The pandemic has had a lot of obvious effects on the way that consulting services are bought and sold; in-person scoping sessions and pitch meetings have been replaced by teleconferences and emails, and firms have had to adapt to a world in which in-person interactions with clients are a significantly more valuable commodity.
But aside from these obvious, practical changes, there have also been a number of less tangible changes. In particular, the mindset that clients bring to the table has changed a great deal—and that's had an impact on the overall shape and structure of a typical procurement process. To understand these changes in more detail, we spoke with Dave Keever, a Principal at Crowe with responsibility for managing Sales & Marketing for the firm's consulting business unit.
Looking back at the past year, how drastically would you say that the pandemic has changed the nature of the sales process for consulting services?
Until early 2020, the majority of our interactions with clients during the sales process for a piece of work would have occurred in person. But as soon as the pandemic hit, we had to adjust to a world in which business travel was basically impossible. That took some getting used to—both for us, and our clients. Initially, a lot of clients were sceptical about how effectively consultants could deliver work remotely, and many of them didn't have the technology infrastructure in place to fully support virtual working themselves. It took about two to three months for most of our clients to get fully comfortable buying professional services in this new environment—and getting to that point took a fair amount of trial and error.
Early on, a lot of our people were skittish about adapting to a virtual environment. Consultants are used to living out of hotel rooms and spending time on the road; making the jump to working from home and interacting with clients virtually wasn't something that necessarily came naturally to them. But over time, we found that our people were able to adapt remarkably well. Eventually, people started not just trying to replicate their previous ways of working, but actually adjusting their behaviour. It goes all the way down to the little things—you know, maybe that client meeting that would have been an hour in the old world now makes more sense as a 30-minute call.
What kind of impact has that transition to a more virtualised sales process had on your ability to build and maintain meaningful client relationships?
The pandemic has made it both harder and easier to build relationships with clients. In situations where you're cold-calling and trying to get a relationship off the ground, it's definitely tougher; people get so many emails and calls, it's very difficult to stand out and make a lasting impression if you don't have a chance to meet in person. But where you already have a relationship, it's a different story; in fact, it's sometimes easier now to get access to senior clients than it used to be.
What steps did you at Crowe take in response to all of these shifts?
From an early stage of the crisis, we started having regular meetings with our sales teams to try to figure out the best approach to pursuing opportunities in a virtual environment. We quickly found there were a lot of subtle differences we had to adapt around. For example, when you're presenting to five or six client stakeholders on a Zoom call, it's a lot harder to read body language and facial expressions than it would be if you were doing the same presentation in a boardroom; it's hard to see who's paying attention and who isn't, or who might have a question that they're thinking about asking. To account for that, we implemented a policy of making sure we had at least two Crowe people on every sales call—so one person could present while the other focused on reading the room.
What do you think have been the most important recent changes—either caused by the pandemic or pre-dating it—to the overall shape of the buying cycle for consulting services?
Over the last decade, we've seen a gradual shift of clients coming to us at a later point in the buying cycle—and the pandemic doesn't seem to have changed that. In our experience, clients aren't typically reaching out to vendors like us until they're about two-thirds of the way through their buying journey; they want to get as much research done on their own as possible, looking at firms' websites and reading case studies to figure out for themselves what a project could look like and who'd be best placed to deliver it. By that point, they've generally narrowed their list of potential vendors down to three to five firms at most.
Has that change had an impact on the type of skills required to be a successful salesperson in this sector?
As sales cycles have become shorter, it's become more important than ever for sales professionals to know how to ask the right questions of a client. If you go back a decade, a lot of a client's education during the sales process came from the vendor, but now clients are educating themselves online. So you, as a salesperson, have to be able to very quickly get a sense of where a client is at along that education journey: How sure are they of what capabilities they need access to? What podcasts, videos, and blogs have been informing their thinking? How accurate is their understanding of your firm? Getting all of that information in a way that feels natural and organic is a very human challenge.
And do you think that shortening of buying cycles has impacted clients' expectations of price and what they're prepared to pay for a project?
Because clients are coming to us at a later point in the buying cycle than they used to, that also means they typically have a relatively firm idea of what the price of the project ought to be and how much they're willing to pay. However, the way clients approach the topic of price varies considerably depending on the type of project. If it's a piece of discretionary work, like a system replacement project, then they'll start by establishing a budget and then adjusting the scope of the project to fit. Whereas, if the work is compliance- or regulatory-driven, then they'll focus on trying to find a vendor that can meet their obligations at the lowest possible price point.
There's a lot of experimentation going on right now, particularly in the audit and compliance space. Firms are looking for ways to deliver their services more efficiently using technology, with the goal of being able to deliver the same client experience at a lower price point. And of course, the transition to working in a virtual environment has also reduced the cost of projects by eliminating the need for travel expenses. Clients know all of this; they expect that if a service is being delivered remotely, it shouldn't take as many hours as it would otherwise. Consequently, they've started shrinking their budgets for this type of work. There's been a lot of pressure this past year for firms in the regulatory and compliance space to offer some kind of discount in order to stay competitive.
Of course, another way for clients to manage cost is to prioritise shorter-term engagements. Have you seen any signs of clients moving in that direction, particularly since the start of the pandemic?
We've seen some evidence over the past year of clients choosing to break projects up into smaller phases; instead of committing to a year-long programme, they might choose instead to structure the project around smaller two- to three-month engagements with clear, achievable objectives for each one. Partly that's because the pandemic has stretched their budgets, but it's also partly because of how much uncertainty they're dealing with. No-one really knows how long each new period of lockdown is going to last for; there's a risk that you start a project that feels largely irrelevant in three months' time. As we've progressed through the year though, clients have started reverting a bit to their pre-pandemic behaviours. The average length of a project starting now is almost certainly longer than it would have been back in April or May 2020.
On that theme of the pendulum swinging back, do you expect that sales and buying practices will eventually revert to the way they were before the pandemic?
I don't think that there will be a fast reversion to pre-pandemic ways of buying and selling. Our priority as a firm must be protecting the health of our people, so any changes we make as the pandemic starts to come to an end will be dictated by that. Already, we have sales professionals who are keen to get out on the road a bit more when it's safe to do so—but I don't think anyone is ready to immediately go back to the way things were before 2020. And even if they were, it wouldn't make sense to do so, given that so many of our clients have adjusted their own personal routines and schedules around this new way of working. Ultimately, the speed at which people get back on the road will probably vary quite a lot sector to sector; there have always been certain areas of our consultancy that have relied more heavily than others on personal relationships built up through seminars and conferences.
Given how thoroughly consultants and clients have adapted to a virtual selling environment, I think it will take two to three years at least for travel to get back to the level it was at prior to 2020—if it ever does. The default for a lot of organisations—for the foreseeable future at least—will be, 'let's see how much we can do virtually, and only then look at travelling for on-site meetings'. In many ways, that's a good thing: The cost incurred from our side of making a sale has gone down dramatically this past year, and likewise from the client's perspective, the acquisition cost of bringing in a new supplier has also been slashed. I think everyone's keen to preserve those benefits as we move into a post-pandemic reality.