Editorial: Why do they use the other guy?

Mar 28, 2011

By Mark C. Zweig We’ve all been through it. We have a good, old client; someone we have done a lot of business with over the years. The decision-maker with the client is someone we consider a friend— perhaps not a close friend, but a friend nevertheless. We make them a proposal to do some work, at their request. And then we get the news through the grapevine, or via letter or e-mail— they hired another firm. How could this happen? Why did they use the “other guy?” It is a sick feeling, almost as if you got sucker-punched in the gut. But don’t kid yourself. There was a reason beyond the fact that you angered the Gods for some minor infraction, such as road rage on the way to work that morning. Let me provide insight on some of the reasons your client hired the other guy and how you can mitigate these in the future: 1) Your relationship with your client was not as tight as you thought it was. Maybe you are taking him or her for granted. Not enough “how goes it?” calls or inquiries about family members. Or maybe you aren’t seeing the client at meetings anymore, since your underlings are doing all the work. You stopped hand-signing those holiday greeting cards. Whatever the case, the client just doesn’t feel as close to you as perhaps they once did. Maybe you need to inject yourself back into more relationships NOW, before more get away! 2) You (or someone who works for you) did something that upset or angered the client and made them say, “I’m done with those guys.” This is a biggie. I just fired the HVAC contractor I had been using for more than six years in my redevelopment company. Problem is the number two guy. Not only is he a smart aleck who talks condescendingly to everyone because they don’t know what he knows about HVAC, he is also a guy who will text you from 8 to 4 Monday through Friday but will not pick up his cell or text back any time after that or on weekends. I expect people to be responsive— especially when I am their biggest single client. Maybe something similar happened in your case? The point is you need to find out what happened and make sure it never happens again. Probe, and probe, and probe— until you learn the real problem that made the client upset with you. In my case, the contractor doesn’t have to pull it out of me. I told him that I will not be able to work with them and why. 3) Your client is no longer the decision-maker. There are other people in the client organization who have either taken over the selection process or hijacked it for some reason. This can happen and it may not be within your control. But what IS within your control is that you need to understand who is the decision-maker and strike up a relationship with that person as quickly as you can. It won’t happen without making a real effort. Everyone is super-busy these days and has little time for new “friends,” but if you are smart and persistent you can probably make it happen. 4) Your pricing has gotten out of line. This, too, can happen— especially if you have a client who is very accommodating and who likes you and trusts you— to a point. But sooner or later, if you have been over-charging it will come to light. And then you will look bad if you have been too greedy. I will let people work for me on billing rates UNTIL they prove to me that they aren’t honest or efficient and then I am DONE with them. No second chances. Constantly check the validity and reasonableness of your pricing to avoid getting caught like a kid with her hand in the cookie jar. 5) Your client doesn’t think you can perform— either on this assignment or what is coming after it. This can be a problem. We lost a small consulting project recently and this was the reason. The client had a larger and more complex engagement that would follow the project we proposed on and even though our price and proposal were great on the first project, he didn’t want anyone to have to relearn his needs on the second one. So he hired a competitor. Problem is, we are as qualified or more so than the competitor. We didn’t get that across. He didn’t really understand our capabilities. Shame on us— we got too complacent and thought that he understood where we had come from and where we are now. 6) Your client has been wooed by another firm and either pressured or cajoled into trying them. This, too, can happen in a competitive marketplace like we are in today. Your only response can be that you will be there, ready to serve them, should it not work out for them like they hoped. But it also points out the need to never stop marketing to anyone— including PRESENT clients. 7) You lost a key person. The client saw that person as the one who was really serving them, as opposed to your firm. This is very common in the A/E/P and environmental business, because firms don’t do a good job maintaining multiple relationships with people in various levels of their client organizations. Don’t rely on one person as your sole contact, especially with larger client relationships. It is just too risky! And if you do lose a key person, take immediate steps to let the client know who their replacement is and, beyond that, that the rest of the team who serves them is all still there working away productively, waiting to serve them again. It really gets me how lackadaisical firms are about this. They act like they have all the time in the world, when they are extremely vulnerable! 8) Your client has a basic belief that they should switch providers every so often to “keep you honest” and get some fresh thinking. There isn’t much you can do here other than to keep adding value, bringing the client new ideas, fresh thinking, and finding new ways to help them. And don’t overcharge or give them any other reasons to switch providers. There are undoubtedly more possibilities on why they are using the other guy, but my experience tells me these eight comprise about 90% of the cases. Take a look at this list— discuss it with your key people— and make sure you are doing what you can do to not hear those painful words: “We’re going with a competitor.”

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.