How to give clients options...

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In an increasingly highly competitive environment, why is it that most firms force current or potential clients to look to their competitors for options instead of offering options themselves?

Many firms take a ‘you can have any colour you like as long as it is black’ approach to both their services and their pricing (however they price) which effectively can force clients to adopt a ‘take it or leave it’ approach-accept what is offered or go to a competitor.

By offering clients choices you can often save them having to find alternatives elsewhere - they think more about how they can work with you rather than whether to work with you.

Of course we are professionally obliged to provide a certain quality of service and sound advice to our clients and offering options does not mean you can skimp on that - you would never intentionally sell a lemon of a car and no one would consciously buy a lemon of a car, at any price. Equally, car buyers don’t always want to buy-or have the budget for- a BMW 7 Series when a 3 Series maybe perfectly acceptable.

Almost every other industry has players that offer options. Airlines are the classic example. There are different classes to choose from all priced differently, yet everyone on the flight no matter where they sit arrives at the destination at the same time and has the same expectation that they will arrive safely.  The service provided is different however and depending upon where you sit on the plane and how much you have paid for your ticket your service expectations will be different too. Even for the same seat on the flight the price will often be different. If for example you want the flexibility to change your flight after you have booked then you can-and you pay a premium for that choice.

Research suggests that when making decisions, we seem to be quite difficult creatures to satisfy. We like choice -sometimes we go out of our way to gather as much information as we possibly can to ensure that we have ‘enough’ choices. On the flip side, when we have too many choices or too much information our decision making becomes too hard and we often delay or avoid making a decision altogether.

Unfortunately, there are no easy or quick ways to preempt what service, value or option your customer maybe expecting for a particular matter -the only way to know is to have a conversation with them.

So, how many options should you offer a client? That will vary of course but 3 appears to be a magic number - we seem to have a natural inclination towards finding two extremes and something in the middle to use as a reference point. For example, we often seek out three alternatives -one being cheap, another being expensive and one in the middle. Depending on the purpose and context we then decide what option to go with- and despite common beliefs that we all want to save money we all know from experience we often do not always pick cheapest option.

Ask yourself or your team when next making a proposal to a client ‘What can I add in, take out or vary to possibly give my client options (and still deliver a satisfactory and legally sound outcome)?’. I think you will find the potential options are endless. Turnaround time is a classic option (if a client wants it urgently, they should pay a higher price) but so maybe things like choice of talent, access, payment terms. By stripping out value you can offer a lower priced option without the need to give discounts. And the reverse is also true, a higher value option should come with a higher price.

Offering options can also benefit your firm by assisting you to shape your client’s expectations. If a client chooses a low value option over other options both you and they have at least some idea of the service expected -at a price the client is prepared to pay.

It may not be easy at first, and it takes time and some creativity to develop effective options. However, if you continue to only offer your clients black, you had better hope they never, ever crave colour.

* This post appeared as an article in The New Lawyer on 27th July 2012 "How to... give clients options"