Your firm may be offered an opportunity to pitch for and win some work at an important prospect. This is the real test of your firm's ability to engage with a Client and build a mutually beneficial working relationship. Many professional services firms would admit that maintaining a Client relationship can be time-consuming, especially during periods of buying inactivity. In the early stages of building the relationship, both the Client and the supplying firm are getting to know each other. There can be many interactions between Client and firm that happen via the internet. Cultural differences and the interplay of working with one another provide development opportunities on both sides. As the Client experience with the firm grows, both parties begin introducing other members of their organisations and this clearly helps to strengthen the relationship and provide an additional income stream for the firm.
Prospecting requires skills in planning, targeting, contacting, listening, questioning and meetings.
Figure 9.1 The 4 P's of Prospecting
Best prospecting practice needs:
• Planning - knowing which prospects are to be pursued, by whom, when and how.
• Preparation - conducting basic desk research and consulting with colleagues to understand likely business issues.
• Patience - the understanding by all concerned that strong relationships are built over a long time period.
• Persistence - the ability to maintain the interest in all those responsible for attracting and securing prospects.
It is important to select and pursue the appropriate Clients who we suspect have the potential to grow with the firm.
These can be from:
• sectors where we can demonstrate knowledge and expertise;
• specific market segments;
• Clients with growth plans;
• Clients known to spend fees on external consultants;
• Clients who have indicated a high level of satisfaction with our firm.
We need to assign responsibility for researching, pursuing and contacting these target Clients. If you have a business development function, it usually falls within their remit to set up exploratory meetings with the appropriate partner, director or senior manager. Many potential Clients rely on internet searches about a firm's capabilities prior to making direct contact.
The importance of listening and questioning
When meeting potential or existing Clients, there is often the temptation to be ready to provide answers and possible solutions too early in the conversation. Patience is crucial at the early stages of developing a relationship. The prospective Client wants to tell you about her/his business and the problems and challenges being faced. The opportunities to serve the Client will increase when the prospect is allowed to continue without interruption. The skills of questioning and listening are critical in establishing Client requirements -we all know how easy is it to get carried away when a prospective Client mentions an issue and we jump in with a solution!
Meetings and conversions
Once a meeting date has been agreed, a team of people should be assembled with the right credentials to discuss the likely issues raised by the Client. It is important to stress to your team that the purpose of the first meeting is to listen carefully to the Client, ask incisive questions and take notes. Proposing solutions and selling these to the right people are best left to the follow-up from this meeting. Outcomes from meetings are worth analysing; many firms ask their business development and fee-earning teams to regularly update the CRM system of all meetings.
Some firms even classify these meetings as follows:
• Conversations - initial meetings, ongoing discussions, information gathering, but no real progress towards an order.
• Progressions - productive meetings that have increased the probability of purchasing.
• Conversions - meetings that have led to business.
• Strategic - high-level input from the Client often in preparation for additional work.
Such classification enables monitoring and measurement when establishing business development targets.
USING IDEAS TO GENERATE PROFITABLE CONVERSATIONS
Claire Mason is Managing Director of strategy and communications consultancy Man Bites Dog (MBD). Founded in 2005, the consultancy specialises in working with professional services Clients to turn their intangible expertise into Man Bites Dog stories: ideas that generate profitable conversations. The positioning of her firm is very interesting in that it is based on the premise that 'Man Bites Dog' is a more interesting story than 'Dog Bites Man'. The firm became the most award-winning B2B consultancy in the UK within two years of start-up and the now 30-strong team has grown its services from communications and thought leadership to helping Clients develop new propositions, new services and new markets. 'Professional services firms typically struggle to focus, with resources fragmented across sector and practice areas - we help develop propositions to join up that matrix', says Mason.
• 'Professional services firms can no longer differentiate on service, people are waking up to the fact that ideas are the only source of differentiation. We are starting to see the relationship-led sale being enhanced by more scalable ideas-led selling. This is bringing marketing, business development and Client service closer than ever before.'
• Man Bites Dog's Follow The Leader report published in 2014 reveals that Clients are increasingly expecting services firms to provide insight and intelligence as part of their service offer. 'Thought leadership used to be about demonstrating competency, today four out of five Chief Marketing Officers believe that the most important driver of their thought leadership is fulfilling Clients' expectations that firms will be thought leaders and produce insightful content as a matter of course', says Mason. 'Service is a given. Now market intelligence and insight come as standard too.'