A dangerous reaction to an uncertain economy
We originally published this article following the 2008 crash. The decision to leave Europe creates a period of uncertainty where many organisations will inevitably put some projects and buying decisions ‘on hold’.
Those organisations worrying about the potential loss of revenue will often react by increasing business development activity. This activity ‘push’ can sometimes lead to actions and behaviour more likely to put clients off than to generate much needed new business.
So if you or any parts of your firm are concerned about future business our advice remains the same:
Instinct is a poor guide
Unfortunately, some firms may be tempted to move away from what they know to be best practice and consider doing things that we believe will be counterproductive in both the short and long term. Why? Because senior management may put pressure on people to win more work. Previously successful professionals may find their business is tougher than they have ever known it – their pride is at stake. Younger professionals are in an even more difficult position, having to build a client base when there is less work around. Under this pressure it is understandable that many are searching for the ‘quick wins’. Understandable, but dangerous.
Dangerous because, much as we all would like to, only very rarely can we speed up the client’s decision making process. Many people take longer to make decisions in uncertain times and for that reason most attempts to ‘hurry’ the client will come across as pushy and will, at best, slow down the decision and, at worst, destroy our chances of winning work we were probably going to win anyway – if we had been patient. Most of us react to being pushed by pushing back and there is no reason why our clients should be different. In addition, attempts to move quickly often look like desperation, and very few of us like to buy from desperate people!
Impatience is even more dangerous when trying to win new clients. If the clients we want to win are the high quality ones that will be loyal to us in future and will pay ‘reasonable’ rates* then expecting them to succumb to our charms quickly and with little effort underestimates the challenge. Consider your best clients, the ones who have been loyal to you over the years and the ones you would defend most stoutly. Think how difficult it would be for a competitor to take them off you, and how much time and effort they would need to expend to even get the client to consider them. You know how they would react to a crass approach by a seemingly desperate individual who only seems interested in one thing – winning a piece of work as quickly as possible. You might be more nervous of a competitor who approached this client skilfully, who was prepared to invest in the relationship and who was patient enough to work to your client’s timescales rather than their own. Perhaps the bonds would be too strong to break anyway (unless you are undermining this relationship by appearing too greedy or desperate yourself at the moment!). Even so, if they are to be broken, it will be because the client wants to move, not because your competitor needs him to, to survive.
[*On the other hand, if any new client will do – and at any fee rate – you may decide to cut your rates to win anything you can. For some firms this may be the only survival tactic, for others it will only hasten their demise. Even if the firm survives these hard times it may take years to rebuild the quality of client base it once enjoyed.]
Are we all doomed?
Are we therefore recommending that all of our clients sit on their hands and wait to see what happens? Of course not. Almost all of our clients need to do more business development. People need to be more active; they need to be investing more in existing and new relationships. But, now more than ever, they need to be doing more of the right things with the right people. And most of these right things are the same as the right things always have been. They include (and apologies for returning to the fundamentals):
For existing clients:
- Making sure everyone in the firm is delivering to their clients in exactly the way the client wants;
- Delivering real value in everything they do;
- Stripping out all the ‘nice to have’ elements of their service that just make their offering uncompetitive;
- Communicating the value that they bring, which the client would have to forego if they moved;
- Engaging with all the influencers – including those who are newly interested in each client’s decision to buy from them, such as Procurement and Senior Management; and
- Understanding the client’s world (and their opportunities and threats) so well that they are able to provide them with the optimum range of services their firm is able to deliver – through genuine client-centred cross-selling.
When trying to win new clients:
- Targeting the ‘right’ clients and focusing their efforts in a way that allows them to invest enough time to give them a chance of success with each one;
- Approaching these clients in a way that stimulates them to meet – not cold calling or sending a brochure;
- Focusing on understanding the client rather than on ‘selling’;
- Understanding the client’s timescales and being happy to work to them;
- Being prepared to invest in the relationship – adding as much value to their target clients as they do to their clients and demonstrating by their actions what it would be like to work with them;
- Maintaining contact and building the client’s motivation to buy over time; and
- When the time is right, being in a position to know what to do to win their first piece of work.
If this seems like the slow way to do things reflect on your own experience of being approached by a potential provider. Would doing things differently speed you up or slow you down? Indeed, would the patient, confident, client-centred approach described above not make you more likely to move, and perhaps move more quickly if the approach came as a relief from other more hurried attempts to win you as a client and from the increasingly desperate attempts of your current provider to cross-sell you all their services, whether you need them or not? This is not only the best way to succeed it is almost certainly the quickest too.
What can we do?
All of this is well and good, but are there any ways of increasing the speed and likelihood of business development success at times when we need more wins to achieve the results we need? Here are some to consider:
- Keep up to date with all that is going on in the world of your clients and targets. Are there any events that might ‘trigger’ a need for any of your services – a real need and a real opportunity to add value to the client?;
- List all of those past relationships that you have been too busy to maintain as well as you would have liked. Rekindle all or some of those relationships;
- Write a really good article now! Don’t wait for it to be published, send it to all of those people who would see it as a valuable nugget of information;
- Think which of your clients and contacts might be willing to refer/introduce you to others inside and outside their organisation. If you would like some ideas in how to do this well and completely professionally see our website (www.thepacepartners.com/articles/228-referrals);
- Organise and run a really good seminar quickly. Make sure this seminar adds real value and is relevant to today’s economic climate, don’t use it as an opportunity to sell, sell, sell! Follow up the seminar in a professional manner;
- Put an action plan together and schedule the time to do more of the ‘right stuff’. Guard this time with your life;
- Maintain your own confidence, momentum and motivation by setting yourself targets – not just fee income targets, these (especially how quickly they are achieved) are outside of your control, but activity targets that you can guarantee to yourself and others that you will do. Make good on those guarantees; and
- Do more! In periods of economic uncertainty the amount of effort you put in is one of the keys to success.
Summary It is easy to be panicked into throwing away all we know about successful client management and business development when things get tough. Because we need clients and contacts to move quickly we try to ‘encourage’ them to do so. This would be less dangerous if it had a neutral effect on our clients’ and targets’ motivation to buy from us. It is however quite likely that the effect will not be neutral but negative. Success in business development usually comes from doing more of the right things with more of the right clients. We are encouraging our clients to have faith in what they know to be best practice and to make sure that everyone is investing the maximum possible time in applying this best practice as well as they can and where it will have the greatest effect. One possible silver lining during this uncertain period is that many of your competitors may be out there right now desperate and panicking that they might just be driving a few of their clients into your arms. Don’t let your desire to win (and win quickly) lead you into pushing them back!
Download your copy of Panic! here