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Buying like a pro - what type of client do I want to be?

Buying like a pro - what type of client do I want to be?
IPA Finance Director Tom Lewis explores how to procure professional services in his latest hot topic blog post.

"The tuareg are an ancient people; they respect only hard cash and hard bargaining… We are both fluent, Bough - sadly in different languages. How. Much. Is. The. Rug?"

Rowan Atkinson, Barclaycard advert, 1990s

It's an odd position to be in - a buyer of professional services in a client service organisation. It makes you think about what sort of client you want to be.

At the recent Performance Adaptathon, CMO Martin Riley of Pernod Ricard was characterised by Evan Davis as "the sort of client every agency in the room would love to have", while at a meeting of the IPA Council, talking to President Ian Priest, Nigel Gilbert demonstrated that in making the leap client-side from agency man, he knew how to get the best out of the agency.

In the trenches of agency life, however, one hears a lot of war stories about all sorts of clients. As a finance director I have been a regular buyer of professional services, most commonly legal advice, but also for audit, tax and specialist immigration issues.

So what type of client do I want to be?

My aim as a buyer of professional services is to get the most value for the least cost in an assertive, but not aggressive manner. Why do I approach buying like this? Partly, there is an element of professional pride in being focused and businesslike.

I also don't like the feeling of squandering the company's money either by allowing costs to get out of control or by being taken advantage of.

But there are other reasons.

I want to be the sort of client that, if I ever needed to phone up an advisor at 8pm on a Friday night, they would take my call straight away, not put it through to voicemail and come back to me on Monday morning.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, I want my professional advisors to feel motivated to do their best when working with me. This means that they see me as a smart, sharp, but not aggressive, buyer who will keep them on their toes, both in terms of their output and their charges.

My approach to buying:

- I start by doing my homework and defining my issue very clearly, being very specific about the question I need answered or the problem to be solved.

Sometimes, the question is as specific as "What are my legal obligations in situation x?", but it can also be as general as "I need to get to this outcome, advise me how I do it."

- I typically produce a written brief for the law firm with a short case history and all relevant facts thereby reducing the chargeable time needed for briefing and discussion.

- I involve specialist advisors as early as possible, whilst I'm still on the front foot and have options.

- I always start by asking for a quote for the work I need done; if nothing else, it sends a signal to the advisors that I'm budget conscious.

The quote needs to include a time and costs estimate. If I think the time is excessive, I'll ask for an explanation of why it would take so long.

I always weigh up the costs in the overall scheme of the risk and/or what the business is trying to achieve - a few hundred or thousand pounds for a bit of tax planning insight that provides a significant cash flow benefit is money well spent, so there’s no point nickel-and-diming the advisors.

- I typically give an estimate of my budget and, being a finance person, this usually means saying "I have a limited budget for this and I'm not looking to spend a lot."

- I do as much of the leg work as I can myself. I'm only looking to pay for specialist services to do what I can't do myself, so I always ask for verbal advice only and take notes myself. Additionally, if a long document needs reviewing, I'll do a first review and highlight areas of potential concern or which I don't understand.

- I always ask if the quote is as cheap as it can be. What else could we do to reduce the cost?

Sometimes it may be appropriate to put a more junior person on a call and sometimes a more senior person will get to the answer more quickly, even though their charge-out rate is higher.

- I keep initial chat to a minimum like "You keeping well, good weekend?" is fine but, at £400 an hour, I'm not interested in discussing my son's latest school report and when paying by the hour, I adhere to the "just a minute" principles of no hesitation, deviation or repetition. I want specific answers to specific questions, not to be charged for pleasantries and waffle.

- Once I've found a firm I'm fundamentally happy with, I tend to stick with them. If there are problems with costs or, if I think I've received poor advice, I'll flag it up straight away.

- When I'm looking for a new firm, I'll give preference to those that come with recommendations from trusted contacts, but I'll interview a few for chemistry, costs and apparent keenness to take on my business.

Once appointed, I'll put in some effort to get to know the advisor where appropriate; a coffee with my main contact helps establish a good working relationship and allows me to give some background on my company and set the tone for how I want to work together while I then jump at the chance of (relevant) industry briefings and networking events.

Tom Lewis is the IPA Finance Director. Follow him on Twitter.

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Last updated 05/08/2014

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