Are Buyers Irrational When They Don't Select Me?

Timothy Corcoran
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Timothy Corcoran - Corcoran Consulting Group

Seth Godin has written of the fallacy of rational marketers and irrational customers. The moral of the story is that buyers, even B2B buyers, do not always act in rational ways. So no matter what you're selling, you’ll need to be prepared at all times to adapt to the customer's wishes... or find other customers. Law firm partner Patrick Lamb offers the legal market perspective when he says, "I AM NOT suggesting that clients are irrational customers. Far from it." What’s most important then is not to debate rationality, but to learn what buyers want and how they buy.

Still, it might be helpful to define terms. After all, logic and rationality play a fundamental part in how lawyers — both buyers and sellers — think and act.

Lawyers often market their services as an exercise in logic: You have a business that has a need for legal services. You need to hire a law firm to assist. We have worked with companies like yours. We have smart, well-educated, experienced lawyers on staff to think through big issues so you don't have to. We have many offices and a large staff with cutting edge technology. We have worked on engagements addressing problems substantially similar to the sort of problems you're like to encounter in your business, if your business follows the pattern of our other, similarly situated clients. We have summarized our expertise into biographies and deal lists, and we show glimpses of our smarts by posting articles on our website. We charge a lot but we're worth it, for the aforementioned reasons. Our reputation will insulate you from criticism should forces beyond our control lead to an unwelcome outcome for the engagement. THEREFORE, we kindly await the arrival of your first engagement.

Or as one law firm partner explained to me: "We pitched them our credentials and we're waiting for the deal flow."

And even when rational buyers consider several alternative providers, each of which is eminently capable of meeting their legal needs, law firm marketing still focuses on credentials, or proving how the firm is demonstrably smarter, if not more effective.

This can be exhausting work, so no wonder many law firms are often too busy to actually learn about the client's business. It’s not the law firm's problem. The law firm’s responsibility is to show how good it is. It's the client’s job to figure out where and how the law firm can help.

But buyers are irrational. They don't make decisions based solely on sound logic. Or at least not the logic we've outlined here. But that doesn't mean they act foolishly and without forethought. Their decision process is rational in their minds.

Company executives and, by extension, their legal departments have business challenges. They need to defeat the challenges, work around the challenges, or even learn how to live with the challenges. When seeking advice and counsel, they turn to those who understand the challenges and the context. They seek advisors they trust, whose contributions are additive, in keeping with the business philosophy and risk profile, and whose contributions are delivered in the manner that is most effective to the business. They seek support from those whose reputation for excellence is beyond reproach. They seek out people they like to work with, who fit into the culture. They seek out advisors whose prices are aligned with the company’s level of risk, complexity, and urgency for the matter at hand.

Sometimes, buyers seek help from those who have advised them in the past because they're too busy to research alternatives. They sometimes seek cheap solutions when they, or the law firm, can’t otherwise justify or explain why a higher cost is better. They seek well-known names when there's not enough time to hire lesser-known names or new providers and then engage in a steep learning curve.

Is this irrational? Not at all. It's a rational process to decide who's the best fit. But the key lesson is that the best fit is defined by the buyer, not the seller.

Rationality is in the eye of the beholder.

Law firm partners, stop what you're doing and go find the last tender or RFP response you submitted, or the latest pitch book, or the latest proposal letter you drafted. View it from the eye of the buyer. Have you incorporated any of the client’s concerns, fears, desires, or wishes? Or have you invested most of your effort describing yourself and your firm?

If a "best practice" proposal is 80% focused on the client's needs and 20% about the provider’s capabilities, how close are you? How can you shift your emphasis for the next pitch or proposal?

What are you waiting for?

*A version of this article appeared in this space in 2009. Some topics are evergreen.

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Timothy Corcoran
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