David Maister’s book Managing The Professional Service Firm remains the gold standard text on the subject, some 16 years after it was first published. In fact, the book is a collection of essays and articles that he had written over previous years, stretching as far back as 1982.
The main thing that struck me about re-reading this again recently was how little things have changed in terms of the major issues still impacting professional service firms of all kinds – everyone from lawyers, accountants, consultants and, of course, PR agencies. For example, he cited systemic under delegation as a key problem back in the early 1980s – and nearly 30 years later, it continues to plague the PR business.
As Maister notes in his chapter on the Motivation Crisis: “It is not uncommon to hear comments such as ‘The practice of law [or accounting or PR consulting] is just not as fun any more. Today’s clients are demanding, cynical about the value they receive, and treat you less as a professional and more like an ordinary vendor. The pace, intensity and workload are greater than ever, and the firm atmosphere is competitive rather than supportive and certainly less collegial. With all this concern about profitability, it seems like we’re being asked to work even harder for what might turn out to be less money.”
And Maister wrote this in 1985!
There isn’t a chapter in the book that doesn’t have something of key relevance to everyone working in a PR firm today. Chapter 10 on How Client’s Choose is a good example:
“Buying professional services is rarely a comfortable experience,” says Maister. He goes on to list 10 unpleasant emotions associated with the experience (I’ve editorialised slightly from the original):
- I’m feeling insecure, I’m not sure I know how to detect which of the agencies pitching to me is the genius and which is just good. I’ve exhausted my abilities to make a technical distinction.
- I’m feeling threatened. This is my area of responsibility and even though intellectually I know I need outside expertise, emotionally it’s not comfortable to put my affairs in the hands of others
- I’m taking a personal risk. By putting my affairs in the hands of others, I risk losing control
- I’m impatient. I didn’t call in someone at the first sign of symptoms. I’ve been thinking about this for a while.
- I’m worried. By the very fact of suggesting improvements or changes, these people are implying I haven’t been doing it right up until now. Are they on my side?
- I’m exposed. Whoever I hire, I’m going to have to reveal some proprietary secrets – not all of which is flattering. I will have to undress.
- I’m feeling ignorant – and I don’t like it. I don’t know if I’ve got a simple problem or a complex one – do I trust these PR folk to be honest about that?
- I’m skeptical. I’ve been burned by PR agencies before. You get a lot of promises. How do I know whose promises to buy?
- I’m concerned that they either won’t or can’t take the time to understand what makes my situation special. They’ll try to sell me what they’ve got rather than what I need.
- I’m suspicious. Will they be those typical professionals who are hard to get hold of, who are patronizing, who leave you out of the loop, who befuddle you with jargon, who don’t explain what they are doing or why, who…., ……who? In short, will these people deal with me in the way I want to be dealt with?
If PR clients felt this way 20 years ago, think how they feel now.
Remember, it may be painful to walk in the other person’s shoes. But David Maister’s advice is as true now as it was 30 years ago: “The single most important talent in selling professional services is the ability to understand the purchasing process (not the sales process) from the client’s perspective. The better a professional can learn to think like a client, the easier it will be to do and say the correct things to get hired.”