The Pursuit of Better Conversations: A Thanksgiving Perspective

There are a few things that are either black or white. But very few.

Most of the time almost everything is defined based on perspective.

Thursday many  in the United States will enjoy a holiday tradition that has come to combine turkey and the National Football League. We’ll argue the blurry line between solid defense and pass interference. Or the one that separates a legal hit from a suspension-worthy blow. Even with the multiple camera perspectives and the benefit of instant replay, there will be a handful of plays that are far from black and white.

This is the problematic nature of lines in the sand. Or absolutes. It is next to impossible for our view to transcend our perspective.

But these days it seems the rhetoric is laden with the belief that things are black or white — that virtually everything is about red or blue.

Collegial debates have deteriorated into strident contests with one goal – to win. At all costs. And in the process, the exploration of aspirations – once the stuff from which shared and dynamic vision was born — has morphed into positions adopted solely based on the color of the jersey we wear. Or the appropriate positions of red versus blue.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good debate. Ours was a home where mom and dad would articulate positions they did not believe in — partially to teach youngsters in the room to think; and partially because we all enjoyed the sport of debate.

But the debates these days aren’t fun. They’re venomous, rife with name-calling. Short on listening. And too much of the time everyone walks away angry.

The Demise of Dialogue

When I did time in radio, conversations around sex, religion and politics (with a dose of rock-and-roll) were the staple for ratings. These topics were certain to engage listeners from opposite ends of a spectrum. And while this strategy insured lively conversation, there was little real dialogue. Everyone was out to convert.

Maybe it was entertaining; but not many of us are open to conversion.

So what are we to do? Fight each conversation to an angry draw? Are we doomed to never again share aspirations…pursine great dreams?

Lines drawn in the sand, however clear and deep they seemed when originally cast, are easily obscured. Even erased. A gust of wind or the shuffling of real life tends to blur things, alter perspectives, or even create new lines.

What becomes of our communities…if we refuse to explore, collaborate, and engage in real dialogue?

A Thankful Perespective

One of the things I value most about the season that is upon us in the United States is that it affords a moment conducive to realigning our perspective. For the next few weeks it seems easier to focus on the very few things that are, in my view, black and white. Here are two:

  • Nothing outlasts real relationship. Disproportionate investment of time, energy and emotion here is the mistake to make.
  • It is in giving that we receive.

I offer this not as a political, theological or social argument; it is born of personal experience. Call it what you will.

If you’re reading this post, chances are we have some things in common – not the least of which is we have much for which to be thankful. Conversations that spring from this perspective might just give rise to healthy, productive dialogue in coming days and weeks. Maybe even progress, and vision.

Happy Thanksgiving!

A Formula For Business Development Success

Business development in the professional services sector is not rocket science. Anyone possessing the will and the discipline to follow a simple formula can, over time, build a thriving practice. (Okay — “over time” is the hard part. Much of the time we expect immediate results.)

What is this formula?

{Target Identification} + {Understanding of Drivers} + {Solution to Drivers} = BD Success

Cracking The Code

1. Strategic business development begins with the identification of a specific target. The more specific the better. The more general, the less successful the effort will be. The ultimate target? The individual able to hire you. But don’t overlook other individuals or groups — sources able to connect, refer, recommend and/or coach you regarding the target able to do the hiring.

2. The second part of the equation — understanding business drivers — is about investigating, researching and listening. The goal here — to coin a phrase — is to learn what keeps your target up at night. What does your target care about most? What is so top-of-mind that sleepless nights, not to mention profitability or sustainability are at stake?

Attempt to make a connection, nevermind walking in with a presentation or pitch without an understanding of drivers, and the formula falls apart. More often than not, when the formula falls apart, you begin to sound like everyone else in the marketplace.

3. On the other hand, look long enough, listen hard enough to understand the business of your target and you’ll have the information necessary for the next part of the equation — the design and presentation of a solution to those sleepless nights.

The Payoff On The TDS Formula

This simple approach to business development is about nurturing a series of strategic relationships. In a volatile marketplace, this is the stuff of a practice that can grow. While both business drivers and service offerings evolve or completely transform over time, relationships based on listening and delivering value have what it takes to endure.

And, at the risk of pointing to the obvious — this is why so-called “cross selling” is important. Work the formula right and the collaboration is broad-based — including colleagues and other service providers.

This is especially good news if you subscribe to the idea that relationship trumps everything.

With Your Permission, A Thought For The Day

imageI can’t control much; but I can determine to treat every individual I encounter with respect and dignity. I can be kind. I can monitor what comes out of my mouth, and strive to speak words that encourage.

I believe the way I treat a person is a direct reflection of who I am — the clearest, in fact.

I believe there is nothing more valuable than a human being. Nothing. Admittedly there are too many times when my attitude and/or actions do not square with this; nonetheless, this belief is at the core of the value system to which I subscribe.

We — me and my “neighbors” — are a diverse lot. We spend our days in different ways, invest our time and resources in varied pursuits. But most of us know that what we look like or sound like has nothing to do with who we are as human beings.

I believe no difference, however stark, diminishes the value of a human being.

I believe most of us reject any suggestion that the value of a person comes down to anything more than the fabric of ones heart — the content of our character.

If we are willing to begin here we can discuss any challenge…debate any issue…and emerge with respect for each other even when we differ.

I believe we share more than we tend to think about on a daily basis. And that even a sliver of common ground can give rise to a vision that can accomplish almost anything.

My personal challenge for each day is to seek that common ground.

Unlocking The (Not Too) Secret Combination For Marketing ROI

Finance Concept - ROIThe setting was a business development workshop, and a law firm leader was raising a question: what should we be doing to get the highest value from our marketing and business development investments?

The context was a familiar drill. Plans are drafted…and they gather dust. There is talk (hours of it at times) about websites, events, collateral materials, technology, and a platform that seems to perpetually shift.

Experience tells us there are no short-cuts to real business development; but we often act like we believe there might be a silver bullet. So we’re repeatedly teased by and invest in the latest flavor-of-the-month solution (and the supply of these is endless).

The law firm leader concluded with an exclamation. “We dissect analytics, reorganize groups shift support functions, and invest more. And most of the time progress is difficult to discern.”

Whence Cometh Value?

It should be noted that value can be an eye-of-the-beholder or a timing thing. But at least part of the answer to the law firm leader’s question has nothing to do with state-of-the-art technology, isn’t packaged in SEO, and doesn’t even require creative messaging (gasp).

It does require direction and discipline. And let’s be honest…we’re often too impatient for either.

There are plenty of necessary conversations about content, tools, PR, technology and grand events. And, while each may be important, none form the foundation for long-term success. Or failure.

Growth and practice development in a professional service arena begin with the identification of strategic relationships. Specifically, who do we want to work with, and how do we establish meaningful connections with the individual or team that can help us make this happen.

The logistics of this target identification are not glamorous, and may vary depending on the specific practice; but this is the foundation for realizing measurable and long-term value.

This is not to argue that the deliverables and various work products that are part of executing a plan, or the tangibles that are conventionally considered part of the marketing function do not represent value. Of course they do.

It is to suggest that, from time to time, our focus just might be misdirected.

On the other hand, when the focus is on the identification of targets, we have a framework for decisions about the tools and investments necessary for progress.

In the case of every extraordinary business developer I know, long term success hinges on relationships — direct contacts, referrals, recommendations — the connections that put you in the right place at the right time.

It isn’t easy. It takes time. But the simple answer to the law firm leader’s question is — when we invest in and stay focused on the pursuit of strategic targets, we’ll reap the long term rewards that come with professional relationships.

Want To Predict The Future? Follow The Vision

The mid-seventies motion picture All The President’s Men popularized the phrase follow the money. In the dramatization of the political scandal that became known as Watergate, the informant referred to as Deep Throat offered this phrase as the key to identifying those responsible for the dirty trick.

Questions about the events surrounding the 1972 U.S. Presidential election — who was behind the break-in at the Watergate…and why — made for compelling news coverage, and an entertaining motion picture. For months we investigated, probed, and prodded anyone that might provide insight into what had happened.

It has become a popular spectator sport. Whether anecdote or era, we believe in unearthing and examining what has happened. This is not to suggest that we ignore the lessons of history. But what if, in our focus on the past…on the implications of precedent and data…what if we have things turned around?

What if the real lesson of history is that leadership is about a distinct and articulated vision for the future? What if the existence and makeup of a view of what might be provides a window on what tomorrow will bring?

Consider three historical markers.

Even as he reflected on and drew context from history, Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was about a vision. “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom…”

In the wake of challenging Americans to “ask what you can do for your country” President John F. Kennedy presented an almost unimaginable vision for a struggling space program — to put a man on the moon.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most memorable words to those assembled on the Mall in Washington, D.C. did not provide a ten-point analysis of a nation’s ills. Rather, they called us to a mountain top…to a perspective only accessible through eyes clear with bold aspiration. And his words resonate to this day — “I have a dream.”

Granted, boisterous tyrants have managed to build empires — from neighborhoods to nations — with clenched fists and seeds of fear. But this is the easy road. There will always be something to fear. Manipulators who tap into it can easily precipitate reaction.

But fear seldom gives rise to lasting change. And history’s most compelling visions are rarely rooted in the negative.

Whether small tribe, global enterprise or world power, the venture driven by fear perceives danger at every turn. This is not the stuff of progress. Much less, growth.

Where there is vision, there exists a kind of future-movie — exemplified by Dr. King’s dream for all children, JFK’s audacious idea of a man on the moon, and Lincoln’s new birth of freedom.

A compelling future-movie is inclusive, taps into the best attributes of the players, and precipitates the decisions and actions that are the difference between good and great.

Tomorrow always brings a set of unknowns. But consider the possibility that history’s most poignant lesson — whatever the venue — is captured by the writer of Proverbs — “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Musings From The Radio Studio — On Effective Business Development Communication

Studio MicrophoneA lifetime ago, in what seems like a galaxy far away, I spent some time in the broadcast industry. More specifically, in a radio studio.

At the time the fast paced “Top 40” genre topped most markets, and was designed to sound slightly anti-establishment with a shoot-from-the-hip tone. In reality, it was a highly structured, tightly formatted, close-to-scripted approach to delivering an experience.

The “clock” (a minute by minute kind of info-graphic of an hour) ruled. It was based on exhaustive research of what would keep the target audience tuned in. The job of the on-air “personality” was to stick to what the research said would work.

One quickly learned that at almost any cost, you were to avoid “dead-air” — broadcast shorthand for any silence between programming elements. Even a second or two of dead-air gave a prospective listener time and/or reason to sample a competitor’s programming on a different frequency.

Every segment was both product and marketing opportunity. Even the revenue engine — paid advertising — was more effective if it was part of the experience.

Business Development and the Customer Experience

The premise — that valued connections warrant a vigilance that continually engages — is a principle that translates to business development and client service efforts almost anywhere.

The occasional email, quarterly newsletter, annual event or however-well-timed-and-heartfelt-holiday-wish are hardly enough to seed what David Maister termed trusted advisor status. Each might be part of a plan, but allow too much radio silence to creep into your communication calendar, and no one should be startled when relationship growth proceeds at a snail’s pace. Or, when your prospect disengages.

Quality, multi-dimensional and regular communication is the fabric of a relationship that is going somewhere.

As is the case with almost everything related to business development, a broadcast-hour-type cookie-cutter solution for every pursuit does not exist. The elements of a thoughtful communication — the frequency, specific touch-points and nature of the message — depend on alignment with the target in three areas.

  • Personal and organizational interests and values
  • Organizational goals and aspirations
  • Critical business drivers

Understand what a target or key client values most, their short and long term goals, and their most intensely felt business drivers, and the framework for relevant communication elements is in place.

If a timing benchmark is helpful, think about connecting in some way nine or more times a year. The more frequent the relevant touches, the better. Incorporate a healthy dose of communication that includes a personal dimension. (Blogging gets consistently high marks in this arena.)

Use your best instincts on timing. Seek and listen to feedback — verbal and non-verbal. Be vigilant.

Think of business development — with targets as well as existing clients — as an opportunity to package an experience, and engage the audience.

Business Development Success Is More About Asking The Right Questions Than Having All The Answers

IMG_0086The game show Jeopardy has had it right all along — knowing the right question is the way to win big.

Conventional wisdom argues the point. And most of the time we buy into the argument.

In virtually every venue — from personal relationships to building a productive professional network, from pitching a pizza franchise to marketing a law firm or consulting practice — we invest mightily in dispensing answers.

Some will argue that market research is all about asking questions and listening. Legitimate point.

But let’s be honest: much of the time what passes for market research is really about gaining insight into the best way to position what we’ve already decided to take to market. What features should be emphasized? What words turn our targets off? How do we capture imagination and motivate?

Valuable. But the focus is on how we deliver our message. So convinced are we that powerful motivation derives from having all the answers, that our questions don’t accomplish near what they might. Never mind inspire or motivate.

Doubt this? Calculate the value of resources invested in designing, debating and redesigning the messages and tools used to tout qualifications to targets. Compare this to the ROI on our messaging efforts.

Now consider how many quality conversations have been generated by all of your messaging efforts.

This isn’t a metric most of us track; but we’d do well to start. The right questions instigate on-going dialogue.

A Better Conversation

Most professional service firms recognize and tout the value of relationships. Entire go-to-market strategies have been based on what it takes to become trusted advisors.

Yet, when presented with an opportunity for conversation or collaboration, how often is our default response the tried and stale approach to dispensing all the answers.

If you want to change the dynamics of a relationship, begin changing the nature of the conversations you have. Find a way to collaborate around a couple of key questions, and you’ll find yourself on the verge of changing the entire game.

Questions As Differentiators

In many professional service arenas (including legal) research indicates that mugh of the time the audience assumes you have some level of expertise. Put another way — your target likely assumes you have a lot of the answers, and can get to the ones you might not know. (Granted…we’d prefer they believe we have all the answers, but let’s get real…)

One of the easiest ways to differentiate in a crowded and competitive market is by resisting the temptation to always talk about what we know, and focus on the right question(s). There is always at least one.

If your product or service is the undisputed leader in a market, you may be able to slide by for who-knows-how-long. But check business school case studies these days. You’ll find more than a handful of postmortems on once venerable market giants who failed to ask the right questions of the marketplace.

The market is always delivering a critical message. The key to business development success is knowing how to engage. If touting answers isn’t doing the job, try posing a question or two. And being astute enough to be quiet, and listen.

Wondering Where To Start When It Comes To Business Development?

Confused Businessman Looking At Arrows Pointing In Different DirectionsIf you are wondering what it takes to fill the pipeline with work for the last quarter of the year — nevermind 2017 and beyond — two things may be true about your marketing and business development efforts: your professional network is anemic; and, as a result, you have a shortage of strategic targets.

Many have been led to believe that a quality work product combined with excellent client service will automatically result in a successful, practice. Capable and willing on both counts, optimistic professionals shop for the best spot to plant a practice and hang a shingle.

For many it doesn’t take long to realize that, contrary to the old saying, the possession of the greatest mousetrap in the world is no guarantee the market will beat a path to your door.

Combine competition and volatility with a market that presumes expertise and quality, and an increasing number of professional service providers are left to wonder what it takes to differentiate, and become relevant.

Too bad it is not a mousetrap we’re marketing.

We could shoot a video, create a slick brochure, and add some copy that focuses on effectiveness and efficiency. We could build a cool website, add some SEO, and just sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

But even if one assumes that is a workable strategy, professional services don’t come in a box. It can be difficult to quantify, and much of the time there’s not much tangible until a matter closes, a contract is signed or a case won.

Stop Waiting For The Market To Find You, And Take Business Development Into Your Own Hands

For everyone tired of waiting for the phone to ring, there is a much more productive and proven approach to business and practice development.

It begins with a focus on your network. Before you tune out, consider this.

The care and feeding of a strategic network is the key to developing a pipeline of opportunities.

How large does your network need to be? Ideally, large enough so that there will always be someone in your network in need of the services you provide.

A robust network — one you faithfully nurture — is key to eliminating those periods where the silence of the market can be deafening.

If this seems like a reach to you, think about the rainmakers you know. That thing you think of as an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time is, more likely than not, reflective of a robust network.

Where to begin if you don’t have this kind of pipeline? What to do next if you haven’t been working on your network?

There are no cookie-cutters; and specifics will depend in part on the stage of your career. But here is an idea to consider.

Begin with groups you’re already plugged into — alumni associations, civic clubs, service groups, professional affiliations, and churches are a few of the most common. You likely already have many connections able to fortify your network with referrals, recommendations and even business intelligence.

Focus on creating strategic visibility and delivering value. There is no cookie-cutter; but this might include providing volunteer leadership, offering subject matter expertise (via blogging, speaking, and serving on those volunteer committees for example), and a network will begin to emerge.

Consistently productive business developers have a way of being preoccupied with the things that are important to their network…providing a glimpse of what it might be like to work with them. This is the ultimate in strategic  marketing and business development.

Effective Business Development Strategies Are Built On This

Multi Racial people in brainstorming session with post it notesThe development of new business rarely occurs in a vacuum. In professional service firms where marketing and business development are silos at best, or necessary evils at worst, organic growth will be painfully difficult. And there will be consistent debates over where and how to invest resources.

By contrast, firms that realize measurable success — even in a volatile marketplace — have a wholistic view of the organization. Planning is a discipline that considers a number of factors — resources, nature of the practice(s), compensation structure, governance, competitive landscape and a go-to-market philosophy.

Constant debates over firm priorities and which opportunity to pursue are an indication that the go-to-market philosophy may not be aligned with clearly identified and shared goals.

Where identified goals are absent, a reactive approach to the market takes the place of strategy. Priorities shift based on the siren call of “opportunity.” Instinct tends to characterizes the decision-making processes. Not an ideal approach to a competitive marketplace.

To the degree issues of how, where, or even whether to grow are not reflected and addressed in an organization’s goals and aspirations, a functional firm-wide strategic plan does not exist. And in this vacuum silos form.

Most organizations will face regular decisions around:

  • where to invest;
  • how ROI on the investment will be measured;
  • the breadth of the practice to be offered;
  • how to survive aggressive competition, economic downturns or other market pressures;
  • how to evaluate opportunities;
  • which opportunities to seize, and which to let go;
  • how to prioritize investments;
  • the role of technology;
  • when and how to invest in innovation.

And the list goes on. It is difficult to imagine that many would suggest a professional service firm operate without guide posts in place that help shape a response to these questions.

Yet many do not see the connection between these fundamental issues, a strategic plan, and a sophisticated approach to the pursuit of business.

The Critical Strategic Planning Question

You may share scores of hopes — dreams, even. But the aspirations and goals that are central to the existence of a group are few. Certainly, no two endeavors are the same; but here’s fodder to help identify pivotal goals or aspirations.

  • What do we agree on with respect to why we do what we do?
  • Without respect to personal feelings about good, bad, right or wrong, can we prioritize
    • increased profitability
    • life style
    • reputation
    • legacy?
  • Do you want to grow in numbers? Be global? Local?
  • Do you value and aspire to rich diversity?
  • Do you agree on role in the community, and how that plays out in enterprise?

There is an endless list of questions within the question.

But answer — what are our most deeply shared goals and aspirations? — and you have a framework for every significant decision. For who we choose to work with; where we decide to invest; when to strike (and when to retreat); how to define priorities; what we value most.

When it comes to business development, shared aspirations will go a long way toward speaking to issues of motivation, cross selling, the amount to invest in new pursuits versus the deepening of existing relationships. Even compensation.

This is not to suggest that answers come easy. It is to say that when you have identified the handful of things that you share, you have a basis for decision making. Effective business development strategies are built on this.

The Best Business Developers Share These Four Characteristics

Business NetworkingThere are markets where sales is little more than a numbers game. Send enough emails, make enough calls, knock on enough doors, ask the question over-and-over, ignore objectionns, and you’ll close some deals.

But you won’t build many relationships.

And that means that next month…or next quarter…or next year you get to start all over again. Call. Knock. Ignore. Persist.

In the cases where this works, tenacity and a list of suspects are the building blocks; and though perhaps effective as the cornerstones of a churn-and-burn strategy, this is not the way to build a vibrant professional services practice.

In stark contrast, here are four characteristics present in the best professional service sales and business developers I’ve known.

1. They are PEOPLE people. Over the long haul — through market dips and turns — if this is just a job…if you don’t like people…that will eventually come through loud and clear. All things being equal (read if you’re competing with another excellent lawyer) the market is going to opt to work with the professional who is easy to work with. If you don’t like them, you can’t fool enough prospects enough of the time to build a practice that will last. Be prepared to move from one commodity to the next.

2. They derive satisfaction from assisting. The best business developers find ways to deliver value to those with whom they work — whether in the context of a billable matter or not. I know a lawyer who, upon learning that a client’s child was looking for an apartment in his city, spent his weekend scouting out locations to recommend. Not billable. Not conditional. But at the heart of why the attorney is a good business developer.

3. They are Connectors. Limit your network to those who need the specific service or product you offer, and your network will almost certainly be too small. Service providers become trusted advisors, in part, because of a propensity for connecting dots…facilitating solution without respect to whether the problem is in my practice or not.

4. They have super powers. No leaping buildings in a single bound here. But while scores of excellent advisors can see every facet from one perspective, rainmakers see the big picture. Even in the midst of chaos, they listen between the lines, hearing what others miss. Master these powers and the struggle to differentiate your firm or practice becomes much less daunting.

One of Dan Pink’s best sellers is titled To Sell Is Human. There are other important characteristics, of course. But one of the reasons these four are on my list is they go a long way toward communicating humanity — the kind of humanity that connects and motivates.

You can fake it and do okay. Maybe. But if you want to be a better business developer, work on these characteristics. Build your plan of action with these as foundational elements. You will be onto an approach to practice development that you can actually stick with. One that will deliver.