Every new year, all companies face great uncertainties. But what is certain is that if you don’t grow your business, you will fall behind.
There are of course times you need to shrink to grow, but that is a temporary tactic to enable future revenue and/or profit growth.
In working with a wide range of clients over the last 35+ years, I’ve learned there are some very practical and effective steps you can take to consistently grow. Every firm has slightly different challenges, which require tailored strategies. But when it comes to growing your client base, these five steps are foundational—they are strategy-neutral.
I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say it’s unlikely you are implementing against all five of these at anywhere near the level you could. And even if you feel that at a strategic level you are taking these steps, I’m sure there are significant differences in performance between your average people and your best people, some of which is explainable by poor implementation–not simply weak innate ability.
I’ve cued a word for each of the five steps: Define, Target, Differentiate, Leverage, and Listen. Here they are:
1. Define: Recalibrate and communicate who your ideal clients are
Many service-based businesses, such as professional services firms and financial institutions, have a client base today that is based on both intentional choice and a series of historical accidents. A client calls you up and wants some work done. They are ready to get going. So why not?
But what you end up with is like a home that a family has lived in for many years: It is filled with some great possessions, and also a lot of stuff you no longer really like or need. And, family members have gotten very attached to that “stuff” and don’t want to let it go. How else can you explain why my wife and I still have hundreds of books on cassette tapes in our basement?
Here are some questions to ask yourself and your teams about your ideal clients:
- What size organizations can we serve and be successful with?
- In which sectors do we have (or could we rapidly acquire) strong industry knowledge?
- In which functions or processes are we demonstrably strong?
- What types of companies have a high need for the types of solutions we offer?
- What are the characteristics of the organizations that we have historically built the most successful, long-term relationships with?
And finally: What is changing or going to be different in the future with regard to these five questions?
2. Target: Identify the decision-makers for your solutions.
The second step is to identify the real decision makers for the solutions and products you offer. There’s nothing more discouraging than spending your business development time with people who can’t actually make a decision to buy from you (e.g., with “feasibility buyers” who can say no but not yes!).
That said, there are three types of managers you may need to spend time with, aside from true decision makers (or “economic buyers”): 1. People who can introduce you to the decision maker; 2. People who can help inform you and prepare you for your ultimate conversation with the decision maker; and 3. Sometimes, procurement, if the client insists on going through a competitive bid process.
So as you approach your existing and prospective clients—who are in your defined target markets—ask these questions:
- Who can make or influence the decision to hire us, and authorize the required budget?
- Are we talking to those executives? (i.e., who can make or influence the decision to work with us)
- If we don’t have access to the decision maker, how can we get it? Who can sponsor us? Who can make a warm introduction for us?
- Are we spending a lot of time talking to lower level executives who cannot make a decision to buy? What results has this yielded?
Also, remember to target the kinds of executives who make the best clients—ones who are ambitious and really want to make change happen, who value the kinds of services you offer, who believe relationships are important, and who have the confidence of their own leadership.
3. Differentiate: Segment your current clients into A, B, and C lists.
This step is critical. Whether you are a solo practitioner or a large company, you have to segment your clients and manage them somewhat differently. Otherwise, you will at best miss out on wonderful opportunities to grow some high potential relationships; and at worst, you may dilute yourself into mediocrity.
Divide your clients into three lists:
“A” clients are your largest and best clients, as well as clients that may be currently small but have very strong potential. You should be investing in these relationships, and using an account planning process to map out your strategy and direct those investments.
“B” clients are your bread-and-butter clients that may provide a good chunk of your revenue. They may not have huge growth potential, but they contribute enormously to your overheads and keep the lights on. You need to keep them happy—but not overspend in doing so.
“C” clients have a question mark next to them. These are clients that are: not in or at the edge of your target markets (either for type of company or in terms of the executives you have a relationship with); small clients that are expensive to serve; clients that are troublesome and just take up a lot of your time; clients that constantly try to discount your fees; and so on. You need to review your C clients and decide what to do about them (e.g., renegotiate the relationship, raise your fees, have more junior staff work on them, change your service model, wind them down; and so on).
4. Leverage: Ask your best relationships for referrals, testimonials, and other introductions.
How would you answer these questions?
- Have you identified the decision makers or influencers, in other organizations, that your clients know and could introduce you to?
- How many of your clients would be willing to give you a testimonial? A referral?
- How many of your client-facing professionals regularly ask for a referral?
- Do you track referrals? How much of your revenue came through referrals in 2018?
Word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing strategy. So why not encourage it, research it, measure it, and train your people how to promote more of it?
5. Listen and Add Value: Start your year with a 100-day executive calling program
Do your people engage in regular, sustained, and thoughtful outreach to existing and prospective client executives? And when they do, how effective are they? Do they make the most out of these business development interactions?
The point of what I call “outreach”—meeting with decision makers (and writing or calling in order to set up a face-to-face meeting)—is that your sales pipeline of prospective work will wither if you don’t keep up a strong pace of executive meetings.
But here’s the problem: Unless you are in sales full time—if you are responsible both for delivering your services to current clients and developing new business, you will inevitably favor delivery rather than new business development.
Why do I talk about a 100-day effort at the start of the year? Because if you get behind in the first 3-4 months of the year, it is VERY hard to catch up later on. And, if you’re on a July or August fiscal year, now is a great time to ensure you have a strong second half of the year.
Your objective is to get meetings with decision makers and understand their most important issues and challenges right now. Specifically, you need to: share valuable ideas, insights, and points of view; ask thoughtful questions about their priorities, needs, and goals; and try to identify an important issue that you can collaborate with them on.
So over the next 100 days, you should be increasing your outreach to decision makers—in this order:
- Your current clients
- Past clients
- Other executive contacts you have within your target markets
If you’re a “seller-doer,” five outreaches a week is a reasonable expectation (these could include a meeting, but also steps that lead you to a meeting—sending out a personal note or email, making a call, issuing an invitation to an event, and so on).
In summary: Define or re-affirm your idea client profiles, target actual decision makers, differentiate your clients and segment them into A, B, and C lists; and accelerate your business development outreach efforts.
Good luck, and I’d love to hear how it’s going!
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