One of my clients, a global consulting firm, wanted to build a relationship with a Fortune-50 company in the Midwest. This company never used consultants, and my client had virtually no preexisting relationships with their management. However, my client was determined to win them over. They asked a senior partner to spend most of his time, for one year, trying to build a sustainable relationship. He rented an apartment in the city where they were headquartered. Through persistent outreach, he got meetings nearly every week with managers and executives at the company. They all started the meeting the same way, saying, “You know, we don’t use management consultants!” It was a pretty tough slog.
But you know how this story ends (or else I wouldn’t be telling it!). My client persisted, and eventually built up enough goodwill to get a small project. His firm overdelivered on that engagement, and won others. Based on trusted relationships (which took a while to establish), strong thought leadership marketing, and quality delivery, the relationship grew rapidly. Within three years, they were doing over $100 million a year with the company.
This approach to growth—I call it the flagship growth strategy—is just one of many you can draw on. Whether you work with a large firm, or have a one-person business, these principles will help you identify avenues to grow your revenues. Yes, even in a down market. This summer, my own firm has never been busier—I am getting new inquiries weekly, and I’m not exactly in the business of selling high-demand pandemic services like video conferencing! Seriously—if you’re disciplined and follow these road-tested strategies, over time you can develop a steady pipeline of growth opportunities.
The Growth Principles
1. Select the right clients to begin with. Most relationship nightmares happen because you’re working with the wrong client (controlling, secretive, risk averse, no sense of urgency, treats you like a plumbing supplier, can’t make decisions, doesn’t want a real relationship, etc.). Why do you think the best surgeons, with the highest success rates, are selective about which patients they take on?
When it comes to clients (versus surgical patients), here are some things to look for:
- They value trusted relationships, and have a history of productive, long-term relationships with external advisors and providers.
- They are in the right industry/function for what you offer.
- They have a bias for action and are keen to improve their business.
- You are working with the right executive(s) at the right level.
- The issues they want you to work on are important or even mission-critical.
- They generate sufficient profits to afford high-fee external help and/or have other sufficiently robust sources of funding to afford your solutions.
But don’t take my word for it. Ask yourself: what characterizes your best, most fruitful, highest-impact, and most enjoyable client relationships? Make your own list.
2. Focus. Focus means you must make your highest-potential relationships and future prospects the center of your attention. It means being selective about the competitive bids you agree to participate in (I suggest you turn down some of them, and re-invest your time and money into the most promising ones). Focus also means have the courage to say “no” and reject low-margin, undesirable business.
3. Invest. You have to invest to grow. That means:
- Invest in your best relationships. Be willing to go the extra mile. Bring these clients unsolicited ideas and suggestions for improving their business. Don’t tenaciously haggle over every last penny of fees or every small scope change.
- Invest in your own skills and capabilities. Read, go to workshops, take online courses, get a mentor or coach.
- Invest in new solutions and offerings for your clients. While the foundational idea of my own business has not changed very much—helping companies and individuals build their clients for life—I have developed many new services and applications over the years. A few were not terribly successful—but others been widely used by my clients and, as a collateral benefit, turned into major revenue streams for my firm. A couple of them have been huge homeruns, and more than made up for my less-successful ideas.
4. Build Flagship Clients. Focus (no. 2) and Invest (no. 3) are the secrets to the “Flagship” client strategy that my client used to build a $100m relationship. The ballast and steady revenues that a flagship client provides can be critical to some firms. A lioness can’t live on a diet of mice alone–she can’t catch enough of them to feed herself and her pride. If you are a small firm or solo practitioner, and offer a very narrow product or service, this may not be the right strategy for you–you may have to instead build a group of eight or 10 clients for whom you are the go-to, trusted expert in your area of specialty. Some may not buy your services in a given year, but as a group they will provide steady revenues for you.
5. Move up, move down, and move laterally in your clients’ organization. Always look for opportunities to build more senior executive relationships (up). Never underestimate the challenge of implementation for your clients, and how you might help them downstream (down). And always, if the client organization is large enough, build relationships horizontally into other functions and business units (move laterally), so that you will have the chance to understand those executives’ issues and potentially offer them a valuable solution.
6. Treat prospects like clients (and they’ll probably become one). Don’t approach prospective clients with mistrust and a negative attitude that “they are just going to steal our ideas if we share too much.” If you think a prospect meets many of your acceptance criteria for new clients, then act like their trusted advisor from the get-go. Clients will want a second meeting when you’ve already been helpful and added value in the first meeting. If by some chance it eventually turns out you’re wasting your time, you’ll know it and then you’ll move on to greener pastures. That’s part of doing business.
7. Stay in front of your network. The well-known decision bias, called the “Recency Effect,” can be your friend–or enemy–when it comes to growing your business. The Recency Effect means that our thoughts are heavily influenced by what we have recently seen, experienced, or read (e.g., you read an article about the horror of Lyme disease, and begin worrying about ticks in your backyard). If you are getting your name and your thought leadership/ ideas out in front of your network on a regular basis, you will be top of mind when people have a need in your area of expertise. Conversely, if your past clients haven’t heard much from you lately, when they do face a challenge they may very well turn to that (mediocre) competitor of yours who they heard on a webcast last week.
8. Differentiate yourself. The more clients perceive a group of potential providers to be more or less equal/the same, the more they will put downward pressure on their fees. If you want to get lots of inbound leads and charge premium fees, you have to be perceived as different. This is a complex and challenging topic, but let me share a few suggestions for how you can do this:
Have a deep expertise that you can validate to clients. In a recent newsletter I talked about the “bankable advisor.” You need to project very clearly that you have solved the problem at hand many, many times over, and that you have the latest and best methodologies for doing so. Remember, however: Your core expertise is your “tip of the spear” to build your brand around and gain renown. But it’s not ALL that you do—you probably will have other skills and other solutions that you can offer clients. But the deep expertise wins you recognition in the marketplace.
Build deeper, more trusted relationships than your competitors. Yes, you can differentiate yourself by the quality and depth of your client relationships. The real differentiation here is not that you drink a lot of beer together, although likability is actually very important—it’s that through the close relationship you know the client as a person and his or her business better than ANY of your competitors. And that’s worth a lot to some people. It means your advice will be more targeted and more properly contextualized. It means the client doesn’t have to explain things to you from scratch. It means you can work rapidly and seamlessly together.
Demonstrate association with admired names and brands. Who is perceived as more differentiated (and worthy of high fees): A professor at a local business school the client has never heard of, or a professor at Dartmouth or Harvard? A banker who worked on Facebook’s IPO, or one who took a relatively unknown tech company public? You get the idea. How can you raise your brand and profile through affiliation with other renowned people and organizations?
Where do you start? Begin right where you are today. Take an inventory of your current clients and prospects–make lists. Review your marketing and client outreach activities. Pick a couple of these strategies that you think will especially work for you, and start implementing them. Finally, my new book, It Starts with Clients, contains the detailed “how to” for all of these strategies (see below) and will help you make them happen.