Even if you’re good at retaining your relationships for the long term, it’s essential to add new clients each year. These could be brand new names, or new clients within existing client companies where there are multiple economic buying units and businesses. I’m going to walk through about a dozen essential strategies that will enable you to turn contacts into clients.
Think like a client advisor, not an expert for hire. The difference is profound, and if you can capture the “advisor mindset,” you will dramatically alter the way you approach building your client relationships—right from the first meeting. Experts tell; advisors ask great questions and listen. Experts are specialists; advisors are deep generalists who have a deep specialty but also a breadth of knowledge about their clients’ business, industry, and competitive environment. Experts have relatively few client meetings because they have to prepare so much; advisors know that a cup of coffee and a vibrant conversation is welcomed by clients and adds value. Experts focus on methodologies; advisors focus on client needs.
Clarify your value proposition. Most professionals describe what they do by saying things like “I’m an executive coach” or “I do process improvement consulting.” You need to frame what you do in terms of the value you provide to your clients, not the methodology you use. My value proposition, for example, is that I help individuals and companies develop their clients for life. You should have a short and a long version of your value proposition. The former should be 10 words or less, the latter 50 words or less. The long version, for example, can provide a little more detail about the types of clients you work with, the industries you focus on, and/or the variety of benefits you deliver.
Develop your marketing gravity*—your ability to attract leads. A “push” strategy, where you are constantly knocking on doors and pitching your services to convince clients to buy, is very hard work. A “pull” strategy is where clients call you based on receiving a referral from another client, reading an article or blog, or hearing a keynote speech. Most everyone knows that this is the gold standard—waking up to an email that says, “I’ve got an issue I want to talk to you about”—but fewer are willing to put in the hard work required to create this marketing gravity. The trick lies in a careful selection of your attraction strategy, from among many, and then methodical execution. Remember, even if your firm has a world-renowned brand, you still need to develop a personal brand which attracts sole-source leads. (*this expression was coined by my friend and author Alan Weiss).
Understand what clients really want. There are four things that all clients always want—and some others that are situational based on the client’s particular needs and buying habits. These four are:
- Delivery—you have to come through for clients on your core products and services, with a high level of client service and quality.
- A Relationship of Trust—clients must believe you will put their interests first and come through for them.
- Value—there must be an acceptable ratio of benefits to cost.
- Likeability—clients do business with people they like. In addition to these there will also be value items or benefits that are specific to each individual client.
Make sure your client is ready and able to buy. In a recent newsletter I set out the six preconditions for a contact to become a paying client. The first of these this that the client must perceive a problem or opportunity that is significant. It it’s a problem it must be causing a major deviation from expected results, and if it’s an opportunity it must offer a major payoff. Otherwise, why would they hire you? The client you are speaking with must also own the issue and be able to act on it—he/she must be an economic buyer, otherwise you will spin your wheels talking to someone who is not empowered to act and to pay your fees.
Create a buyer by uncovering an important need and building trust in your ability to address it. The “sales process” can take one hour or four different meetings, but in order to achieve a sale—to create a buyer—you have to identify and explore a need, develop an agreed approach, and get the go-ahead to proceed. People tend to overreach in first meetings. They feel under pressure to achieve way too many things, often with a senior executive they have never met before or barely know, and the result is a good first meeting that goes nowhere. You have four essential objectives in that first conversation: Build rapport, identify their issues, build your credibility, and get a next step.
Persuade by showing, not telling. This is so important it’s a strategy of its own. During the sales process, most professionals give clients lots of narrative description. They describe their firm, their methodologies, their resumes, their points of differentiation, and so on. Often, these descriptions are backed up by large PowerPoint slide decks. Clients, however, are persuaded by examples, stories, and illustrations–not narrative. The most basic example of this is how you describe your company. Do you list facts and statistics? Or do you share short examples of recent client engagements that you know will be especially relevant to the client you’re talking to? Do you talk about your five-step approach or do you share insights about competitors and best practices you’ve seen?
Step back and review your opportunity pipeline. Your total revenues are a function of four factors: The number of opportunities you get to see; the percentage of those that you get to write a proposal for; your proposal win rate; and the average project or transaction size. Look at your equation: Where are you weak? Where are you strong? There are two ways to “see” new opportunities: Clients can call you, and say, “I want to talk to you about an issue” (“Marketing Gravity” is at work in this case); or, you can go knock on doors and prospect for opportunities. Are you getting your share of incoming leads? Are you also proactively getting out and calling on potential new clients or new buyers within existing clients?
In first meetings, focus first on building rapport and setting out a “Point of View.” These start the relationship-building process. Rapport-building takes place during the small talk, where you discuss current events and identify things and people you have in common. After agreeing the agenda (or reconfirming it), you can use the “Point of View” (POV) to get into a discussion and kick things off. The POV is a brief statement about how you see the markets, the competition, key trends in the industry, etc. It might be 50-75 words long, but probably no more. (Note: Chapter 5, “Engaging New Clients,” of my recent book All for One , sets out a number of essential engagement strategies for winning new clients).
Always use short client examples, as illustrations, early on in the relationship-building process. Use “What We Finds” that describe what you do and the kinds of issues you work on–rather than long narrative descriptions that are invariably unconvincing. Short client examples are very effective for building your credibility and also stimulating a discussion about a client’s own challenging issues. These examples should only be around 50 words long (they must be very short), and they should be chosen for their potential relevancy to the client’s known issues and strategic goals. Describe the client’s problem, your solution, and the impact or results.
During the sales process, be prepared for tough questions and objections. Sooner or later you’re going to get asked questions like “How are you different?” or “Exactly how much experience do you personally have in this area?” You’ll also have to deal with objections such as, “You’re too expensive” or “We are too busy with other things to start on this now.” Always use objections as opportunities to ask more questions and find out more about the issue. How urgent is it? How much pain is it causing? If it’s important, why is it not a priority? How much do they think it’s worth to fix it? Answer tough questions with examples, illustrations, and counter-questions–not just assertions.
Only write a proposal when all the right conditions are satisfied. Is this the right client for you? Is it the right issue—and if not, should you be helping the client to redefine it? Do you fully understand the client’s objectives? Is the buying process transparent, and have you met with the economic buyer? Do you understand what is most important to the client—what outcomes they will most value from your proposal? Have you gained “conceptual approval” of the basic approach? If you cannot answer “Yes” to all of these questions, you should not invest the time to write a proposal because you may very well be wasting that time. See my article on this, “Don’t Write a Proposal Just Yet.”
Build relationships with senior economic buyers in the C-suite. Too many service providers and professional advisors are content to work with junior clients at low levels in their client’s organization. How relevant will you ever be to that client if you are buried deep within their organization? How much impact can you have? How can you really understand how your services or products fit into the overall context of business strategies and goals? Moving up in the organization, however, requires a different level of understanding of your client and a more nuanced sales process. Senior executives are uninterested in “methodologies” but rather want to know if and how you can help them achieve their business goals. They are extremely pressed for time—and therefore you have to learn how to add value for time (see my full article on this, “Value for Time”). They absorb information rapidly, and will rarely sit through long, drawn-out presentations. In the c-suite, who you know can become as important as what you know.
Become an agenda setter. If you want to create additional opportunities with existing clients—and if you want to be perceived as truly having something substantive to offer to brand new clients who don’t know you very well—you must be proactive. But you must be proactive in a way that is relevant. This means understanding your client’s “agenda” of 3-5 critical business and 3-5 critical personal priorities, and framing all of your discussions around them. There are lots of things can be proactive about, but if your client doesn’t perceive them to be helpful to resolving their most urgent issues, there will be little serious interest. Remember, if you’re an agenda reactor, you’ll be constantly bidding for work in RFPs, whereas if you’re an agenda setter, you’ll create sole sourced business.
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