Creating Clients For Life

My friend George — a veteran of the hospitality industry, and no push-over when it comes to what service looks like — was just back from a cruise during which he and his wife became customers for life. But it did not start that way.

The cruise coincided with an anniversary, and George’s wife had taken steps to surprise her husband by pre-ordering the “anniversary package.” She was anticipating elaborate cabin decorations, a decadent anniversary dessert, and an iced bottle of premium champagne as she and George returned to the cabin after a day in port.

But reality fell short of the package as presented in the marketing materials.

Decorations were nonexistent; the cake was puny and looked like it came from a convenience store; and the champagne was missing the ice bucket.

But George is a grateful sort; and absent any expectations, he was a happy voyager. There was something for his sweet tooth, and a bottle of champagne they could ice for later.

His wife on the other hand, was fuming. She announced that she was headed to client services.

Where The Real Marketing Began

The customer service rep made no excuses while apologizing profusely…and pledging to find a way to make it right. He would be in touch.

Later that evening he knocked on the couple’s cabin door. He reiterated his apology, and asked for permission to arrange for the couple to enjoy dinner the following evening at a special table in one of the ship’s premium restaurants. George and his wife said that would be a nice gesture.

The following evening the two were greeted and treated like VIPs. Arriving at the restaurant, they were escorted to one of the best tables in the room where an extraordinary bottle of wine was already decanting.

The couple inudged. And the evening was topped off with a spectacular off-menu dessert, compliments of the Captain.

When George signaled that he was ready for the check he was informed that it had been the Captain’s pleasure to take care of the entire evening, with his apologies for the earlier misstep, and best wishes for a memorable anniversary.

The likelihood that George will ever consider sailing with another cruise line is less than zero. The experience delivered was more targeted and profound than any message a competitor might throw together.

The dissatisfaction from which the experience was born only adds rich fabric to the story that George and his wife will, no doubt, retell for years.

The experience you deliver IS your marketing message.

And while it is always preferable to get it right the first time, the savvy service provider recognizes questions, concerns — even issues and missteps — as opportunities to demonstrate the real value inherent in a professional relationship.

No marketing message is more eloquent than an experience that differentiates.

3 Characteristics Rainmakers Have In Common

Business NetworkingWhat does it take to make it rain?

Real rainmakers — the individuals able to connect with the marketplace in a way that consistently results in business — share three characteristics.

They may engage in business development in a variety of ways and employ differing techniques. There are, after all, no cookie-cutter formulas that work for everyone. But every rainmaker builds on these three things.

1. Rainmakers Are Proactive

The individuals who always appear to connect to opportunities in the making are not sitting around waiting on someone else to make things happen. You’ll not hear this breed infer that success hinges on so-and-so doing such-and-such.

Rainmakers are the ones making the calls versus waiting on the phone to ring. These are the folks instigating the conversations and setting the meetings.

Rainmakers do not sit idly by. These are individuals of action.

2. Rainmakers Invest In Relationships

Don’t misunderstand. This proactive approach referenced above is not about stirring up activity without direction or purpose. Those who are consistently connected to new opportunities are con stanly making strategic investments in relationships.

Talk to someone with a long track record of business development success. Their network of relevant relationships will number in the hundreds. If a log of activities exists, it will revolve around activity specifically designed to creste  connections and build equity.

Rainmakers believe relationship trumps everything. And they act on this belief every day.

3. Rainmakers Understand Timing

Rainmaking is not a seasonal act. The individual or group hoping an eloquent speech today will make it rain tomorrow does not understand the role of time in a strategic business development equation. Equity is not built overnight.

If you’re launching a blog one week and counting on it to produce dividends the next, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Use your blog to connect and deliver value, and it is a great tool for building equity.

Sure…it is possible to get lucky, and generate business with a single contact. But few practices are built on luck; and long term business development success — the work that will sustain you over the life of a practice — requires relationships. A robust network of relationships — one large enough to consistently push work your way — is the result of a proactive mindset,  and strategic attention, over time.

It is tempting to see the rainmaker as one who simply has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. But as is almost always the case when we see consistent and repeated success, career-long rainmakers tend to create their own brand of luck.

When We Don’t Know What To Think

My friend, Petri Darby said it this way:

When I don’t know how I feel, or what to think, I turn to how I want to feel, and what I want to think.”

imageGreat counsel, friend. Here goes.

I want to think that violence, hate and fear do not define who we are — who I am. We are better than our worst moments.

I want to think that good outweighs evil. I believe this; but some days it is difficult to remember.

In the midst of sadness and pain, I want to believe in a peace that passes understanding. I want to believe that peace will envelop all who deal with unspeakable pain.

I want to believe in the enormity of the human heart. I want to think that our capacity to understand and empathize is far greater than the temptation to turn inward and lash out.

I refuse to feel helpless. I choose to spend my time and invest my energies seeking to be a positive voice, and seeding hope. I want to build bridges and make peace.

Tomorrow I want to believe my home, relationships and community benefited from what I brought to the table. I want to feel as though I made it through this day treating all I encountered the way I’d like to be treated…the way we wish we’d treat each other.

This is not to suggest a blind or naive eye to undeniable ills. Nor is it to infer that the solution begins by ignoring the pain — or the inevitable pains of tomorrow.

This is simply a personal reflection on one way to respond in the wake of what feels like a constant stream of events that stir anger and tap into fear. I don’t know about you…but these responses do not bring out the best in me. They do not give rise to the way I want to think.

Nor do they seem to have solved much. I want to think in a different way.

The Key To Successful Teams? Clarity of Shared Vision

We have a propensity for doing whatever it takes when the chips are down.

A cause or challenge seemingly bigger than our ability to manage is often the mission to which we are drawn in droves.

This plays out in the way we respond in the face of disaster — like the loss inflicted by wildfires or floods. Or the terror of a crazed gunman. Or any one of a far-too-long-list of incidents that bring us to our feet en masse…desperate to be part of a community that provides help.

What we miss with amazing regularity is that the desire to be part of a grand pursuit is not limited to an hour of trial or tragedy. It is a characteristic of great enterprise.

In his book Good To Great, Jim Collins refers to one of the differentiators in companies that rise to greatness as the existence of big hairy audacious goals — BHAGs.

The late 1960’s version of a BHAG was President John F. Kennedy’s vision to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. What is sometimes left out of the discussion is the reason Kennedy gave for aiming at the moon. It wasn’t driven by a metric.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…”

We should note that 50 years later the NASA team is still at it. Today, after a 5-year 1.7 billion mile journey, Juno reached the orbit of Jupiter one second off scheduled arrival time! Amazing.

Your Best Day At Work

Teams in pursuit of audacious goals often accomplish things beyond the imagination. Yet, average companies wrestle with this. There are a number of reasons for the tension; but at least one is that too often our vision is not worthy of pursuit.

The eventual consequence of anemic organizational vision is atrophy.

In Simon Sinek’s most recent work, Leaders Eat Last, the author suggests that the desire to share a “common burden” brings us together in a way nothing else can.

Sinek makes the point by asking us to consider our best days at work. His suggestion is that few will talk much about major projects and big “wins” when everything ran smoothly.

“For most of us, we have warmer feelings for the projects we worked on when everything went wrong. We remember how the group stayed at work until 3 AM, ate cold pizza, and barely made the deadline . . . It was not because of the hardship per se, but because the hardship was shared. It’s not the work we remember with fondness, but camaraderie . . . Our best days at work were the ones where we helped each other endure and overcome hardship.”

My guess is that we’ve all experienced this — at home, in orealizations and efforts we care about, and yes…even at work. The chips were down. The deck stacked against us. But an inspired tribe joined forces around a shared vision.

Clear Vision And High Functioning Teams

Sticking with Sinek’s book for a moment — he suggests that the challenge for today’s leaders is articulating an inspiring vision in an environment of abundance.

In short, when times are good an organization with no burden to overcome has an interesting challenge — communicating a vision that rallies the troops.

On the other hand, for the start-up joined in a clear pursuit, each day is a corporate challenge to stay alive.

We instinctively know that a team can accomplish more — maybe even get us to Jupiter. But building and motivating highly functioning teams in an environment of success is a challenge, if not a messy proposition.

But this is what leaders do.

We find ways to articulate the vision of what might be, and build teams that, unprepared to wait for disaster to strike, proactively march into the face of tomorrow’s opportunities.

This Is Where Communication Begins

Listening is the last thing on anyone’s mind when the subject is communication.

And it’s understandable. From the instant an infant realizes what it takes to get attention, our practical view of communication is shaped by a repeated focus on doing whatever it takes to deliver a message.

Experiences reenforce the idea that charisma, wordsmithing and creative presentation are at the heart of connecting  And so we go about our business . . . mistaking message delivery for communication.

Listening is about keeping quiet — SIlence. Golden, maybe. But certainly not getting any point across. Quick…say something!

Sure…in our gut we know there’s value in listening. We likely even believe we should do more of it. But when it comes right down to it we don’t know how.

And just in case we need to say it, the fact that we’re not talking is no guarantee there’s any listening going on.

A Rethink

Here’s the proposition: communication begins only when-and-if we learn to listen.

It is a counter-intuitive discipline that works exactly opposite of our practice. As opposed to beginning worried about what we should say, listening actually informs and gives shape to messaging that connects.

But All Listening Is Not Created Equal

This is part of the problem, isn’t it? Query a search engine for “types of listening” and you’ll find plenty of content on Discriminating, Passive and a handful of other ways to say we listen differently, depending on the situation.

It is almost impossible to find a market segment that is not flooded with messages, each making as big a splash as possible in pursuit of mind share. There is no way any given audience can hear every message directed its way.

The listening that changes the equation is proactive. It is listening by design, with purpose, with ears wide open.

And though the irony of talking about it this much is not lost, this is a challenge for all of us who have spent years focused on messaging, loving great copy, and spellbound by production possibilities.

Intentional Listening — a proactive, agenda-less process and art designed to learn — is the key to the identification of common ground, shared experiences, and the creation of relationships that endure.

If this isn’t where our communication efforts and campaigns begin — if listening isn’t the first thing we think of when we want to connect with an audience — we should not be surprised when efforts fall far short of the results we seek.

Will Your Clients Stick With You Through Thick And Thin?

A little over a decade ago a small technology start-up was out of money, and about to give up. But a professional service group showed the entrepreneurs a way to convert intellectual property into a revenue stream; and the start-up was reborn. An eighteen month revenue stream that defied even the most optimistic pro forma ensued.

The company praised their advisors. Glowing emails spoke in reverent terms of the counsel and strategy that saved the business from the fate known by many when the tech bubble burst early in the 2000‘s. The relationship between client and service provider could not have been better.

Or so it seemed.

Two years after being rescued, and just ninety days after authoring an unsolicited “we-love-you” email, the company fired the professional service group to embark on a new relationship with a sexy, aggressive suitor.

Assume All Is Well At Your Own Risk

Relationship is both critical, and difficult. Enterprises invests millions in customer relationship marketing strategy and management technology. Yet loyalty is illusive.

One big reason? We misunderstand the experience-to-relationship equation. The advisors noted above thought quality counsel and the experiences of yesterday were enough.

But the professional relationship that endures is characterized by on-going attention and nurture. And in a competitive marketplace the equation that delivers differentiating experiences has three parts:

  • Listening. This is about getting smart. Hearing expectations. Learning what matters most. Even identifying what might put the relationship at risk.
  • Communicating. Dialogue — honest give-and-take — is essential to relationships that grow and last. Here is where plans are born, expectations articulated and shared aspirations identified.
  • Collaborating. This is about the mutual pursuit of objectives and goals.

Consistently build around these three ideas, and the result is the creation of shared experiences. Nothing binds a relationship more.

Give only lip-service to any, and even a strong relationship can be weakened. Leave one or more out — or employ a sporadic strategy (say, a touch-base-quarterly-communication plan) — and any relationship is at risk.

Build around shared experiences, and relationships have a shot at withstanding all that will threaten — from market metrics to blatant rate plays, from aggressive competition to high-consequence change.

Certainly, quality and expertise are essential. In fact, in the markets in which most of us live and work, these are presumed. To an increasing degree, the experience you deliver — daily — is both the most effective means of differentiation, and the DNA of client relationships that last.

A CEO’s Formula For Progress In a Changing Marketplace

Changing for idea“Move more. Assume less.”

This was the response of a CEO friend when asked about his success in turning around a consulting firm on the brink of extinction twenty-two months earlier.

Don was retiring, and he was reflective.

“In the early days we were determined to meet the market at its point of need. That was our mission. We loved to use words like agile and innovative to describe our approach. We believed our successes were the result of an ability to be in the right place with the solutions to our clients’ concerns. But we’d forgotten that foundation.”

When asked about earlier attempts to right-the-ship, his tone was almost one of disbelief.

“We knew we were losing ground; so we sat around in plush chairs and nice conference rooms and discussed go-to-market strategies that were really about how to get the market to come back to us so that we could keep doing things the way we’d always done them.”

Don’s view of leadership was rooted in two deeply held beliefs.

First, that success depends on listening, and figuring out a way to respond to the challenges and opportunities you uncover.

“Ignore what you hear, or rationalize that the concerns are unfounded, and you’re dead…because someone else will hear, and respond.”

For the consulting company Don had been with for twenty-four years this meant listening to the target audience with absolutely no agenda.

“We had to change…I mean completely rethink and often reinvent the way we approached operations and processes. Success of the past actually made this difficult. We assumed we had things completely figured out. But the marketplace had changed, and we’d missed it.”

There are plenty of variations on this theme; but wherever the way we do things today is based on an assumption that the way we’ve always done them is the only way to fly . . . well, we all know what happens when one assumes.

Combine this view of listening with Don’s second personal belief, and you catch a glimpse of what makes him an extraordinary leader.

“I believe the individuals I work with — inside as well as outside of the organization — and by extension, anyone touched by our organization should be better for having had that experience.”

He anticipates the reaction of his audience.

“I know what you’re going to say. Pie-in-the-sky fluff. But I believe it. My team knows I believe it. Call it corny if you want to; but we share the mission. Move to the market. And the only thing we assume is that the market will be a better place because we’ve been there.”

Don is right, of course. Many will scoff. Sure that might work for Google or some venture funded start-up; but it doesn’t feel practical for a professional service firm.

Maybe not.

On the other hand, while this may not be the conversation we’ve always had…what if it turns out to be part of a prescription for what ails once great companies, organizations and even communities.

And all we have to do is move more (toward each other), and assume less.

We Can Do Something That Makes A Difference

I shared a first version of this post in December of 2012 in the wake of the unthinkable in Newtown, Connecticut.

And here we are again…unable to imagine the news we woke to…searching for a way to digest the senseless…groping for words that mean something…wondering what we might do to make a difference.

I don’t know about you; but my knee-jerk reaction is to want a big answer. A solution no one has ever thought of. A response so complete that the solution resonates around the world.

But even if that is a possibility — and history argues against the likelihood — we’re left to hope someone else can pull it off.

But what do we do?

I only know of one thing. We can become makers of everyday peace — in homes, schools, city halls, corporate boardrooms, playgrounds and yes…even in nightclubs. We can be the ones who listen…inspire honest dialogue and collaboration…the ones who build bridges.

If we decide to, we can be the ones who question, probe and debate without engendering adversarial relationships.

The Condition

Wherever two or three gather — never mind three-hundred-million-or so — do we really expect that we’ll all agree? Diversity in opinion and outright disagreement are a certainty. Some of the differences are insignificant. Others will seem insurmountable.

I have always enjoyed vigorous debate. The exercise is healthy. The dialogue can be productive. Unless lines in the sand or litmus tests render the debate a pointless exercise, thereby precipitating conflict.

Look around. Wherever progress is minimal (or non-existent) and every conversation polarizing, check the debate. Chances are the conversations are contentious. Often even angry.

Long-term progress in any community will always depend on collaboration.

Two Keys To Makers of Everyday Peace

We can’t fix unspeakable tragedy. But we can change the world we live and work in every day. Anyone can be a peace maker. Here are two keys.

  • Makers of everyday peace value on-going dialogue above winning a debate. The goal is continuity — to keep the conversation going.
  • Peace makers seek to understand as much as to be understood; winning takes a backseat to gaining perspective; intentional listening becomes the baseline for communication

Want to do something that makes a difference? Tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that, be a peacemaker. We have scores of opportunities each day. Progress will seem slow; but blessed are the peacemakers.

5 Things Rainmakers Do That Put Them In The Right Place At The Right Time

Successful business developers seem to have an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time; but when it comes to consistently making it rain, this is rarely happenstance.

In fact, the epitome of strategic business development and marketing is increasingly about executing a plan that connects with those most likely to buy your product or service.

So, if it isn’t about luck of the draw, what is the makeup of such a strategy? What are those individuals and teams doing that repeatedly creates a timely intersection with opportunity?

For your consideration, here are five keys to a strategy that eliminates the guesswork around where to go, when to be there, and what to do or say when the opportunity is presented.

1. Identify A Target

While some make it seem easy, consistently being in the right place isn’t a matter of fortune. It is a matter of smart targeting. It begins with knowing specifically who you want to connect with, and the role each target plays in the development of your professional network.

Strategic targets fall into four categories.

  • Individuals (or carefully selected groups) in a position to serve as a referral source. Consider former clients, other professional advisors, and those in a position to know or be connected to those likely to seek the service you provide.
  • Individuals ready to recommend you as a source for the professional service you provide. This should certainly cover past clients; but it may also include a broader group of colleagues in a position to attest to your trustworthiness.
  • Individuals who can provide business intelligence and/or “coaching” insights with respect to those who might hire you.
  • And those in a position to actually make the hiring decision.

One additional note about target identification — it is about naming names. Industry segments, companies and broad general descriptions don’t count. A strategic target is an individual with whom you can build a professional relationship. And that individual has a name.

2. Learn What Your Target Cares About

Once a target has been identified, those who make business development seem natural invest the time and energy necessary to learn what is important to the target.

Put simply — great business developers listen before they speak (or pitch).

What drives your target (or what drives them crazy)? What do they care about? What keeps them up at night?

Business intelligence that identifies the challenges and opportunities being faced by your target, as well as an understanding of what the competitive landscape looks like will shape how you communicate and connect.

3. Plan Strategic Visibility

This is the being in the right place part of the equation. Forget guessing about what networking events to attend or sponsor. Take the mystery out of when and where (or whether) to invest in an ad, or what role social media should play in your strategy. Should you be blogging? Speaking more?

The options for creating and maintaining visibility are many, and each can be seductive. Strategic visibility is about connecting with the targets you’ve named — as opposed to scatter shooting at the broad side of a barn.

Make visibility more than the dispensing of content by incorporating collaborative opportunities. Sharing the podium, participating on a panel, or even white-board brainstorming can expedite the building of a 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

Simply being visible — the fact that the marketplace knows who you are and what you offer — doesn’t constitute relationship. And it is no guarantee a path will be beaten to your door. In a competitive marketplace the professional services practice grows and is sustained by professional relationship equity.

This equity comes from the value you bring to the table. And while work product must certainly measure up, the definition of equity-building value is much broader.

It is not unlike what is required in the context of personal relationship: intentional listening; the absence of an agenda (a focus on the interests of the other); and on-going dialogue. Use this as the formula, and your efforts will transcend the average business development effort, and generate the kind of equity that builds a practice and engenders loyalty.

5. Give It Time

Rewarding relationships are not built with a single act, in the context of an anecdote or the process of a pitch. If you’re looking for bottomline impact in the near term, here’s hoping you’ve been maintaining visibility and delivering value to qualified targets for some time now.

As for the plan you’re developing tokay, count on investing some time. Plenty of potentially effective efforts are doomed thanks to the unrealistic expectation that a vibrant and relevant network can be created out of thin air.

Productive networks do not materialize overnight. And the kind of relationships that a stable practice is built upon do not typically fall into your lap. Bring your best creative energies and resources to the strategic identification of targets, and the creation of experiences that deliver value. Then stick with it long enough to let the seeds of relationship take hold.

These five ideas are the foundational principles of a business development plan that will put you in the right place at the right time with the right message. It is far from a matter of luck.

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.