What is a complex services business? (And what isn’t it)

Is yours a complex services business? It could be if your firm is one of these:

  1. Design agency
  2. Marketing firm
  3. Advertising agency
  4. Software/data service company
  5. Sofware publishing company
  6. PR firm
  7. Web agency
  8. Digital marketing firm
  9. Management consulting firm

If you’re one of these, you may have some things in common with the rest of the firms on the list: you have a relatively complex sales process. By which I mean you have a sales process that is not only lengthy but highly customized and involves many different personalities and interwoven personal agendas.

And you should be selling something that is based in digital strategy.

Let me explain by drawing a contrast: e-commerce.

Buying a garden shed on Amazon may be a very long sales process, but it’s not a complex one. Even if the product itself is so complex that it needs its own explainer video, the sale itself is simple. It happens with a click. Viola. E-commerce.

And e-commerce is full of complexities –  but these are unlike the complexities of a complex services firm.

E-commerce as an area of expertise is anything but simple. I know this because early in my career I helped build one of the world’s largest e-commerce sites, at the time, Tiffany & Co, then went on to create e-commerce solutions for a decade in various verticals within the nonprofit sector. It gets really complex, really fast.

But the single interaction is not complex for the user, even if it’s for an extremely large amount. A nonprofit client of Blackbaud’s, where I formerly worked, once gave $250,000 in a single online donation. The technical, creative, and marketing expertise that went into creating that moment, not to mention the emotional complexities in the mind of the donor, were profoundly elaborate.

But that sales process was less complex than the sale of $250 in services from one of the types of agencies mentioned at the outset.

Not-so complex services business

Also less complex that high-dollar donations – or luxury jewelry purchases – are the sale of many kinds of services.

Landscaping services may also cost $250 but selling them is fairly simple, even if there is some negotiation involved.

And just because the payment might be complex, that doesn’t make the sale complex. The landscaper doesn’t take checks, he tells you, but he has a credit card processing services, but it’s in his office, he’ll have to call you tomorrow to collect payment. Does 1:20 pm work? He had to reschedule. You see? Payment can be complicated, even if the services isn’t.

How can that be? First, let me recap what factors DON’T involve complex services:

  • The amount of the sale
  • The technology involved in the sale
  • The complexity of the designing and marketing that goes into the sale
  • The fact that what is being sold is a service
  • Negotiation
  • Complexity of payment

So what’s left over that makes some services businesses so complex. Two things:

  • the personal relationships that are part of the sales (and marketing) process
  • the communication, and simplification, of inherently complex services

The services sold by management consulting firm, or an advertising agency, or a custom web development shop, are often extraordinarily complex; more so than the buyer realizes into she is well into an engagement. For that reason, they have to be well communicated before services are rendered.

What makes it even more complicated is the explanation of the intricacies of a service such as custom app development, or content marketing, in and of themselves constitute a form of services: strategic consulting, which is the dispensing of expertise as advice in exchange for compensation.

The sale itself is not a transaction. It’s an emotional and reasoned transformation that occurs in the purchaser of services after she has gained the trust and understanding necessary to want the services on offer. The rest is just details.

It’s all about relationships. and then some

Speaking of emotional, the crown jewel of complexity services is the personal factor: relationships. Have you ever decided to take a long journey with someone? Perhaps a hiking trip, a train trip around Europe, or a cross-continental journey? Don’t tell me that was a simple journey in terms of the relationship because you’re not a robot. Hopefully, it was a wonderful, interesting, and rewarding experience. But here’s what didn’t happen: you and your traveling companion didn’t didn’t get to know one another any better, didn’t deepen your relationship.

Well, so it is with complex services businesses. Someone on the services provider must get to know the buyer, because how can they be of service, which is at the heart of services as a business deliverable, without knowing how and whether they can serve?

The owner, the communications strategist, lead developer, senior consultant or project manager, gets to know someone on the client side, really well.

And that’s before the sale.

At least if that someone has a talent for complex, consultative selling.

So the next question is, how does a complex services business generates leads that are especially suited for this kind of interaction? Or before we get to that question, even, how do you know if you need to generate those kinds of leads for your firm?