How To Shop for Professional Services in Higher Ed

I cringe when someone refers to me as a “vendor” and especially when clients refer to me as “their vendor.” The word conjures up a picture of someone on the street with a dancing monkey on a leash. I Googled the word and found that that perception was fairly accurate. The first definition included “a trader in the street” and referenced an ice cream vendor as the example. No wonder the word horrifies me.

It’s true that RHB sells professional services. I’m good with that; in fact, I love what we do and I’m proud to bring our expertise to the higher ed market. But, we do not have much that can fit readily into a shopping cart, whether on wheels or online. I admit that it may be difficult or even confusing to “shop” with us.

The big question for colleges and universities who are seeking marketing and design counsel is, inevitably, “Where do I start?” And that question is shaped by elements like cost, needs, insecurities about your challenges and current circumstances—maybe even fear of exposure. All of those feelings and concerns are highly reasonable to us. But none of those should stand in the way of finding a great solution to your challenges, nor should they prevent you from engaging in a conversation about your interests. This post is intended to make it easier to shop at RHB (or at any of our competitors, for that matter).

Here are five considerations that will help you do a better job of finding the right services and confidently securing the solutions you need for your specific circumstances:

Start a conversation.

It never hurts to talk. A good heart-to-heart with a potential consultant serves both you and the provider well. Your fear may be that you don’t want to ignite a fire of follow-up sales calls. That’s understandable. But a good consultant wants to solve your problem, not necessarily sell you stuff. Have a conversation with the consultant, not the sales rep.

Most of the time, your initial call is free, so take advantage of that. The consultant knows how far to take the conversation and will usually let you know if you are crossing the line into billable time with your questions. Speaking of billable time, be aware that your consultant is paid by the hour in the same way you pay for other professional services. Even when you are paying for creative services, the proposed fees will be based on hours necessary to complete the work. This is precisely why your RFP may not yield what you want in response. Most RFPs from higher ed procurement offices are not written for professional services, which makes the “shopping” part all the more difficult. I recently wrote about that here.

Be transparent about your challenges.

Your initial conversation should be similar to the one you have with your physician. You explain your symptoms: what’s hurting and where. Just put your pain out there with the consultant.

My doctor asks questions like “How long has it hurt?” and “Does anything seem to prompt or intensify your pain?” A good consultant will ask probing questions too in an effort to fully understand what’s wrong.

But my doctor needs my help in describing what I’m feeling and how I’m feeling. Sometimes, just by looking at me, he can tell I’m sick. But he needs my description of what I’m feeling to know how to help. Just because he’s seen a hundred patients with the flu, doesn’t necessarily mean I have the flu, right? If I hold back in my description, he might miss something important that will really help me.

So don’t hold back. The more information you provide at the outset will determine the strength of the outcomes.

Be open to a diagnosis.

If you’re like me, you like to tell your doctor what your diagnosis is. Informed by my careful scrutiny of my conditions and symptoms, not to mention the myriad pharmaceutical ads to which I’m exposed, I usually feel quite confident in suggesting a prescription for my ailments. One time, when I was convinced I had a spider bite, the doctor started laughing and suggested we record it for posterity: “If that is a spider bite,” he said, “I’m taking pictures and writing this up. You and I will be famous for this one-of-a-kind bite.” I try not to diagnose myself or prescribe anymore, but admittedly, it’s tough.

I encourage you to let your consultant complete the diagnosis and prescribe a treatment. If you are speaking with an expert, she will likely be familiar with your ailments and will be able to suggest a good and healthy path forward. If you have a broken leg, a good doctor will treat your broken leg, and not suggest ways to control diabetes—unless that has caused the broken leg. In the same way, your consultant will address your specific circumstances.

Beware of those who offer a silver bullet. Every time I see the doctor he says, “You know, Rick, you could lose a few pounds and you’d feel a lot better.” And, he adds, “If you drank more water, you’d be surprised how much it would help.” There’s nothing magical about either of those directions. He’s right. Those are fundamentals for my good health. I might not care to hear those things, however, because I want him to give me something that will make me fit by next week.

Your diagnosis will determine the best treatment. You won’t know the treatment plan until you discuss it. The solutions may be simpler than you think.

Learn more about RHB’s strategic approach to helping you solve your higher ed marketing challenges at

Be honest about your budget.

In our experience, it’s best to be upfront about your budget. While we’d like to believe that no budget is too big, it truly can be. Caring for your budget is part of the responsibility of your marketing consultant. And if you believe your budget is too limited, just ask. If someone comes to RHB with an expectation beyond the scope of the budget, we don’t laugh like my doctor did about my “spider bite.” We look for ways to solve problems within the prescribed budget. Every client circumstance is different; thus, every solution and treatment plan is different. That’s another reason why it’s difficult to shop.

One way to approach the budget question is to ask, “If you had $50,000 to work with, what would you invest in first and why?” Note that this part of the conversation should follow the discussion of your symptoms, not precede it. You can’t prescribe without first diagnosing. For example, while we place high value on research at RHB—and we favor beginning with Circles of Influence because of its output of rich data—we might not necessarily recommend starting there if you are bleeding during yield season. And while surgery may be in your best interest, you may be better off with a great bandage until you are ready for more intensive work.

Know your decision-maker(s).

An important word of advice: include the decision-maker in the shopping. The rules surrounding your procurement processes generally don’t serve you well. One of the primary reasons is due to the gap between an RFP and the decision-maker(s).

We’re happy to engage with someone on your campus who is researching our capability to solve your problem. But when we start to prescribe (as we generally must in a proposal), we want to speak with a decision-maker. Most often, an RFP sounds very much like a self-diagnosis; that may not be your best way to start an engagement with a consultant. See above.

Be clear about who will make the decision to hire—and whom to hire. If that isn’t you, be sure to include the decision-maker in the diagnostic conversation. You’ll receive far better counsel and results.

RHB does offer services and products that you can add to your cart, but perhaps our greatest service lies in helping you decide what you really need. Our best work entails helping you discover what to shop for. And, the best way to shop begins when you pick up the phone and dial 317.634.2120.

  • Spread the word
Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.