I recently attended a think tank put on by the Society for Marketing of Professional Services Educational Foundation. (If you are not familiar with SMPS, it’s a professional association focused on the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industries.) There was a panel discussion of CEOs from progressive firms across the country. One of the topics of spirited discussion was how much you should listen to what clients say they want. The moderator quoted from our new book Spiraling Up, “Buyers want what buyers want, not what is easiest for you.”

This position was in contrast to “telling the client what they need,” which was advocated by a couple of panelists. So which is it? Do what the client tells you to do, or insist on a solution that you think, in your professional opinion, is better.

The true answer is “yes” to both. I think some of the confusion comes from a failure to appreciate that there are three distinct types of client needs. If you neglect any one of them you are short-changing both the client and your firm.

Three Types of Client Needs

There are three different types of needs that clients have. Most engagements involve a mix of two and sometimes all three.

  1. Stated Needs
    This is the easiest-to-understand expression of needs. It’s what the prospective client says they want. Think RFP requirements or client statements of need. If the professional service you are providing is routine, reoccurring or becoming commoditized, you will encounter a lot of these stated needs. It doesn’t take long to learn that you ignore these at your own peril. But, there are two glaring problems with relying on stated needs alone. First, something important always gets left out. Second, sometimes potential clients ask for the wrong solution. These shortcomings set the stage for the second type of need.
  2. Unarticulated Needs
    These are the client’s needs that never end up on the RFP. Sometimes it’s because they are too politically sensitive or embarrassing to put on paper. Other times, it’s because the client is unfamiliar with what is the right way to solve a problem, so they inadvertently ask for the wrong service. Addressing unarticulated needs is clearly more sensitive. If your comfort level and relationship with the client is strong enough, you can have a frank discussion about alternative approaches. Sadly, that’s not always possible. Many procurement situations discourage such a dialog. You may have to respond to the stated needs and offer alternatives that can be discussed as you develop trust over the course of an engagement. Perhaps the least effective approach is to simply do what you are told and stand by as bad things happen.
  3. Unknown Needs
    You’ll never get an RFP for an unknown need! These are the additional services that your prospective client could use but they haven’t asked for. Or sometimes they are things the client must eventually do (e.g., a new mandatory regulation) but they don’t know it yet. Or they may be opportunities with a great upside but the client is unaware of their existence. These unknown needs require a completely different approach. You first need to educate the client about the problem or opportunity, and then provide case studies or other examples that illustrate how you can solve these problems. While more effort is required, the reward is also greater. These sorts of needs are not yet commodity fodder so competition is less and margins fatter. Clients are also likely to be more appreciative of your efforts and the potential for referrals increases.


A Delicate Balance

So how do you balance all of these conflicting needs? Not so easy, to be sure. But perhaps by identifying these three types of needs and understanding how each is best approached it will make the task a wee bit simpler. There is a time and place for each: to simply do what is asked of you, to provide alternatives and to confront the client with problems and opportunities they are unaware of. Be clear about which you are in at all times.