving forces can be felt at different levels of intensity and take on different names. Desires can be in the form of passion, pleasure, excitement, motivation, wants, needs, longings, or a sense of thirst and hunger. Fears can be in the form of worries, concerns, hesitancy, nervousness, unease, or a sense of burden.
Regardless of the different labels, the first set of emotions represents what we want more of, and the second set represents what we want less of. They are formed and felt not only consciously but also subconsciously. They consistently drive us in every decision we make in our life.
How purchase decisions are made in the professional services industry
The same mechanism operates in the purchase decision-making process in professional services. Corporate buyers will evaluate the pros and cons behind all available options in an effort to arrive at what they perceive as the optimal option, not only in terms of their companies’ interests but also of the potential implications for their own career and life.
The invisible nature of services often makes the assessment process very difficult. The less technically sophisticated and exposed to a particular service a buyer is, the harder will be for them to evaluate, the higher the level of uncertainty they have to face, and the stronger the fears they feel about making the wrong decision.
Trust is powerful
The challenges faced by buyers of professional services give supreme importance to a factor that has a powerful impact on the equation of desires and fears: trust.
The stronger the presence of trust between a firm and its prospective clients, the less fear the buyers will experience, and the stronger their belief in the probability of a desirable outcome, even in situations of high uncertainty. The critical importance of trust is already widely recognised by firms in professional services. However, few seem to know the right way to go about creating it.
Trust cannot be built by firms telling their stakeholders how trustworthy they are. There needs to be a nurturing space in which trust can naturally come about and be sustained, and that space is emotional connection. It needs to be mutually lived and felt by both sides, between the seller and the buyer, between a firm and its stakeholders. In other words, it is not a matter of ‘telling’, but ‘living’ and ‘showing’.
The link between emotional connection and trust
To understand why emotional connection is critical for trust, we should start by investigating and understanding this concept at a personal level. There can be different definitions, but in a nutshell, emotional connection represents how we ‘feel’ towards another human being, both consciously and subconsciously.
When we have a strong sense of emotional connection with a particular person, we feel understood, accepted, protected, cared for, and even enlightened and inspired. They make us feel ‘good’. We want more of what they have to offer. We believe they have our interests and well-being at heart. In other words, they maximize our desires and minimize our fears. We believe we can trust them even in situations of high uncertainty.
The professional services purchase decision-making process is no exception. It involves a high level of uncertainty and fear, but these can be significantly mitigated if there is a strong presence of emotional connection and trust between the firm and its clients.
The current problem is we seem to be very out of touch with our core nature when it comes to business. We might rationally know but struggle to apply a very important truth: whether B2B or B2C, it is a human-to-human business. In particular, people who have not experienced a deep sense of connection and trust in their personal lives tend to disregard it as ‘sentimental bluff’ in general, and are loathed to acknowledge the possibility of it in the corporate world.
As the saying goes, life will come back again and again to teach us a lesson we need to learn until we get it. The same principle applies in business. As long as firms do not know how to develop a strong emotional connection with clients, they will continue to struggle to gain trust and differentiate themselves in the industry.
Tan Nguyen is marketing and communications supervisor with PwC Vietnam