Businesses that perform technical consulting services that stretch out over a long period face a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to getting client testimonials and stories. At Leading Results, we work with a number of these types of companies (environmental consulting and remediation, ERP consultants, long-term labor outsourcing, and the like). You don’t run across these types of business on a daily basis – they perform very niche, but very vital, services for other businesses.
A short sales cycle
If you sell a physical product or a common day-to-day service (for example, website development), getting referrals and testimonials is fairly straightforward. After the transaction is complete, you ask the customer for a small amount of time to discuss the experience they had with your company. Because the elapsed time of the sale or engagement is short – usually under four months – most of these conversations can cover the entire history of the engagement (transaction) and the details are clear in your customer’s mind.
A long sales cycle
But when the sales process, engagement, and ensuing benefits of working with your company take a year or longer to complete, there’s a real struggle to capture the beneficial story line of the relationship that flows through the ups and downs of daily business, staff changes, and unanticipated project challenges. This is why it’s so important to understand the idea of magic windows of time (magic moments). These magic windows already exist in your process – what you need to do is identify them and use them to clearly document the benefits your company brings to your clients.
For the rest of this post, I’m going to use an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software consulting firm as an example. Established small to large businesses ($5m USD revenue and up) turn to these ERP consulting firms for help with selecting, buying, implementing, and getting the most out of their enterprise software.
ERP software, as a category, generally encompasses the accounting/financial systems, inventory and manufacturing systems, specialized services delivery software, and everything that makes these pieces work together – ERP is the plumbing that keeps things moving inside a business and between businesses that do business together. Knowing the various software packages, how to make them work for a business, and how to help a business work better with the software they purchase is a very, very complex and daunting process.
And there are hundreds of consultants that do this.
Because selling, implementing, and getting value from an ERP is complex and expensive – even small projects start in the high five-figures – it can be difficult for a consulting firm to create an overall customer success story. Staff from the client who are part of the project shift depending on the area of the business being worked on or the phase of the project. There are good days when plans go as expected and bad days when the software (or the people) don’t go as expected. But when you step back and look at an overall project, you can see magic windows of time where the story can be captured from a thoughtful position.
For our ERP consultant, there are three windows – magic moments – that have to be taken advantage of.
Magic window #1
The first window opens just after the software purchase and services agreement has been signed. The relationship between client and consultant, up to this point, has been a bit tentative (it’s a buying/sales process with a lot of money at risk, after all) and has probably been going on for anywhere from four months to a year. The client has rightly been assessing if the consultant a) knows what they’re talking about, b) really understands their business and issues, and c) can deliver what they say they can. The consultant has been working to determine if a) the client really, truly understands their own issues, b) is committed to doing what’s necessary to meet their goals, and c) has the necessary resources – money, staff, and time – to do their part of this complex project.
When all the paperwork is signed and money has changed hands, there’s a window of time where the anxiety and tension dissipates. It never completely goes away, but there’s a time between agreeing to move the project forward and the actual project kickoff that should be taken advantage of by the consulting firm to gather testimonials and stories about the sales process and project goals. The client has relaxed a bit and let their sales protection “guard” down. The relationship between the companies is at a stable “lull.”
It’s during this magic window that you (as the consulting firm) should be asking what went well and didn’t go well as you proceeded through the sales, discovery, and quoting process. This is also a great time for the consultant to capture a realistic view of their client’s hopes and dreams as to what the project you’re about to embark on together will accomplish. (If that sounds a bit touchy-feely, it’s intentional – although most of these complex, expensive projects and services are unexciting, they do provide a vital platform for growing a business).
The stories (content) that can be produced from this magic window will speak to the consultant’s ability to help their clients think and work through difficult challenges and tradeoffs.
Magic window #2
For our ERP consultant, the next magic window occurs shortly before their client goes live with the new system, leaving their past processes, software, and (hopefully) challenges behind them. During implementation of the software – the time between project kickoff and go live – there’s a lot of anxiety from the company staff who are seeing changes in how they do their jobs. Change just causes anxiety, period, so trying to capture the success of the implementation process and training as it’s occurring is difficult, if not impossible. The good things people may say will be tainted by their anxiety about the changes.
But after the changes are made and the staff understands the new processes and software, there’s another moment of calm. The client knows what they’ll need to do on the new system and the company sees the positives that will occur when the new system is in production; it’s at this moment the window is open to capture stories about the implementation and training. Again, ask about what went well, what could have gone better, and what were some of the productive surprises.
Magic window #3
The final magic window for our ERP implementation firm opens up after their client has been live and productive on their new system for some time. How long? It’s hard to say. There comes a period where the system is stable. The client’s staff are comfortable with doing their job with the new systems, and the company is getting value from the software and new processes.
At this point, our ERP consultant can talk with the client about the value they’re getting from the system in production and create an overall success story with a beginning, middle, and end.
The beginning we captured when we talked with the customer shortly after purchase. The middle covered the services provided for the implementation. The end is now the value the client has seen from this long project.
If your product or service has a long time between purchase and value received, you must be more thoughtful and strategic about how you capture and create success stories and client testimonials. It requires planning, forethought, and, of course, good execution during the project. The value of doing this is pretty straightforward and, from a competitive differentiation, you can be assured that most of your competitors aren’t planning this out.
So get your marketing team – whether in-house or outsourced – to help plan and schedule this. The coordination between sales, consulting, and marketing is challenging, but the payoff is worth the effort.