How to Buy Professional Services

The purpose of this article is to help small companies avoid mistakes, waste, and cost (both financial and opportunity) when buying professional services. These are some things I’ve learned over the past 20 years that are hopefully helpful to you with your buying process.

Understand your needs. Odds are if you are buying professional services you have some idea of what it is that you need but probably not everything. You are limited by your own subject matter expertise. Talk to peers who’ve been down this road and potential service providers to get clarity on your needs and options. This is a highly valuable part of the process.

Identify why you aren’t hiring. Often buying professional services is a result of having needs that you don’t understand, can’t fully solve yourself, AND that make more sense to buy from the market than to hire into your team. The last could be for a lot of reasons: economics, project nature of need (v. making a hire), ability to afford an expert, or availability of proper expertise (especially in today’s market). What I’m advocating here is just to know whether hiring or buying services makes more sense for your business.

What are you trying to get from this and how will you define success? A great question you should ask yourself before doing anything is, “is this a problem worth solving”? If so, why? This is worth understanding your answer so that you can make a good decision on whichever path you take forward.

Trust. I never trust anyone who says, “trust me,” so that’s what I mean. What I mean is does the service provider seem competent, understanding and most importantly, are they someone you think you can work through the gray areas of a service relationship? Are you going to believe them when you ask them for help in making a tough decision that you have to live with? Do you believe they’ll make it right when things don’t go as planned? When you’re buying a service (unlike a widget), this is critical.

Quality of work or value added. Understand your need for “alpha” in the services provided. Do you need a service provider to make you better, to elevate part of your business, or do you just need something done to check a box so to speak? If your answer is to any degree the former, everything else I’ve mentioned here matters even more. Few services are truly of the “check the box” variety when you consider all sides of the issue. Failure to be clear here is the seed of much discontent.

RFP (request for proposal). Don’t, please for the love, just don’t. If anything in this article resonates with you, let it be this. You’re buying professional services here, not a mountain of crushed rock. The RFP does little more than create barriers or prohibit properly addressing the issues I’ve laid out above. Even worse, attempting to compare competitors by way column v column comparison of “capabilities” creates commodity thinking when that’s probably not what you want. Lastly, don’t waste your time or the market’s time. Those of us familiar with the Column Fodder Principle avoid RFP’s. A professional services relationship should involve a mutual evaluation process to determine fit, offering, and even pricing. Needless to say, the RFP prohibits this and jumps straight to a proposal. Lastly, don’t waste your time and the market’s time when most of the RFP’s will be either Column Fodder or in many cases, used simply as leverage to negotiate down a competitor.

What other things have you learned about effectively buying professional services?

Jason Ogden

As the resident left-brainer, Jason uses his corporate and financial background to keep operations running smoothly. With a keen sense of people, process and sports analogies that always relate to business, he serves Syrup by managing the team, the numbers and sales. When we are lucky, Jason provides the team with a quick kung-fu lesson.