How Intellectual Capital Removes Friction from the Buyer’s Journey
Intellectual capital isn’t just about problem definition and lead generation. IC should focus on removing impediments at each stage of the buying cycle.
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Intro: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal Divergent Thoughts on Marketing and Growing Professional Services Firms. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki and Jeff McKay.
Jason Mlicki: All right, Jeff. So last time we talked, I promised not to tell our listeners where we were going today. But I suppose I do need to tell them now, otherwise, they’re not going to want to listen.
Jeff McKay: Well, I don’t know. Where we tell them we are going, and where we go. Isn’t always the same anyway.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah, not the same.
Jeff McKay: Which is why we did these, right? Because you, and I just have a conversation about stuff.
Jason Mlicki: So we should have called it this running without a GPS. Okay. So I reflected on what we talked about, and there were just so many different models that sort of came out of your thinking around intellectual capital. That I really, really like. In fact, I’ve got that same sketch in front of it. Well, full disclosure, it’s a second sketch. I lost the first sketch, and I had to recreate it. But I have this sketch in front of me. And the part that jumped out to me that I want to narrow in on today, is you had this really great sequence of thinking. Where you talk about how a lot of intellectual capital has been all about demand generation, all that problem definition. But buyers are overwhelmed. And really there’s an opportunity with intellectual capital to inform the seller, and the buyer at that space between consideration, and choice, where a big difference can happen in outcomes.
And then you went on to talk about this notion of the buyer’s journey, and how you always like to look at the buyer’s journey. And identify points of friction. And so what I want to talk about today is this concept of points of friction. Because this is something that you, and I have talked about a couple of times with clients together. And I want to talk more about it because I actually think that, that’s a really different way of looking at intellectual capital. So I want to go there today. Any friction.
Jeff McKay: None. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Dragging you along builds a little friction, but-
Jason Mlicki: Yes, slowly introduces sand into the gears very quickly, right?
Jeff McKay: Oh gosh. I just had that image of the vacation movie, and the dog tied to the bumper. What a horrific scene. Which makes me think of tying grandma to the roof of the station wagon, which is even more horrific.
Jason Mlicki: All right. [crosstalk] So, talk to us about points of friction. When you use that phrase. And again, just to set context for people, if they didn’t, remember the last episode, or whatever. This notion of points of friction is that, the friction in the buyer’s journey. What do you mean by that?
Jeff McKay: It’s a great question. And it’s probably a great place to get started. This would probably be one of those areas that we would add to a podcast on how marketing ruins everything. And I actually wrote a blog on the buyer’s journey, and cover friction in that. I think it’s an incredible concept, and it’s very simple in illustrative of what I think is really going on. And this goes back, to one of our heroes, David Maister. In his book, How to Manage The Professional Services Firm, and that chapter about how clients choose.
And, this was before all of this content marketing noise and technology that we have today. So to me, the concept of friction, by any name is always relevant–and always has been. I define friction as those things that get in the way of our ideal client buying our solution. I don’t care if you’re selling accounting services, or Strategy, or IT, or your SAS company. There’s something always in the way of your ideal client getting to the point of buying your solution, however, you define the solution. And, that friction is different at each stage of the buying cycle because what the buyer is trying to achieve at each stage of the buying cycle is different. Therefore, what’s blocking it is different. I think it’s particularly relevant as it relates to intellectual capital strategy because most firms, and again, it doesn’t matter what type of solution you’re selling gear most, if not all of their intellectual capital thought leadership content. Whatever you would say on the front end, in problem identification, demand generation, making people aware that they actually have a problem, and helping them define what that problem is.
But the one thing about content marketing, and you alluded to this. Everybody knows what the problem is, more or less, because there’s so much noise around it. But, what we’ve seen at Prudent Pedal; you’ve seen it at Rattleback–you’ve definitely seen it–in the research that came out of Profiting from Thought Leadership research, where firms that really drive growth, and differentiate themselves. It’s the whole point of this intellectual capital series is. How do you take IC all the way down to sales? The way you do it is by identifying those areas of friction.
Jason Mlicki: Let’s look at some examples. When we say friction in a very practical way. What are some examples of friction that a buyer experiences in their journey? All right.
Jeff McKay: So I love the way you set that up. Jason, have you ever thought about maybe, throwing your hat in the ring for some evening talk show, or something? I mean seriously. You underrate yourself, that man.
Jason Mlicki: As the great David Letterman says, the key to comedy is repetition, right?
Jeff McKay: Well, keep doing what you’re doing. It’s funny that you say that because that was the thing I hated most about David Letterman.
Jason Mlicki: And, that’s among the many things that you and I will always disagree on.
Jeff McKay: Yeah! So, the first thing that I need to point out is the friction that exists from a buyer’s perspective may be different than friction that is experienced from the seller’s perspective. And again, this goes back to that helix conversation we had where these things are distinct. The buying has a certain set of goals, and steps, and hurdles it has to overcome. Selling has its own and they have to match. Where they don’t match generally is where you find friction points. So, the obvious area of disconnect is that I don’t believe I have a problem. So even entering into the buying cycle that would be friction from the seller side. I’m sorry, I should’ve said that from the seller’s side, right? We’ve got to get people into the buying cycle, but they don’t even think they have a problem.
So how do we make them know that they have a problem, which is a weird mindset in my mind. But, that is generally kind of the first. The friction in problem definition is understanding the problem, what causes the problem, why this organization has the problem. Because if you can agree that there is a problem, and what the problem is, the buying cycle doesn’t even really start. Or, if it does start, it may not be going down the path to your solution. So that’s one, and lots of firms focus on demand gen, and problem stuff.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: Okay. Let’s assume. I know I have a problem. I have pain. The next step would be the exploration of different solutions. This is where content marketing was supposed to solve the problem. When it actually, I think, exacerbated it. The friction here looks like which provider offers me the best solution.
There’s so much information to sort through that buyers just get paralyzed– paralysis by analysis. So there’s friction in just identifying the right solutions. Today, there are whole businesses built around cutting through that noise.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah.
Jeff McKay: But that’s a major point of friction. We can go into a little more detail on that. But then even at the Choice stage of the buying cycle, there are huge amounts of friction. For example, “I want to go with this firm, but their contracting process is so long and laborious that I just bailed on it. I’d rather not have to go through all that stuff. I’ll go find somebody that’s easier to do business with.”
Jason Mlicki: On that front, there’s a lead gen service that I’ve talked to a couple of times. He’s an ex-agency guy. So a guy who owned a couple of agencies, scaled them, sold them, and now runs a lead gen business. When I spoke to him, one of the things I thought was interesting is he said, “Jason, I always hated it when I was an agency business and someone was trying to sell me on something. They wanted me to part with a whole bunch of money before I had any proof of concept of what we were doing.
Jeff McKay: Yeah. Just boom, here’s your solution.
Jason Mlicki: And he said, “So when I built this business, one of my goals was to take that out of the way.” And so he’s like, “We just start. I’m going to build a list, and show you the list and you can tell me what you think of it.” It’s really fascinating. He was trying to take that friction out of the buying cycle, or just saying, let’s just remove that and not make that be a friction point.
I thought that was really interesting approach because he’s trying to remove the logical friction that people have at that point of choice–the thing that puts them into analysis paralysis. Well, is this really going to work? Are they going to be able to find what I’m looking for? All those things and he just says, “Well, we’re just going to give you an example of a proof of concept right now before you pay me anything.”, which is an interesting approach.
Jeff McKay: That’s an excellent example of just asking “What keeps people from moving to the next step?” Well, they don’t believe us. Okay. Well, what could we do to help them–not “get” them–to help them understand what it is we do and have confidence in it. Here’s the thing about friction. There are two ways of looking at both sides of the friction. From a buyer’s perspective, there’s friction around those typical stages of the buyer’s journey for the category. So, if I define my problem as X, and I’m going to go out and look for a solution for X, there are general friction areas across all vendors and almost all solutions.
So to me, that is a general business opportunity for firms to look at. Then, there are firms specific friction areas that get in the way of a buyer buying their specific solution because other vendors don’t share that same issue. So, it’s important to be able to delineate between those two. Most firms don’t look at those levels. They pick primarily their experience of their own selling and their own buyers. Unfortunately, as you always say, that’s just too small a sample. It’s just too small a sample to define friction areas and opportunity. They also, I think, look at it across the entire market and not their ideal client because the market segments will define value differently. Therefore, they are going to have different types of friction, as well.
Midtro: You’re listening to Rattle and Pedal Divergent Thoughts on Growing your Professional Services Firm. Your hosts are Jason Mlicki, Principal of Rattleback the Marketing Agency for Professional Services Firms, and Jeff McKay, former CMO and founder of Strategy Consultancy, Prudent Pedal. If you find this podcast helpful, please help us by telling a friend, and rating us on iTunes. Thank you. Now back to Jason and Jeff.
Jason Mlicki: Well, what is interesting about what you’re talking about is, conceptually I think we sort of get this, but we don’t necessarily codify it or talk about it inside of firms that often. Or at least, I see a lot of firms that just don’t. And you think about, you have certain segments you work in, and you constantly get pushed back on certain things, and you start to kind of pull away from that push back, and just say, well, that’s not a sector that’s good for us, rather than saying, “Well, okay, that’s a point of friction. How do we overcome that point of friction to make it easier for that client to hire us versus seeing it as a roadblock and a reason to exit those relationships. I think maybe that’s some of what you’re leaning into here is that the friction is a point of opportunity, not a point of failure.
Jeff McKay: Oh, spot-on Jason! What a great way to articulate that. Because it absolutely is. Because you have the opportunity to say, “Could we do something better? Could we do something different? Is this the right client for us. Are other sellers having this problem? If we were to solve this problem before one of our competitors, would that allow us some kind of first-mover advantage that can drive more revenue in the short term?” There are just a lot of different ways of looking at it because it really is a feedback mechanism on your ideal client and your solutions. It absolutely is.
Jason Mlicki: Before we run out of time, I want to make a pivot. And the pivot I want to make is that my sense is sellers inside of a firm probably know these points of friction. They probably have a sense of where they are or they know specifically where they are. The marketers, and the practice leaders, if they’re not facing clients from a sales capacity anymore, which most of them are, but some of them aren’t, may not have it as well.
How do you identify the points of friction? What’s a process that you can use either to identify or to codify? Because my sense is what happens is that sellers bump into this all the time, but they don’t necessarily extrapolate up that what they’re seeing over here is the same thing they’re seeing over there and that’s the same point of friction. They just see it as individual deals that didn’t work out for one reason or another.
Jeff McKay: That’s exactly right. I think the best ones do and they work back up the chain to try to address them. The worst ones don’t. They blame marketing, or they blame the product, or they blame something else. But, it an opportunity when your top performer comes back and says, “If we change this or we did that, we could probably do better.” Or if somebody comes back, and says, “We suck because our competition does this, and we don’t do that.” That’s an opportunity to fix specific friction areas. Smart marketing, sales, and delivery teams take advantage of those. Most don’t do that. The thing is when there’s that disconnect, you don’t get scale. If you’re relying on a super salesperson to finesse everything, then they’re not going to be as productive as possible. The ways of addressing that friction and eliminating the friction give you scale.
It allows you to educate all the people selling the solution and it allows to speed everything up as well. My mind is just racing at all the examples. That’s where people don’t do that because they’re not talking to one another. They’re not thinking about the interdependencies that really could make everybody more effective. It’s the biggest complaint and how we set up this podcast.
People focus on “Big B” Branding. The marketers complain that the salespeople don’t use their “Big B” Branding thought leadership to drive business and the salespeople say, well, “Your “Big B” Branding studies aren’t applicable to my client. It takes too much work to get it down to a point where it’s even relevant to start a conversation with them. ” From a sales perspective that’s all they want to do. They think, “I just want to get somebody’s attention and start a conversation.” They can’t start a conversation because they’re running in some friction point that’s not being addressed.
Jason Mlicki: Can I get into closing thoughts here? This is really interesting. Bit of a mind twister, but identifying friction in the sales starts by identifying friction in the organization. And, that friction often is between sales and marketing
Jeff McKay: …and the Line because everybody’s blaming somebody else.
Jason Mlicki: So, let’s leave listeners with one concrete thought on how you break down some of those silos because I think those silos are real and they’re not unique to professional services. They’re everywhere. How do you bridge that inside the firm? Just one concrete example. We could have a whole episode on that but what’s a specific thought that you have to kind of help overcome that.
Jeff McKay: You did it again.
Jason Mlicki: Did I stump you?
Jeff McKay: No.
Jason Mlicki: That’s not that hard.
Jeff McKay: How do you achieve world peace? The conversation has to change and firms need a vision and a consistent nomenclature around the buyer’s journey and its friction. Firms have to agree on: 1. that there is a buyer’s journey, 2. that there are hurdles in the middle of it–for any number of reasons. Friction for us in our structural constraints and cultural constraints or because of competitive actions. The complexity of the B2B sale in general, and the buying committee dynamics in companies specifically. So, and again, this is why ideal client is so important. You try to find that company with the same worldview as you. So you’re not selling them both on the problem and the worldview around the problem. They’re already there. Now you’re starting to ask more specific questions, or more specifically answer specific questions that they have. Those questions are generally indicators of friction.
This goes back to the purpose of an IC agenda, right? You have demand creation on one part of the helix and you have supply creation on the bottom helix. They’re intertwined. Firms need to start looking stage by stage and asking, “Where’s the friction?” The friction is going to come around three simple areas.
The first is feelings. If you want to be client-centric, your IC should be uncovering these areas in detail. At each stage around each problem, what is the client feeling? What are they experiencing? This gets to Maister’s “How clients choose” feelings. You have to think through the feelings because so much of the friction is going to be around fear, risk-taking, reputation inside a firm, exposing shortcomings, and admitting you have a problem means, you didn’t measure up, and you have to go out and get help. You need to understand that’s a huge part of friction.
The second is the fact that we’re rational beings. What are the buyers thinking about the problem and the solution, because they’re bringing a perspective to it? This is why having an ideal client that shares your worldview is really important because they have a certain way of thinking about the problem. You need to articulate a clear point of view to align with that. So, you need to understand what they’re thinking about. There are a series of questions that you should be delving into around that.
Finally, and this one is really relevant to sales and marketing, what is the client, or prospect doing? Because those feelings and that thinking are going to lead to some behavior in some channel to start answering those questions. This is why I think you should be looking at, Problem Definition, the competitive set, where people are acquiring their information, who they trust, who they don’t trust, and then pulling those together to understand where you’re doing well or not doing well. You can then eliminate friction in that way. So feeling, thinking, and doing.
BUT, most importantly, I think it’s about understanding what the client’s success measure is at each one of those stages. How do you know that they’ve achieved that success measure and feel good enough to move to the next stage? Oftentimes we think they have what they need, and they should be moving to the next stage, but we don’t.
Jason Mlicki: Yeah. I really liked that framework for friction. This notion of those three things and I think what’s interesting about it is that I would say that most intellectual capital, most thought leadership, most firms tremendously overweight the thinking part on that three-legged stool. That’s where all the time and energy go– “How do we out think this problem?” How do we think of a better way to solve it? But, neuroscience tells us that decision-making is made at a feeling level. And, we also know that thought leadership, at its core, is often more about getting clients to get out of bad habits and into good habits. Getting them to stop doing what they’re doing a certain way. That’s not a thinking problem; it’s a doing problem. I think you have a really nice framework there for drilling down inside of the points of friction and then using that as a model for how you might approach thought leadership. So on that note, it’s time to go. So-
Jeff McKay: We just got started.
Jason Mlicki: I know. In the next episode, actually, my hypothesis is this next episode will be the last episode in this intellectual capital series, although I could be proved wrong. But I think on this next one, and you pointed it out. We really should just share some good examples. And it would be sort of just here are examples of firms that have very effective intellectual capital strategies as exhibited by what they’re taking into the marketplace. And I think we’ve done a good job of framing out what that means, for anyone who listened through these three, or four episodes. What does that mean? And so seeing examples, or hearing examples in action maybe would be a great way to go about it. So that’s, what’s on tap. And we’ll decide from there if we have to keep working this intellectual capital angle, a few more episodes or not.
Jeff McKay: Yeah, that’s what it’s all about.
Jason Mlicki: Alright man. Have a great week.
Jeff McKay: See you then.
Jason Mlicki: See you.
Outro: Thank you for listening to Rattle and Pedal Divergent Thoughts on Marketing and Growing Professional Services Firms. Find content related to this episode @rattleandpedal.com. Rattle and Pedal is also available on iTunes and Stitcher.