When Cheap Talk Masquerades As Brand Promise

Broken trustA long time ago I worked for a guy who talked a great game. He talked about a workplace with great culture…about transparency and trust…about being the kind of place the best and brightest wanted to work.

That’s what he said. But he rarely delivered.

Once every couple of weeks he would make the rounds, sticking his head into everyone’s office. “How is everything?” He would awkwardly linger making small-talk for what his keen intuition must have told him was long enough to communicate serious interest, and then he’d muster his best managerial-tone; “Well, if there’s ever anything I can do to help you, just let me know.”

Few took him at his word more than once. It didn’t take long to recognize that the offer — indeed, his entire approach to management — was empty talk. Scripted leadership. And juxtaposed to the reality we knew.

Once in response I mentioned that the flimsy chair I’d been using for a year or so didn’t support my back; and, if there was any possibility, I’d appreciate an upgrade.

For twenty-four more months he continued making his rounds. But I never heard a word about the chair.

Saying It Does Not Make It So

Whenever the two are not aligned, the experience delivered will always be more eloquent and resonant than anything we say.

Client-centered, a commitment to value, the pursuit of diversity, transparency — we might create compelling prose around any number of issues and ideas; but to an audience oft burned, it is going to take something more than words to break through the cynicism.

The same is true inside the organization.

Years ago a friend told the story of being responsible for the fiscal health of a growing partnership. In the course of reconciling expenses he detected and eventually confirmed that someone was raiding the firm’s snack closest. Specifically, chewing gum was being consumed at an impossible rate — enough Juicy Fruit to stock an entire little league team was being lifted.

My friend’s solution was to lock the snack closet, requiring every employee to ask for the key, thereby intimidating anyone taking more than a reasonable share of any item.

The glitch in this solution came when the senior and founding partner of the firm responded to the cost-saving strategy with something less than enthusiasm.

That’s an interesting idea; but be sure to let me know the day the lock is on the closet because that will be my last day at this law firm. I won’t be part of communicating to our entire staff that we don’t trust them with our snack inventory.”

The equity of a brand — personal or institutional, inside an organization or in the heart of the marketplace — is created in the context of the experiences delivered.

Inside, trust is one of the things that differentiates a handful of great organizations from those that are just good enough.

In his book Leaders Eat Last, leadership and organizational growth consultant Simon Sinek underscores the reality that individuals go above and beyond in organizations where they feel safe.

Build an organization around fear and mistrust and be prepared to deal with consequences in the form of high turn-over, employees that watch the clock and seldom give up anything for the good of the whole.

And when it comes to a go-to-market mission, the experience we deliver is how clients and prospects learn what it is like to have a professional relationship with us. Are we trustworthy…do we keep all of those promises we make in marketing copy and proposals?

The aligned organization pays careful attention to both messaging and client/customer/colleague experience. Otherwise all of the investments in messaging are little more than cheap talk.

What Does It Take To Turn Contacts and Connections Into Productive Relationships?

It is news to no one that when it comes to business development in the professional services arena, relationship trumps everything.

Not connections. Or fans. Or followers. Real honest-to-goodness-relationships.

Establishing a connection is relatively easy. Building a relationship is decidedly not.

Do it right, and a single event can yield scores of business cards. Devote some time (or buy information someone else has compiled), and it is possible to connect with hundreds of thousands via social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Add a budget to the mix and it is possible to put together a list that would tempt any marketer to play the old numbers game.

And while there can be value in all of the above (making contact is where it begins, after all), it is a mistake to think a connection is anything more than a start. Relating with an individual almost always requires two things — dialogue and shared experience. And for many this is where it gets tricky.

If we misunderstand what constitutes dialogue, or underestimate the critical role it plays in building and maintaining relationships, we’re in for a long and likely frustrating journey.

The problem — or at least part of the problem — is in the way marketing communication is typically defined and used. We invest significantly in the delivery of a message. The result is the creation of entire web sites, advertising campaigns, and collateral communication materials that, with varying degrees of effectiveness, begin and end with a lot of information about us.

Even when the story is well told, it is one dimensional. Meanwhile, the potential that resides in relationship derives from the art of listening.

We know this, even though we often struggle to put our finger on why efforts to get beyond connection fall short.

We experience it every day — with family, friends and in the workplace. The more time I spend listening the closer I get to the fabric of meaningful and productive relationships.

For years the sophisticated marketing organization has invested in research designed to identify what might prompt the market to buy. Today the smart organization understands the value of investing in shared experiences —  in listening to and understanding the target’s (or client’s) story.

This is where game-changing relationship takes root. Listen hard enough and this is where we learn what it takes to become trusted.

In the midst of skillful and intentional listening clients migrate from satisfied to loyal.

What should an organization do to develop loyal, lasting relationships Begin by investing at least as much time listening as we typically invest in the creation and delivery of our message.

In fact, ask the right two or three questions, listen closely, and the market will tell you exactly what it takes to move from contact to relationship.

We might decide this is the most eloquent messaging strategy there is.

Want To Have Confidence Your Business Development Investments Will Produce?

What constitutes appropriate ROI on all that we plow into business development efforts?

In a post on the similarities between business development and planting a tree, we recounted the story of French Marshal Lyautey. The story underscores the fact that growing something strong takes time.

The practical challenge is that between the planting and tangible signs of growth, it is difficult to measure progress. And tough to be patient because so often we address business development needing to see immediate fruits from our labor.

Add the fact that because we only engage in this seeding process sporadically, and it is tough to believe the work will eventually pay off. This is not a comfortable place to be. Unable to see signs of growth, we shift from yesterday’s silver bullet to the latest flavor-of-the-month solution.

By contrast, a mature and successful strategy is one that has been in play long enough to include a healthy blend of investments in the future, and past efforts that have grown strong relationships.

The Formula For Successful Planting

Build around silver bullets and quick fixes, and you might be good enough to rock along with the same level of biz dev success you’ve enjoyed. If you’re lucky (and some are), you’ll invest in the right place at the right time often enough to enjoy modest growth.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in designing a strategy that delivers marked organic growth from the investments you make in business development, consider these three principles for effective sowing and reaping.

  • Plant wisely. Strong relationships don’t grow on trees. Throw seeds everywhere, and you’re wasting time and resources. Here are three ways to have confidence you’re investing in the right place. Look for areas:
    • undergoing high consequence change
    • where you have personal affinity
    • where you possess (or are connected to) deep expertise.
  • Nurture carefully. Want to have to constantly wrestle with weeds growing in the midst of your marketing and biz dev efforts? Pay attention to them only when its convenient…or urgent, and you’re not going to find much you can build upon. Quality relationships grow in the context of conversation, collaboration, and valued contributions. Invest here…and invest long enough for something to actually grow.
  • Pay attention to the season. Success is built around an understanding of time. Each effort is unique; but if you’re planting today and counting on seeing significant results in less than somewhere between 12 and 24 months, you’re not building around a realistic timetable. This doesn’t mean you won’t see results based on work done earlier; often a focus on quality nurturing activates some “planting” already done.

Target smart, focus on building relationships, and allow time to maximize your investments, and you’ll begin to see something far too rare — measurable growth that you can connect directly to your business development investments.

In Pursuit of The Business Develoopmet and Marketing Culture

If the only time we turn attention to marketing, business development or sales is when there is a fear things might be slowing down — or worse yet, after the slow-down has begun — three things are likely true. The experience:

  • is decidedly frustrating;
  • solves few if any of the short term issues;
  • in the long run, still leaves you hoping the market finds you.

If this describes your experience, one thing is certain.

Business development is not part of your organization’s culture.

The Test

Wherever practice development is given twenty minutes during a quarterly meeting, don’t expect much to change.

If integration or cross selling is left to chance — meaning there is no framework or process that ensures desired action steps — don’t hope to magically leverage the value of the relationship equity that should exist in a partnership.

If a system for religiously gathering and assessing feedback from clients and prospects does not exist, don’t hold out hope that your clients will move from satisfied to loyal…much less, that you will transform from service provider to trusted advisor.

If key relationship succession isn’t the subject of on-going conversations long before senior partners are about to retire, don’t be surprised when long-term clients evaporate as an inevitable changing of the guard takes place inside the client’s organization.

If innovative thinking around inclusion and diversity is initiated only in the wake of market pressures, be prepared to repeatedly have the same conversations.

Multiple cliches apply. Put your money where your mouth is. We measure what matters. What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.

Take your pick. But know that time is not on your side.

The hard truth is that an organization concerned with strategic organic growth reflects this in its institutional priorities.

Where the roles of marketing and business development are understood, these disciplines are not bound by a department. The responsibility for  brand equity isn’t defined by job description or title. The opportunity to market resides in every member of the organization that touches the marketplace.

A marketing culture, enduring brand equity and growth through strategic business development efforts are not the byproducts of accidental fortune or occasional conversation.

And the enterprise interested in seeding such a culture succeeds by virtue of intent, and the attention requisite to the highest priority.

The Currency of Communication

Chat Dollar SignVolume can be misleading.

Increasing the decibel level is no guarantee a message will be heard. Exercising the loudest voice in the room doesn’t equate to connecting with anyone. Bigger and louder — shake-the-ground-you-stand-on-boom notwithstanding — doesn’t ensure anything will resonate.

And siren call aside, the same is true for even the most seductive distribution channel or platform. The grandest pulpit, a bazillion Twitter followers, even revered global networks have been party to colossal misses when it comes to connecting.

You’d think by now we’d know better than to view these things as the currency of communication.

Buy Low

If you’re investing in the creation and delivery of a message, consider investing in something often overlooked.

Let’s revisit that room — the one where someone or some group is turning up the volume in an effort to grab attention (or maybe simply dominate).

It is worth reminding that silence might be golden. Even profound.

The fact that someone else in the room is reluctant to engage or become caught up in the “noise” should not be mistaken for the absence of a message.

When it comes to connecting, resonating and inspiring, intentional listening is, more often than not, undervalued. Or overlooked. Yet it always precedes effective communication. Here’s why:

  • Intentional listening broadens experience. This is critical because experience is the stuff of which solid bridges to new relationships are built.
  • Intentional listening provides a context in which empathy takes root. And empathy gives rise to understanding.

Double Your Return

An investment in listening inspires more listening, because real empathy shines a light on the fact that I have no idea what I don’t know. For one with a modicum of self awareness, this is enough to prompt silence.

Granted…an oath of silence isn’t a practical approach to survival in the professional arena. But if we can resist going to the extreme, there might be a practical point here.

Consider those for whom you will stop-down and listen…no matter what. Discerning questions, insightful contributions…the right words at the right time.

The effective communicator understands and consistently invests in the real currency of the art. It isn’t volume, channel, platform or even eloquence.

The currency of communication is intentional listening.

One wonders what adventures, innovations and successes, might await were we less preoccupied with the accoutrement of being heard. Where might we build bridges were we more inclined to focus on hearing…as opposed to being heard.

What might leadership sound like?

Were we to place appropriate value on intentional listening, what might that mean for our adventures in the marketplace?

Four Reasons You Need A Written, Workable Strategic Business Development Plan

No one needs a 20-page document that lists scores of action items on which action will never be taken. No one needs another plan that does nothing more than gather dust in a drawer.

But unless you are one-hundred percent happy with where your practice is today, and confident that it will endure for as long as you want to practice, you do need a business development plan.

Anyone serious about developing new business had better be serious about creating a strategic, targeted, workable plan.

Why? Here are four reasons.

1. A strategic plan leverages resources.

When the pressure is on you are going to turn significant attention toward generating new business. If you’re not feeling it today, there will be a time when the economy, an industry shift, changes with an existing client, or forces beyond your control at your firm will create pressure to develop new client relationships and business.

If you’re not already working a plan when the pressure hits, three things are likely to happen.

  • You’ll seek short-cuts to relevant visibility. A new brochure, a flashy advertising campaign, or a hastily conceived one-off event rarely deliver — and they almost always require a disproportionate investment.
  • Everything will begin to look like an opportunity. And unless you get really lucky, you’ll invest in some losers. Immediate need precipitates impatience. And when the latest flavor-of-the-month doesn’t deliver quickly, you’ll be tempted by the next.
  • You’ll wake up six months or a year hence, and the pressure will be even more intense.

2. A Strategic plan focuses attention on the creation of a productive network.

When it comes to business development for professional services, here is one thing that has not changed: productive relationships are your greatest asset. Visibility, association and collaboration with a carefully constructed network of individuals who refer, recommend and advise you is what helps create and maintain a pipeline of business. Such a pipeline is what sustains a practice.

And just in case we need to point this out — one more thing that hasn’t changed: a productive network does not build itself.

3. A strategic plan identifies specific targets.

Absent specific targets for your business development efforts, you are simply hoping those who will grow and stabilize your practice will somehow happen to find you.

On the other hand, the strategic identification of individuals with whom you most need to connect provides the blueprint for a productive plan of action.

This blueprint defines where you invest time and financial resources.

4. A strategic plan makes it possible to gauge progress.

Every single serious enterprise operates with a carefully crafted plan. It establishes timetables and guidelines, informs critical decisions, sets priorities, and provides for adjustments and recalibration along the way.

If what you are doing today is delivering on these four fronts, you have a pretty good plan in place. Stick with it.

But if you’re feeling the pressure it is time quit toying with the idea every once-in-a-while, and begin to seriously think through a written business development plan.

The tough part is there are no one-size-fits all solutions. But an effective plan focuses on two things: the identification of targets (this is about naming individuals); and the care and feeding of a network that connects you to those targets . . . and the work you pursue.

5 Markers Of The DNA Of Strategic Business Development

DNA StringLabeling something as Strategic does not make it so.

The presence of a plan, no matter the number of pages or accompanying detail, should not be mistaken for the existence of a strategy. Desk drawers are littered with detailed business development and marketing plans that are decidedly not strategic.

And even in the event a plan avoids being tossed aside, can we agree that activity does not insure progress?

The moniker Strategic Planning is so overused that it is in danger of meaning nothing.

There are a number of reasons. At least part of the challenge lies in the fact that rarely are any two challenges, opportunities or pursuits identical. The thoughtful response to any business challenge is, at some significant level, unique. Cookie-cutters and templates are of limited value.

And while it must be acknowledged that a one-off approach to marketing and business development can realize measured success given enough resources and luck, this is not the path to long-term growth and stability in a highly competitive environment.

An Idea-String That Signals Strategy

What constitutes a strategic plan? There are a handful of indicators  at the heart of the thinking, conniving and mapping that rise to the level of strategic. If you’re working on or adopting a plan, look for these five characteristics.

  • A Foundational Nature. Though able to shift in order to accommodate a changing landscape, baseline strategy doesn’t get rebuilt every year. Solid strategy breeds stability, even when market or organizational realities insist on adaptation or evolution.
  • Target Driven. Strategic business development efforts begin with target identification and intentional listening. Initiatives built around broadcasting a solution to the vast universe of potential clients/customers are rarely strategic.
  • Focus. Though often aspirational, a strategic plan doesn’t have to be the stuff of audacious dreams. It should facilitate a laser-like focus — on what to do tomorrow, and what will be in the event a plan is executed. Focus keeps a strategy on course.
  • Value Definition. Sound strategy provides parameters for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ This is the yardstick for evaluating, prioritizing and even eliminating opportunities that, regardless of potential and (seductive) return, are not consistent with the core of what your plan is about. Beware the strategy that never results in you saying “no.”
  • Terms of Alignment. Whether measuring human capital or liquid assets, solid strategy provides for the alignment of resources in pursuit of defined goals.

Few things can impact a market more swiftly or more dramatically than a plan derived from strategic purpose. For every organization and leader striving to build business, develop a practice and have positive impact on the bottom-line, the distinction between activity and strategy is a critical one.

If Your Approach To Business Development Doesn’t Include THIS, Think Again

Now Or LaterRecently I came across a McKinsey article titled Getting Beyond the BS of Leadership Literature. It’s worth the time (and was a bit indicting); but this is not a post on leading. This is about business development BS. Or, more accurately, what often goes unsaid when Biz Dev is the topic.

If you’re concerned with growing a practice in a professional services environment, it is not news to you that there is plenty of quality content available on the subject. Where to begin, the anatomy of a plan, how to connect, and what tools to incorporate.

Planning templates, coaching webinars and even new Apps promise a greater return on your Biz Dev investment.

But here’s what often gets left out.

If business development (and all that it entails) is not a priority…if you haven’t carved out the time and do not possess the discipline to fully execute a plan, measurable progress will be illusive.

No plan will make up for a when-I-get-around–to-it approach. No strategy will convert a once-a-quarter (or once a year) focus on a productive pipeline of business.

Admittedly, there was a time when things were different. Deliver undisputed quality, and the market would seek you out. And if you happen to be operating in market space where the work you deliver generates all the business you can handle (or meets revenue needs/aspirations), keep doing what you’ve been doing as long as it delivers. Your only biz dev concern is how long that market will endure.

But if you’re among those simply not being called upon enough — whether individual or firm — the issue may be one of prioritization.

Fifteen Minutes A Day

Twenty years ago a colleague told me that he asked everyone with whom he worked for a commitment to spend 15-minutes each day on business development. There were two reasyons for his madness.

  • First, certain business development basics had a shot at becoming a matter of habit; and,
  • Second, establishing business development as a top priority is essential to success.

Would everyone spend the time every day, and could everything be done in a fifteen minute window?

No. But my friend believed that absent this kind of focus, otherwise very good business development plans were doomed to do little more than gather dust on the way to irrelevance.

This is not to discount the pressures of time, or minimize the difficulty of incorporating BD practices and processes

It is to suggest that — even after all the ifs, ands, buts and conditions — we find time for the items to which we affix the highest priority.

The truth is that the efforts associated with the development of new business are often simply not a priority.

Without exception, the most effective business developers I know find the time, maintain focus, and find ways to increase strategic visibility, deliver value to a targeted audience, and ultimately grow the pie.

The best discussions of and exercises in both the art and science of strategic business development are far from BS. But wherever efforts are not leading to growth, perhaps one reason for a lack of progress can be traced to the fact that return is directly proportionate to the degree to which we deem the activity of critical importance.

And maybe a 15-minute commitment is a good place to begin.

Ready Or Not, A Change Is Gonna Come

Change ComingEveryone has a list of things desperately in need of change. We’ll stipulate that the only constant in our world is change. In reflective moments we might even acknowledge a need for personal change.

But all the agreement notwithstanding, the fact is that change is tough — potentially painful. And often the result hardly seems an improvement.

Why is change so difficult?

Here are thoughts on three reasons consequential change (never mind a change for the better) doesn’t come easy — and maybe an idea or two about a frame of reference for anyone aspiring to lead meaningful change.

1. Change Forces A Different Perspective

Consequential change makes us look at things through a different prism. And even when the idea is embraced, the day-to-day reality can be exceedingly uncomfortable. Things appear askew. The once-beaten path is fraught with unfamiliar twists and turns . . . and was that a Danger Ahead posting?

Solutions aren’t as clear as they once seemed. Or as we want them to be. The temptation to put on the old perspective is mighty.

2. Change Forces New Conversations

Those skilled at thwarting it instinctively know the easiest way to prevent change is to perpetuate the same old conversations. Use the same vocabulary, focus on the same issues, listen to the same voices and the status quo is secure.

Anything out of the norm can have the effect of nails-on-a-chalkboard, or a previously unsung dissonant chord. In this context, dissonance taps into fear.

Doubt this? Consider how each generation of parents tends to respond to the music of the new generation.

3. Change Underscores A Temporary-ness

Change is first hand experience that very few things endure. Main Street isn’t the Main Street of our youth. Nothing is as unsettling.

And if the things we view as bedrocks of each day can be so temporary, what can we depend on? Facing this, the natural reflex is a retreat to the comforts of what we know.

But the agents of change are tenacious.

From commerce to political regime, social enterprise to personal endeavors, nothing is immune. Everything will change.

Leading Change

The truth is that it is not difficult to act like a change agent. A platform and a megaphone can catapult one into the spotlight for a season.

But extraordinary leadership focuses on three things that result in change for the better:

  • Provide a framework for a new perspective — this is about vision;
  • Inspire and instigate better conversations — this is about intentional listening and engaging; and
  • Leverage the lasting nature of relationship.

Fail to articulate a clear vision, engage around the issues of yesterday, or ignore the real fabric of community — relationships — and the road to a change for the better will, at best, be a rocky one.

Beware the siren call of shortcuts that promise quick fixes, no pain and disproportionate gain. Change will come, to be sure; but it may not be what we bargained for.

Business Development Efforts That Put You In The Right Place At The Right Time

HourGlassSome seem to have an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time; but when it comes to business development, success is rarely happenstance. In fact, the epitome of strategic marketing and sales is taking the steps necessary to reach the right target, at the right time, with precisely the right message.

So, if it isn’t simply luck of the draw, what is the makeup of such a strategy? What are those individuals and teams doing that seems to repeatedly create a timely intersection with opportunity? Can it be replicated?

Here are five keys to business development efforts that will increasingly find you in the right place at the right time.

1. Identify A Target

While some make it seem easy, business development effectiveness isn’t a matter of luck. It is a matter of smart targeting. That is, knowing specifically who you want to connect with, and the role each target plays in the development of your professional network. (Here’s more on this topic.)

2. Know Your Target Well

Once a target has been identified, those who make it seem easy invest the time and energy necessary to learn what the target cares about; what drives them (or what drives them crazy); what keeps them up at night. Intel around the challenges and opportunities faced by your target, as well as an understanding of what the competitive landscape looks like, will shape the content around which you can differentiate and communicate.

3. Plan Strategic Visibility

Now we get down to the “being in the right place” part of the equation. And just in case we need to say it — there is no cookie cutter approach to this. The most effective visibility campaign likely involves both content distribution and face-to-face meetings. Add the strategic use of social media and blogging to the cadre of traditional content distribution tools like websites and newsletters, and there have never been more options for creating and maintaining visibility.

But your visibility can be more than the dispensing of content by incorporating productive face-to-face and intentional listening moments. Entertainment and custom tailored events can be effective, of course; but visibility takes on a personal tone when you find a way to instigate a collaborative experience. Sharing the podium, participating on a panel, or even white-board brainstorming changes the relationship. Interviews and focus groups offer opportunities to listen carefully…and communicate volumes about what it is like to work with you.

4. Build Equity

This is where professional relationships begin to form. Listen carefully, deliver real value, and your efforts transcend the average sales and business development experience. Creativity pays off, providing measurable differentiation. Seek interactive opportunities to meet a real need.

5. Give It Time

If you’re looking for bottom-line impact in the near term, here’s hoping you’ve been delivering value and maintaining visibility for an appropriate period. But plenty of otherwise potentially effective efforts are doomed from the outset thanks to an expectation that a vibrant and relevant network can be created overnight (or out of thin air).

In the vast majority of professional service offerings, relationship trumps everything. And relationships are the byproduct of visibility, delivering value and building equity over time. Productive networks do not materialize over night. And the kind of relationships that a stable practice is built on do not typically fall into your lap. Invest in experiences that deliver value, and then stick with it long enough to let the seeds of relationship take hold.

Keep it up long enough, and a productive network will emerge.

These five keys are at the operational heart of those who seem to consistently be in the right place at the right time with the right message. It is far from a matter of luck.