My Market Used To Come To Me!

Thumb twiddling

“Describe your ideal target client,” I asked.

After shooting me a look that said that is the dumbest question I’ve ever heard, the law firm partner said, “My ideal client is the next person that walks into my office or calls me on the phone in need of a lawyer.”

Translation: “My market comes to me.” Because of the school I attended, the experience I’ve accumulated, the firm in which I’m a partner, the reputation I’ve built. And because that’s the way it has always been — go to law school, hang a shingle, do good work…for decades that was the formula for the creation of a solid practice.

That conversation took place nearly twenty years ago, in the early days of my first law firm business development gig. Boy have things changed.

The new normal has turned into the status quo.

But for many professional service providers one thing that hasn’t changed is the belief that if I put the right pieces in place and do good work, the market will sort through all the competition, and find me.

Few will argue that the market isn’t what it used to be. And outstanding professionals wake up each morning wondering what to do.

But 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 actions taken:

  • are reactive in nature, and therefore not strategic;
  • solve few, if any of the short term challenges, and none of the real issues;
  • are decidedly frustrating.

And you’re still left hoping the market will walk through your door.

When the strategic identification of opportunities is given twenty minutes at a meeting once-a-quarter (whether you need it or not), don’t expect change. If plans to pursue specific targets aren’t part of a regular focus, call it what you will; but the approach to organic growth is to hope the market comes to you.

If integration or cross selling is left to chance — meaning there is no framework or process that ensures steps are taken that match capabilities with needs — don’t hope to magically benefit from the relationships your partnership enjoys with key clients.

If a system for religiously gathering and assessing feedback from clients and prospects does not exist, don’t be surprised when good — even long-term clients — leave you in favor of individuals or teams that are proactive in the marketplace.

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

If innovative conversations around inclusion and diversity are initiated only in the wake of market pressures, be prepared to lose ground to others, and to have the same conversations year after year.

Pick Your Cliche

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.

The truth is that an organization concerned with strategic growth reflects this in its priorities. Not once a quarter, or once a month, or when it looks like budget might be missed.

Where the dynamics of marketing, business development, sales and organizational development are understood, the disciplines are not bound by a department. Nor are they confined to bullet-points on an agenda.

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

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

Wondering How To Turn Connections Into Relationships?

netIf you’re marketing something, you’re likely investing resources in the development of connections. Social strategies, networking events, content marketing efforts…there is a long cafeteria line of tools, strategies and processes designed to get you connneted.

Then what?

Business development is about relationships. Not connections. Or fans. Or followers. Real honest-to-goodness-relationships.

Today’s tools make establishing a connection relatively easy. Building a relationship is a different story. And no matter how effective the visibility strategy might be — no matter how many followers, fans or subscribers you have — if the next part of the equation isn’t in place, we’re missing the real opportunity.

Do it right, and a single event can yield scores of business cards. Devote some time 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 numbers game.

But if the goal is to build a professional service practice, it is a mistake to think a connection is anything more than a start. Relating with a target client  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.

Is Anyone Listening?

The problem — or at least part of the problem — is the way we think about marketing communication. We invest significantly in the delivery of our message — web sites, email marketing campaigns, and YouTube videos that, with varying degrees of effectiveness, present what we do and how we do it.

Even when the story is well told, this is more often than not one dimensional message dissemination.

(Sidebar: attempts to infer relationship in a message delivery device — like dropping in a line at the beginning of your email that says “Hi Eric…I hope you’re doing well” — are transparent and ineffective.)

Relationship requires listening. Efforts that fail to get beyond the connection phase and deliver measurable ROI are likely lacking a listening component.

In fact, the most effective messaging begins with intentional listening. For years the successful marketing organization has invested in researchlistening — designed to identify what might prompt the market to buy.

Effective professional service marketers and business developers create and facilitate opportunities to hear and understand the target client’s story.

This is where the investment in connections pays off. Engage your connections as opposed to constantly distributing your story. In the midst of skillful and intentional listening connections become clients, and clients become real fans.

What do we do to leverage our connection efforts, and turn contacts into relationships? It begins with investing at least as much time listening as we invest in the creation and delivery of our message. If you want to see measurable results from the investments in making contact, begin with intentional listening with a few carefully selected targets.

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.

If Business Development Seems Like A Mystery To You…

Open door to dark room with bright light shining in. Background Illustration.Successful business development is not a big mystery. Anyone who has been seriously working on the issue for very long has a good idea what is required. Precise process can vary. Termonology can differ; but it is not rocket science. In substance, in virtually any arena, business development is about the same thing.

Create visibility and deliver value to a target market; listen and learn what drives your target; and then connect the value you provide with what your market cares about.

Sure, you can leverage efforts by being more strategic (and we’ve explored it plenty in other posts); but follow the above formula in a sustained fashion and you’re on your way.

There are plenty of resources that will provide advice on some of the questions. What does a viable target look like? How do you decide where to network? Should you blog and/or engage in the social media arena? Should you speak? Where should you speak? What should you write about? What do you talk about at those networking functions?

It is easy to find good advice and helpful tools.

So, if the formula is simple; and support is readily available, this begs a question. Or two.

Why do we find ourselves repeatedly struggling with what to do and where to go with our business development efforts? Why do we feel like we’re continually starting from scratch?

If business development isn’t rocket science (it isn’t), and if the nuts-and-bolts of a good plan are easily knowable (they are), why aren’t we making any progress?

If you’re thinking it is because the budget isn’t big enough, or the market just doesn’t know we’re here, or our website is the wrong color combination, or rates aren’t right — and the list could go on — if this is what you’re thinking, I’m betting business development will continue to seem mysterious.

Here is what is missing most of the time — business development just isn’t important enough.

Soften the language if need be. But the issue is often as simple as this just isn’t a priority. Until time is short.

You know you should make it a priority, but it is impossible to find the time. Until all you have is time. Intellectually it is not difficult to process the fact that waiting on the market to find you, or depending on others to send you work is not a good long term strategy. But the truth is that even with a slow-down here and there, things have worked pretty well.

And networking, speaking, writing, planning and doing the other things that you sense you should do is uncomfortable and difficult.

Most of the time the fact is that it simply hasn’t risen to an appropriate level of importance. The platform isn’t burning. Yet.

Not everyone is a rainmaker. But here’s what I’m fairly certain of: anyone committed and disciplined enough to begin by investing four hours a week can make this the year that the business development light comes on.

That’s not all it takes. This isn’t the BD version of “get-your-six-pack-abs-in-five-minutes. We didn’t say it was a piece-of-cake. We said it isn’t rocket science.

Where to begin?

Here are four ideas we’ve seen work for others.

1. Take stock of your network. Business development is about relationships. Your acquaintances, connections, friends and colleagues are your greatest assets. Create a list in a systematic way. But don’t put it off. Get your contacts in order.

2. Identify three (3) initial targets. Study the list of contacts you’ve whipped into shape, and pick three that can hire, refer, recommend and/or coach/counsel you. Choose wisely (smart targeting is a predictor of future biz dev success).

3. Initiate strategic visibility by connecting dots. Do some research and be creative here. If you’re beginning from scratch think about the content your targets are concerned with. Brainstorm around the people and organizations your targets are connected to. Then begin searching for ways to connect those dots. A communication plan that calendars specific action items is a valuable asset.

4. Don’t give up. Working on your list isn’t fun; and it won’t feel like progress early on. But stick with it. Building relationships, figuring out ways to deliver value and stay connected isn’t second nature to most of us. And (unless you are lucky) you won’t see much progress for a while. But stick with the four hours a week.

Two things will happen. Making the investment will become something a little closer to second nature. Or at least a part of your routine. And you’ll begin to see ways to leverage opportunities. You’ll find ways to convert those four hours into the time it takes to grow a practice.

The first step to business development success is to make it a real priority, devoting time and energy as if the future of your practice depends on it.

And this time next year you won’t be starting over. Again.

5 Keys To Productive Conversations

people talking to each other silhouettes set 9Where change is the objective, there is little value in having the same conversations over and over. Eventually, the glazed-over-eyes should be a dead give-away: no one is listening. If the goal is to connect, here are five ideas that will instigate more productive conversations.

1) Avoid the devils you know. These come in all shapes and sizes. They may legitimate, or the ghosts of mountains made of mole hills. And while understanding the past is one of the ways to avoid repeating it, conversations that begin with the problems of yesterday rarely last long enough to break new ground. Progress is born of shared aspirations. Better conversations search for common ground.

2) Pass on the blame game. Everyone plays it. So much so that the language of blame (or CYA) is able to masquerade as analysis. Conversations designed to affix blame are almost always a waste of time.

3) Change the conversation. Insist on engaging in the same debate, making the same case, offering the same retort, and we should expect the same result. Want to stand a discussion on its ear…maybe make progress? Drop pre-conceived agendas. Try a new goal — to build a bridge to the next conversation.

4) Be about a Solution rather than a Win. Conversations designed to convert or win rarely change anything. Whether on a personal level, in the workplace, or in the most convoluted of socio-political environs, solutions to multi-layered challenges cannot be summed up in sound bites or measured in winnable moments. (Revisit #3, above.)

5) Listen more than you talk. To the degree that conversation is what we put up with in order to make our point and present our agenda, communication will almost certainly be limited. Real conversations begin with intentional listening – where the only agenda is a relentless quest for common ground.

All of this flies in the face of a communication strategy that says create your message and stay on point no matter the topic or specific question. Dialogue is hard work. It is not media or camera-friendly.

What if we resolved to be a part of better conversations? If just you and I were to commit, what opportunities might be discovered?

That Negative Client Experience Could Be A Real Business Development Opportunity

Everyone has experienced a client / customer experience nightmare. Call it whatever you like; the fact is that almost every enterprise is going to have a bad day. What is done in the wake of the experience is the real stuff of being client / customer centered.

The Bad Experience

Since the first time we wandered into the Chartres House, it has been one of my wife’s favorite spots in the French Quarter. Nice corner location that opens to the sidewalk (Chartres & Toulouse), and a Cajun & Creole menu (I’m partial to the fried green tomatoes).

A couple of weeks ago we stopped in for Friday night dinner, and it wasn’t good. Specific details don’t matter that much here. Suffice to say that service disappointed and the food did not measure up.

Unwilling to let the bitter taste simply linger, my wife went to the website and wrote a pointed, but objective account of the experience.

The Good

Almost immediately she heard from one of the managers. What was communicated was simple. No excuses. No equivocation. Anything less than complete satisfaction was unacceptable. How quickly could we return so that he could erase the bad memory?

I was not that up for returning one week later; but we did. As instructed, when we arrived at the hostess stand we asked for Josh. It was clear the hostess was expecting us. Josh had saved a primo table, and we enjoyed what I’m certain were the top servers available.

Josh stopped by the table a couple of times. He didn’t overdo it, but he made it clear that he appreciated the second chance…that they were committed to making things right, and he was going to do everything possible to return to that top spot on my wife’s list.

And he did. Service was A+, the food was excellent, and Josh picked up the tab. Toward the end of the evening we found out that it was his first week on the job. He hadn’t even been in charge when we had our less that excellent experience!

That night cost the restaurant the price of our drinks and dinner — including an order of fried green tomatoes — and one of the best tables in the house for a couple of hours. And it won a raving fan — not because they have good food and decent service; we expect that. But because of the experience delivered…even when things went off the rails.

By Contrast, The Ugly

The Chartres House experience reminded me of an opportunity that was botched by another restaurant. Check Deborah McMurray’s Law Firm 4.0 Blog here for the tale of a steakhouse that did nothing. (And to my knowledge, none of the three of us have returned.)

I’m not good about voicing dissatisfaction or filling out those “Tell-Us-How-We-Did” surveys. Most of the time I’ll simply move on, give someone else the next opportunity to win my business, and seldom return to the place that failed to meet (or exceed) expectations.

This experience reminded me of two important points.

  • The value of honest client feedback — especially from those who, for whatever reason, might just move on to the next provider without ever voicing their disappointment.
  • A problem or complaint is an opportunity for a different kind of conversation — one that dares us to do more than simply talk (or write) about serviece.

Thanks to Josh at the Chartres House for the reminders.

You’ll Never Get A Fan To Be Objective

whistle of a soccer / football referee, free copy spaceA fan will always see things based on the color of the uniform. A catch? Were the receiver’s feet inbounds? Did a knee hit the ground? What holding — that wasn’t holding!

Facts are defined by what helps my team.

On the day after, sports talk radio thrives on the debate that is fueled by these alternate views. One caller is confident the slo-mo replay shows one thing; another sees it exactly opposite.

For three hours on game day the only thing that matters is that my team win. Everything related to the contest is seen through that prism.

When the call doesn’t go my way, the refs are biased, unfair or blind. We never get a break. When we lose on a close call, the fix was in. When we win, it is because we somehow overcame a stacked deck.

I love sports. I have always enjoyed competition, and the back-and-forth that used to characterize sportsmanship.

On the other hand, I’ve never much enjoyed being around or engaging with the fanatic who sees only the color of the uniform.

Call me naive, but I have never understood how we can embrace the violent offenders, repeat abusers, and unquestionable bad citizens as long as they help my team win.

Sure, pro sports is a business. But let’s be honest — that is a comfortable excuse. Seems like situational ethics.

In some venues winning at all costs has become the only thing that matters. And before you stop me, this is not the “winning is the only thing” that Vince Lombardi spoke of. We conveniently overlook the context of Lombardi’s comments — focus, determination, hard work and sacrifice.

Fanatic debates are good for coffee breaks and happy hours.

Until alignment with a particular team, or tribe or party predetermines the position we take in conversations that matter.

When perception is constrained by the belief that winning at any cost is what matters most…when my views are defined by what favors my team, when we’re no longer talking about a 3-hour contest between the lines, we’re not talking about fun and games anymore.

A thought: if we really care about moving the ball…if we hope to communicate with anyone other than those who already agree with us…conversations must transcend the color of the uniform.

In Case The Topic of Leadership Is On Your Mind…

SolutionIn his most recent book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek has based the title on a practice of the US Marines. When gathered to eat, the most junior members of the group are first in line, while senior leadership waits until everyone else has been served.

The book is, in my view a must read. But here is a timely taste.

The premise is that leaders place the needs, concerns and well-being of others above any self interest, thereby earning the kind of trust that inspires a group to follow — even into the heat of battle.

If you’ve known a real leader, you’ve experienced this brand of inspiration.

Leadership is not about access. It does not flaunt privilege. It is not the automatic byproduct of title or rank. It is something one earns over time.

Sure — some titles come with a nice office and access to a platform; but turn the platform into a pulpit with empty rhetoric or self promotion, and don’t expect to grow the ranks of those willing to sign up for the mission you wish to lead.

Leaders are not consumed by a need for acceptance or accolades. Solutions, ideas, constructive dialogue — this is the stuff of a leader’s focus.

If we’re constantly lobbying for a seat at the table, wishing for the acknowledgement we deserve, entangled in debates that are far from mission critical…it is worth asking whether we’re modeling leadership. Is our dialogue about personal agenda and advancement? Or is it focused on the needs and critical interests of those we aspire to influence?

One can have a seat at the table, own a title for a season, or even post up on a bully pulpit and demand action. But this is not leadership.

leader inspires conversations that matter, dialogue that is about solution, changes that endure, and a legacy we can be proud to leave behind.

What does leadership look like? This is from Sinek’s book:

Leaders are the ones who run head-first into the unknown.They rush towards the danger. They put their own interests aside to protect us or to pull us into the future. Leaders would sooner sacrifice what is theirs to save what is ours; and they would never sacrifice what is ours to save what is theirs.

This is what it means to be a leader. It means they choose to go first into danger, head-first into the unknown. And when we feel sure they will keep us safe, we will march behind them, and work tirelessly to see their visions come to life. And proudly call ourselves their followers. — Simon SInek.

4 Ways You’ll Acquire Work in 2017

Plan Gauge Proactive vs Reactive Strategy for SuccessThere are four ways you’ll acquire work and build a professional services practice in 2017.

  1. You’re already connected to someone who knows you and is inclined to use the services you provide;
  2. You are plugged into a group (network) that connects you and will refer or outright recommend you to someone in need of your service;
  3. You will proactively pursue a target(s) for strategic reasons;
  4. You get lucky, and wind up in the right place at the right time.

What does this mean for your business development investments this year? Consider what these four methods for the acquisition of work really mean.

You’re Already Connected

If you’re already connected to the right targets, your reputation speaks for itself. You don’t have to talk much about about experience or expertise; it is a given with this crowd. This reality isn’t the result of marketing initiatives  launched last quarter…or even last year. Being hired based on reputation is almost always the byproduct of having visibility and consistently delivering value over an extended period of time. You can’t buy your way in overnight.

A Network That Connects You

Being plugged into a network that connects you to work is the result of roll-up-your-sleeves-efforts over time. Developing these connections is why you speak, blog, do CLE events, and work through awkward moments at lunches and happy hours where you’re not sure what to say. If you invested wisely — meaning, if you’ve been strategic versus chasing every new “opportunity” that comes along — and focused on developing professional relationships — your business development plan will bear fruit in the coming months.

Proactive Pursuit

Being proactive isn’t about being busy. It begins with the painstaking challenges that accompany the smart identification of a target. Not every potential client is a smart target. In a high functioning business development culture this means doing the work that names those you want to work with, and why. It leverages your networking investments, incorporates an understanding of drivers in the market, factors competitive intelligence and focuses on meeting the target’s need. Effective pursuits utilize strong relationship mapping, create quality visibility and deliver value. If you’re making pitches and not getting work, it is a safe bet you’re taking a short cut somewhere. Viable pursuits are carefully crafted, and take time.

For the most part, these first three ways of acquiring work do not stand alone. They are interconnected in a number of ways.

  • They take time. If you’re just now addressing a need for business development, no matter how much you talk about it or how many initiatives you launch, you can’t accomplish number one, two or three in the span of a month, quarter or even year. Successful business development is inexorably linked to professional relationships; and these don’t materialize over a fortnight.
  • 2 + 3 = 1. If you’re doing number two and number three — focusing on your network and engaging in strategic pursuits — and delivering on your promise, a reputation (a brand) and all that comes with it will begin to flow your way.
  • The past is no predictor. A killer reputation and a robust network are the result of the work you’ve done in the past. But rest on laurels and risk obsolescence. Only number three — proactive pursuit — is focused on the future.
  • What about luck? Individuals and firms focused on numbers two and three are often the ones that seem to enjoy the repeated good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Coincidentally, they often enjoy the big reputation. Translation: much of the time we make our own luck.

The Choice: Be Reactive or Proactive

When it comes to business development in the coming months there are really two options: to wait…and then react to what the market throws your way — and hope for the best; or to take matters into your own hands, get strategic and become proactive.

Being proactive isn’t easy. But unless you have a robust network already in place, and a reputation that drives the market to your door, the smart identification and proactive pursuit of targets represents the shortest distance between where you are today and the practice you want to build. That…or getting exceptionally lucky.

Hoping The Market Will Knock On Your Door in the Coming Year?

If you find yourself wondering where work will come from in 2017, two things may be true about your marketing and business development efforts.

Your professional network needs some attention; and you have a shortage of strategic targets.

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

But left to build a practice in today’s marketplace, it doesn’t take long to realize that 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 hoping the market will somehow find them.

Too bad we’re not marketing a mousetrap.

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 state-of-the-art SEO, write a blog and take to Twitter . . . and then sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

Even if one assumes that is a workable strategy, the professional service we offer doesn’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 contested or a case won.

Stop Waiting For The Market To Find You

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 proactive 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 biz dev 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 service your provide.

A robust network — one you faithfully nurture — is key to minimizing 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 are two ideas to consider.

1. Begin with a focus on groups you’re already plugged into — alumni associations, civic clubs, servicei groups, professional affiliations, and churches are a few of the most common. Get involved. Volunteer. Be visible. Contribute.

2. Become strategic. Begin to identify specific targets. Listen and learn — about concerns, needs and critical business drivers. Seek ways to deliver value in response to what you learn. (If you’re not clear how to contribute value, chances are you still have some listening to do.)

These two ideas encompass the nuts and bolts of a strategic business development pursuit. And they are the alternative to sitting back and hoping the next phone call or email brings an opportunity that will make your new year.