The Problem With Professional Services


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Imagine if what you thought was your company’s greatest strength actually turned out to be its greatest weakness.

It’s an unsettling prospect, but also a very real challenge that’s faced everyday by professional services organizations with regard to their client experience.

“Professional services” is an umbrella term that refers to a variety of occupations which require very specialized knowledge and deep expertise:  lawyers, accountants, architects, financial advisors, and medical practitioners, just to name a few.

That specialized knowledge and deep expertise is central to a professional service organization’s client experience.  After all, when you’re selecting a professional services provider – be it a lawyer, accountant, doctor, etc. – a big part of their appeal is how well they know their trade.

Providers of these services recognize this and, not surprisingly, accentuate their expertise when marketing their capabilities and interacting with clients.  They aim to appear smart and educated, a recognized authority in their line of work.

And this is where things get dicey for them, because the very tactics that professional service providers use to demonstrate their expertise can also (inadvertently) make their client experience less satisfying.

Here’s why:  When people try to project an image of expertise, they often rely on making things appear difficult and complex to others.  It may not even be a conscious strategy, but the end result is the same.

They use terminology and jargon that the layperson doesn’t understand.  They dive into details to impress others with their knowledge of a topic.  They essentially draw a contrast between their commanding grasp of a subject versus that of their audience.

In the professional services arena, this approach may very well highlight a practitioner’s expertise in the eyes of clients – but it can also repel them, because the tactic runs afoul of some fundamental customer experience design principles.

For one, people crave simplicity – it’s just how our brains our wired.  Complexity can be paralyzing.  It leads people to disengage, tune out and delay decisions.  When a professional services provider uses complexity to underscore their expertise, it can cause their client to recoil from the interaction and rethink their choice of partner.

In addition, emotion plays a significant role in shaping people’s perceptions of the customer experience.  If a client is delighted with a professional services provider, it’s largely due to how they feel when interacting with that provider (as opposed to a purely rational assessment of the provider’s competence).

Consider, then, what emotions might be elicited in a client who is on the receiving end of a professional service provider’s “demonstration” of expertise.

When professionals interact with clients in a manner that accentuates and amplifies their expertise, it can make those clients feel ignorant and inferior.  Clients might fear appearing unintelligent, leading them to feign understanding and refrain from asking questions.  That triggers even more negative emotions, as they may then harbor concerns about whether they’re making good, well-informed decisions as a result of the interaction.

It’s easy to see, then, how a professional services provider who is intent on highlighting their expertise could unknowingly create an experience that saddles clients with disturbing complexity and negative emotion.  This is the paradox of the professional services client experience:  expertise is a positive attribute, but the manner in which it is illustrated can have a negative impact.

The solution is for professional services providers to recognize that, when it comes to creating a great client experience, emotion eclipses expertise.

That’s not to diminish the importance of subject matter expertise, nor the value in touting it.  What it means, however, is that professional services providers must demonstrate their expertise in a manner that is sensitive to clients’ emotional reactions:

  • Position yourself as an expert, but not in a way that might make clients feel inferior. Acknowledge the complexities of the subject matter, so that if clients feel uninformed, they at least feel uninformed with dignity.  Create an air of accessibility, encouraging questions from clients and validating their understanding of difficult topics.
  • Give glimpses of complexity, but generally shield clients from it. Creating complexity is easy.  Much more difficult (and where true value is created) is in making the complex simple.  When you help clients navigate complexity, when you remove the mystique around a difficult topic, it doesn’t detract from their perception of your expertise – it enhances it.
  • Use the “write” stuff to help cement client understanding. There are limits to how much information people can process in one sitting (especially if the material is complex).  Use simple, clear, written takeaway material to memorialize key information and guidance that was conveyed to clients in person – allowing them to review and digest it on their own timetable.

A great, loyalty-enhancing client experience is within reach for most any professional services provider.  Achieving that, however, requires embracing an “outside-in” perspective, because what you view as a sign of strength in the experience could actually be seen as a sign of weakness by your client.

Accentuate your expertise and knowledge, but do it in a way that makes clients feel confident, not confused.


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