How you convince clients to shack up with the devil they don’t know

Incumbent suppliers appear to have more of an advantage than you might think. Not only are they the ones with both feet inside the door–and therefore in a fairly decent position to slam it shut on anyone trying to get one of their feet in, but they’re also thought, by their clients, to be better than anyone else.

Fiona Czerniawska’s recent blog set out the size of this advantage, revealing that existing clients are significantly more likely than prospects to describe the quality of a consulting firm’s work in positive terms. Behind which you can’t help wondering if the broader reputation of the consulting industry is coming into play: Clients suspect they’ve been lucky and got the one firm that’s really good. The problem, as Fiona put it, is that “nothing you can do can communicate what you do as well as doing it.”

That begs a question: How does a firm communicate what it does as well as doing what it does does? Ahem.

It’s actually a question I’ve been mulling in a different context recently. Having endured the latest UK General Election, in which one of the main parties appeared to want to send us back to the 1970s, and the other wanted to send us back to the 1950s, I came to the conclusion that what was needed was a more convincing way of selling your vision to the country.

You see, the convenient thing about the 1970s and the 1950s is that we’ve already been through them, so we know what we’re dealing with. Broadly speaking, one was brown and the other was full of attentive housewives. Most people have got a pretty clear idea of them both in their minds, and anyone who doesn’t can always use google. But selling a vision of the future requires a bit more effort.

For example, let’s assume that the Labour party’s plan to re-nationalise our railway wasn’t actually about sending us back to the 1970s–when they didn’t work and everybody went on strike every five minutes–and was actually a plan to deliver a re-nationalised railway that’s fit for 21st Century Britain. That being the case, what we needed was to understand–even in broad terms–how that railway would work economically, both for the country and the passenger. But we also needed to have a sense of what our experience would be like in the future. We needed to be able to see the trains and the stations, and the way we’d be buying our tickets. It would have taken more effort than it does to go on TV and make sweeping statements about re-nationalising the railways, but it’s not impossible to do this kind of thing these days, is it?

In fact I know it’s not impossible because of something I’ve seen a consulting firm do. A couple of months ago I was invited to Deloitte’s digital offices in Clerkenwell Green, London. Inside the office Deloitte has created a retail store of the future. It’s called Clerk & Green (see what they did there?) and it looks like a normal store, to the extent that I was genuinely interested to know whether I could buy some of the things in it. But as Deloitte’s Chief Disruptor (a very nice chap called Ed) explained, Clerk & Green is far from a normal store. It knew who I was as soon as I walked through its door: technology embedded in the lights could follow me around, tracking what I was looking at and sending me relevant offers, and the mirror in the changing room told the shop assistant to bring me more things that I wanted to try on. Or something like that. Irrespective of whether I understood the technology, as a mechanism for getting me to buy in to Deloitte’s vision of the future, it was pretty powerful.

I suspect a similar kind of approach–bizarre as it may sound–could one day work in politics, but I also suspect that it could be used by consulting firms to help clients get some sense of what it’s like to work with them. To be clear, I’m not talking about a situation in which virtual-Bob from Deloitte’s supply-chain practice beams himself into the chair next to a prospective client and starts answering questions. At least I don’t think I do. But I do envisage a situation in which firms create immersive experiences that are at least partly designed to help prospective clients get a sense of the devil they don’t yet know.

Indeed, sticking with Deloitte since we’re talking about it, a couple of years ago I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days and nights at Deloitte University in Texas. Irrespective of my slight unease at the idea of there being something called Deloitte University–is it just me, or is it a bit…well…Dunkin Donuts?–and the spookiness of finding Deloitte’s mission statement prominently displayed in my bedroom, the opportunity to spend two days living with Deloitte struck me as being quite profound. Here was a chance to become fully immersed in Deloitte’s world in a way that crossed the boundaries between work and rest, professional and personal, day and night.

It wasn’t without risk: it’s one thing to stake your reputation on your ability to convince people you have the wherewithal to address their business challenges, but quite another to stake it on your ability to give them the right kind of pillow and cook their eggs well in the morning. And yet, as a mechanism for making me feel more familiar with Deloitte, and for giving me a sense of what it would be like to work with them, it was superb.

Many firms are realising the potential of innovation centres, and the like, to bring clients into their midst and work on digital challenges with them, and I suspect these will end up–intentionally or not–performing a similar function. They won’t just be about solving problems, they’ll be about helping clients to get a better sense of what it’s like to work with a firm. And that may end up being the most important thing of all.