There's a lot of marketing advice on the internet, and a large part of it is not suited to consultants. What works for selling products or services is not always applicable to selling specific knowledge and expertise, even if our human buying behavior is.
One of those best practices consists of crafting a "no-brainer" service offering. Let's break down what this is, and why it's poor advice for consulting professionals.
Your consulting offerings may consist of services, products, or even access to your time and attention. Having a strong offering mix is key for sustainable growth. In case you haven't read it, I previously shared the 3 traits of great consulting offerings and how to transform your offering mix into a value ladder.
The idea behind the no-brainer offering is all about lowering the perceived risk for the buyer, and is almost always employed to sell services.
Some of the common features of a no-brainer service offering include:
- Pay per performance structure. There’s minimal risk to the client. For a marketing consultant, for example, that could be an agreement to only get paid for the opportunities (or cheap leads) they generate for the client.
- Monthly commitments and refunds. The idea is that once you deliver good results, clients are happy to stay on with you long-term. If it isn’t a good fit, you’ll be able to cut them loose after a month and move on to better clients.
- No upfront payments. A contract can include a clause that gets you paid after a certain amount of time or work performed, or you can go in with no payment agreement and demonstrate the value of your work by doing.
The way I see it, every one of these items is detrimental to your consulting practice and should be avoided at all costs.
I'll share the reasons why in individual posts, for each of the bullet points, in the following days. For now, it's enough to understand the stated benefits of crafting a no-brainer service offering.
Its proponents argue that when you create a service with very little (or virtually zero) risk to the buyer, two things happen:
- It becomes easier to win new clients since they have little or nothing to lose if things go wrong.
- It reduces the pressure on you to deliver high results right off the bat since the client isn’t investing a significant amount of time or money upfront.
These are poor arguments, supported by many false assumptions. Let's see why.
If There's No Perceived Risk, There's No Perceived Value
Peter Drucker famously wrote, "All profit is derived from risk." Companies hire consultants to manage their risks. Your profit is proportional to how much potential loss you reduced for a client.
No-brainer service offerings are said to be effective since clients won't lose anything "if things go wrong". But what does "things going wrong" even mean?
Advocates of no-brainer service offerings mix two kinds of risks in the affirmation: the one that your prospects have (uncertainty and potential for harm) and the one you bring to clients (of not delivering on your marketing promises).
These are two very different things. And once we recognize it, it's easy to see that:
- If the service is not reducing any risk for the client, there's nothing that compels them to hire you. Your no-brainer offering is like a small sample product that companies give away on sponsored events: you grab it because it's free, but you'll never pay for one.
- If the service is effectively reducing some risk for the client, why not charge for it? Yes, you will need to lead sales conversations to highlight the return on not investing. But once you start the engagement charging less than what the service is worth there's no reason to believe your clients will agree on paying more for the same service in the future.
As for the risk your clients assume when hiring you, it is reflected in the price.
If a prospect believes you have a 100% success rate at solving a problem worth $100,000, they would gladly pay you $100,000 to do the job. The less confident the prospect is with your ability to solve it, the less they'll be willing to invest in hiring your service.
Offering a service for free or without any upfront commitment from the client can be interpreted as a low trust in your ability to deliver on your marketing promises.
"Pressure To Deliver" Is Tied To Expectations, Not Only Price
The second argument used to support no-brainer service offerings is that "it reduces the pressure on you to deliver results right off the bat since the client isn’t investing a significant amount of time or money upfront".
There are three assumptions in play here:
- When clients invest in a solution, they expect a positive return from it.
- The lower the investment, the lower is the return clients expect.
- Clients always expect short-term results when hiring services.
The first one is correct. I'll skip the analysis here, but it's easy to understand that it takes time and effort to make any business change. If there's no benefit to it, the company is better off maintaining the status quo.
The second assumption is partially correct. The return clients expect from an investment is derived from both the investment required AND your marketing promises. And the former is what's missing here.
Imagine I sold you my services for $10, promising a return of $200 in savings. If you ultimately only save $100 after hiring me, the 10:1 ROI will not thrill you. I failed to fulfill my marketing promise and created an unsatisfied client.
If you're not confident in your ability to deliver, you need to reduce either your marketing promise ("underpromise and overdeliver") or your price. But selling a giant ROI that you will never deliver is not the sustainable path to growth.
Finally, the third assumption is completely false. Clients do not always expect short-term results when hiring services. And saying the opposite only shows your inability to align expectations and success metrics before starting an engagement.
It's easy to see that by looking at many services that famously don't generate short-term results: solving people and culture challenges, cultivating expertise and thought leadership, disruptive innovation, building a brand and reputation.
It's not reasonable to expect results off the bat in these areas, and most companies out there have properly adjusted expectations. If you try to sell a service related to any of these and promise fast results, good prospects will immediately question your seriousness and ethics.
Clients will always expect short-term results if that's what you're promising them.
"No-Brain" Offerings That Won't Hurt Your Brand
Lowering perceived risk for the buyer is a good idea and something you should pursue. But you do that while promoting your ideas, content, products, or reputation. Not by giving away 1:1 engagements or implementation work.
Alternative "no-brainers" that work for specialized consultants can include:
- Create and distribute high-value content for free in your niche. This can include blog posts and articles, videos of presentations and talks, guides.
- For your executives inside your dream clients, you might send free copies of your book, invite them to networking events, or interview them on a podcast.
- For your current and former clients, you can offer a presentation on industry trends, how they are affected by them, and what they need to do to adapt.
All of these initiatives will earn you trust and credibility from buyers, and lower perceived risk, in a sustainable way.
Serious consultants don't work for free - if you have extra capacity you direct that to your business. The no-brainer service offering should be avoided like the plague.