At age 18, I spent the summer scooping ice cream at a Cape Cod institution called Nick and Dick’s. Little did I know at the time that this job would be great training for my later career.

My manager at Nick and Dick’s was a guy named Rick. Rick at Nick and Dick’s. Go figure.

Rick at Nick and Dick’s had lofty standards for customer service.  He ran one high-performing shop. Or shall we say, shoppe.

I scooped endless dishes of rum raisin, peppermint stick, and mint chocolate chip (my favorite!). Meanwhile, I also learned valuable lessons about being customer-facing:

  • Customers can get overwhelmed by choices. Sense this, and help them navigate.
  • For customers, it’s not just about the ice cream. It’s about the promise of summer, of carefree-ness, of fun. You are there in part to fulfill that promise.
  • When in doubt, work with urgency. Customers will appreciate how you respect their time.
  • Say thank you when someone does business with you. Always.

Later, when I switched from the client side to a customer-facing role at a marketing research firm, I applied many of these lessons.

Whether people are buying ice cream or purchasing complex professional services, they have something in common: They are tugged by forces that affect their emotions.  The buying context looks somewhat like this:

Clients need service providers who are aware of the forces surrounding the buying decision and who can help hack through those forces to move the relationship forward. These service providers must not only demonstrate technical competence, but also make clients feel empowered, supported, and trusting. They must convert the chaos of the buying process into clarity and calm.

(For a more nuanced description of the dynamic that inspired my sketch here, see the wonderful book Managing The Professional Service Firm by David Maister and read the chapter “How Clients Choose.”)

When marketing services or marketing tech firms hire talent, they are often looking for people that can be, as we say, “client-facing.”

If a candidate hasn’t yet worked in a customer-facing role, how can you tell if that person will be strong with customers? Even if they do have experience being in front of clients, how do you know their customer service ethos is what you need? After all, the flip side of someone having ten years of experience in anything  is that they may have ten years of experience repeating the same mistakes.

And sometimes the best candidates for marketing services roles are ‘transfers’  – people from client-side marketing or academia, for instance. Some of those transfers will be tone-deaf with clients. But some will be diamonds who can effortlessly earn that elusive trusted advisor status.

How do you surface those diamonds? In short, how do you uncover latent professional services DNA?

Conveniently, when you are evaluating talent for your team, you are actually a buyer of a complex sale. In effect, YOU are the client and the candidate is the service provider. So you have those same forces pulling you that we saw before:

This means that you can signal the forces affecting you, and evaluate how candidates navigate those signals.

As you evaluate candidates, pay attention to clues:

  • Do your candidates sense the forces pulling at you?
  • Are they summarizing discussions, clarifying next steps, and helping you feel less overwhelmed?
  • Are they creating a personal connection with you in addition to demonstrating analytical and marketing chops?
  • Are they anticipating and handling objections to their candidacy?
  • Can they paint a picture of how things would be better with them on your team?
  • Do they provide new insights that make you sit up straighter?
  • Do they bring urgency and a steady hand to interactions?

If you see evidence of these behaviors, you are likely in the presence of someone with latent skills in professional services.

And of course, ask them what they drew from their jobs in high school. Their reflections will be telling.

Thoughts? How do you test for professional services acumen?