The Illusion of a Business Development or Marketing Silver Bullet

No one should be surprised. It is, after all, human nature. On the other hand, it is a distraction, a resource drain and a mistake we insist on making over and over.

“It” is our seemingly relentless search for a business development Silver Bullet.

From the siren call of a social platform to the promises that the newest technology tool is the answer; from quick fixes to motivate practicioners to freshly edited insights that will flip a magic switch, the (embarrassingly secret) hope that there is something — anything — that will instantly make it rain is one of the great impediments to game-changing business development and marketing success.

Most of us must confess — the pull is so powerful that strategic focus is replaced by fits and starts with every new “opportunity” — real, or imagined.

(Yes, even the real opportunities can dramatically impede progress when a strategic plan is interrupted. The fact that a departure from the charted course might result in measured success often only reinforces a behavior; when characterized as an asset — flexible, opportunistic – even (mistakenly) entrepreneurial — we may simply have given in to the shiny silver bullet. It is a heck of a lot easier than committing to a strategy.)

Sure…in the absence of a real game plan, being athletic enough to turn on a dime may well be the best option. But don’t mistake it for a Strategy (with a capital S).

And when we wonder at the advances made by competitors, or are mystified by an inability to leverage investments in business development, consider these two simple tenets:

  • Focus wins.
  • A measure of real strategy is whether it facilitates focus, empowering an organization to say “No” to the endless stream of “opportunities.”

Absent unlimited resources, few organizations are really flexible enough to react to every great opportunity that comes along. Before we alter strategy in order to take advantage of something too good to pass up, consider the implication; while we might call it opportunistic, we may have a business development strategy (with a very small “s”) that is little more than waiting (and hoping) for the next opportunity.

A successful business development strategy speaks (in a definitive but not necessarily sexy way) to three questions:

  • Who is the target, and why? — which implies you have taken stock of market realities and your organization’s capabilities;
  • What “business drivers” are top of mind, impacting critical decisions, and how do you connect to these drivers?;
  • What must we do to connect with the decision maker (that is, how complete is our decision-maker relationship map)?

Silver bullets are rare. Those that address this three-point strategy…rarer still.

Why Listening Should Be Your #1 Business Development Action Item

All listening is not the same.

Consider the differences in the way you listen to talk radio as you sit in traffic; to the argument of an adversary; and, for the slightest whimper from the new born down the hall.

The soundtrack of a day is complex. Most of us are adept at juggling multiple channels vying for our attention. We learn what to listen for, what resonates, how to zero-in on key words, phrases or even subtle intonation. And when to tune out.

But as we become skilled at this brand of reactive listening we are (inadvertently) contributing to the demise of something that is central to effective communication. As it turns out, it’s one of the ingredients we need most if we hope to build relationships that lead to long-term business development.

Intentional, Proactive Listening

Perhaps it is a byproduct of attempting to pack as much into an hour — even a brief conversation — as possible. Whatever the cause, we rarely think of listening as the centerpiece of business communication, marketing, client development or sales.

Rather, it is tempting to view opportunities to connect as demands for messaging —  of the new idea, the latest services and capabilities, or our most recent award. And this is where we invest virtually all the time and resources earmarked for business development.

Listening is seldom the priority when presented with a chance to present a message.

It is so easy to become so focused on delivering our message that in those (usually all-too-brief) moments when a client or prospect is questioning or commenting — providing insight into what is most important to her — we can’t do much better than half listen. Primary attention is being given to the content of our next message — our response.

The unfortunate fact is that the ability to multitask and master-mix the noise of our marketplace notwithstanding, listening is often the most productive tool at our fingertips. The poetry and/or profundity of a message has little impact when disconnected from the concerns and drivers of the target.

If you’re wondering how to differentiate your business development efforts, the question is — how much more effective might our attempts at communication be if our intent was first to listen?

This is why client interview and feedback programs are so valuable.

This is why there is measurable value in having conversations apart from the context of a project, presentation or specific matter.

Intentional listening highlights the voice of those with whom we want to connect. And by voice, I mean the cares, aspirations and concerns of your target audience. It is the key to the most basic principle of effective communication — that connection takes place in the context of shared experience and understanding.

Put another way — intentional listening will identify, outline and define the language of the closest you will ever come to a can’t-miss-message.

Translation: the shortest distance between where we are today and a relationship that results in business development that will change your practice is less about the construction of a long list of capabilities, and more about one or two questions that instigate dialogue. Less about what we know, and more about what we can learn if we’ll listen first.

Game-changing business development — not to mention, the road to becoming a trusted advisor — is much less about beginning with a compelling message, and much more about intentional listening.

This Is Why It Feels Good To Give Thanks

Thankfulness is a decision — one that, when made, changes everyone touched by the decision.

It is borne of a perspective that transcends experience, and resists seeing life through a lens.

Thankfulness has no agenda. It is comfortable in any room…at ease in any position or station…predisposed to give, with no expectation.

Thankfully, it is not confined to a day. Or a season. It cannot be measured, and it does not keep score.

It is a gift. And to give thanks is a choice.

A thankful perspective is inclined to reject views rooted in fear.

Thankfulness makes our hearts bigger. It opens our eyes wider and fine-tunes the way everything is seen.

It inspires the highest order of creativity and innovation.

People driven by a thankful spirit are inconspicuous. They speak softly; yet, what they say resonates. They change every room they enter.

We are all a little better when we are consciously thankful. This is why our world is a happier place when we pause for a moment, hour or day of thanksgiving.


The Fear of Change and the Inability to Innovate

Very few people really like change. Those who say they do may really be talking about variety — like trading cars or upgrading to the newest phone.

Consequential change is ofine a painful process.

Sometime ago I ran across this Networking Exchange blog post by Alan See. The post points out that in the early 20th century, with projections that by 1925 every adult woman in America would be needed to staff Bell Telephone’s manual switchboard system, the company introduced the first automatic switchboard. The change was met with skepticism, and questions about the elimination of a human being from the process of managing phone traffic.

For similar stories, see initial reactions to such innovations as the Model T. Or the ATM. Or browse today’s skepticism regarding the role “AI” might play in professional services.

In the average organization a measure of success, not to mention the comfort zone provided by precedent, fight against change.

On the other hand, pain is frequently the real agent of change in our midst.

But delaying innovation until pain is registered doesn’t seem to be the best strategy for survival in a volatile market…let alone growth.

With this in mind it is useful to be alert to two responses that often signal a fear of change. And an opportunity to innovate, missed.

  1. The “we already do that” response. Leaders who inspire innovation are slow to equate proposed changes with something already in place. I know a Director whose proposal for a strategic initiative was cut short because her boss either assumed all such initiatives are the same, or that there was no need for change. Opportunity lost.
  2. The “I’ve done that job, so I understand what is involved” response. Right. Talk to an audio engineer about the knowledge and skills required for the job today compare to a decade ago. No matter the task, the instant we assume the way we used to do it is the way it should always be done, we are rejecting the possibility that change might be in order.

This is not to suggest that just because change is possible we should instantly embrace it. Innovation rarely comes cheap. Clearly, changing for the sake of change is not wise. There is almost always an impact on budget, culture, and long-standing process. Leadership and management are about doing the homework, counting the cost, and insuring that you’re pursuing a change for the better. As Alan’s post suggests, the most potent change may come in increments that begin with the question, “how can we improve.”

“We’ve always done it this way”, or “we never did that before” — or “don’t mess with anything that isn’t broken” — these are not good reasons for sticking with the status quo. In fact, these responses may signal a coming demise. To the degree these are knee-jerk responses to new ideas, they are at the heart of our inability to innovate and grow.

The marketplace moves into uncharted territory with each new day. Those who lead constantly ask whether there is a better way to accomplish our tasks, benefit our stakeholders, and serve our clients.

If Your BizDev Plan Doesn’t Specify Targets, Don’t Expect Great ROI

Two things are often true of professional service providers wrestling with how to build a practice, and we discuss both frequently:

  • an anemic network — which translates to a severe shortage of connections that can either hire you, or refer and introduce you to the folks in a position to do the hiring; and,
  • the absence of strategic targets — which makes it difficult to leverage resources (including a network of valued connections) and mount a productive pursuit.

If your’re finding it difficult to identify a quality target, your network isn’t doing what it should do; that is, produce opportunities. If this is the case, this is where you should focus first — in order to create a pipeline of work. You’re invited to check here and here for fodder.

This post is about the next big stumbling block for many — how to identify targets for strategic business development pursuits.

It begins by making yourself consistently valuable to your network. Here are 4 on how to approach this.

  1. Become a connector — providing introductions, references, referrals and recommendations to others in your network (and think personal as well as professional). Many in your network value this more than almost anything else you might deliver. Become known as a connector, and you’ll find your network connecting you to conduits for business.
  2. Share your expertise versus simply talking about it. Ofine an easy place to begin is to stage CLE events, and produce timely seminars and blog posts that deliver thought leadership, analysis and insight.
  3. Become a curator — accumulate and share content that is important and relevant to your network…including content from sources other than you or your firm. This level of communication has the added benefit of demonstrating that you have a broad awareness of your target’s business.
  4. Communicate with regularity — and if this seems a bit repetitive it is because regular communication is central to the development of quality relationships — the kind that result in referrals, recommendations and work. Your plan of action should include a communications calendar that specifies a touch point every six to eight weeks in most cases.

These are just ideas. There are no cookie-cutters. Be aware of what your target cares about. Remember that effective business development is about building quality relationships. Delivering real value to your network is the most eloquent marketing message there is, creating visibility with staying power.

Become valueable enough to the right kind of network, and over time some prospects will begin to self-identify. But what are the keys to proactive identification of those you want to pursue?

Here are 5 suggested criteria that can help you prioritize, and build a target list that maximizes your efforts.

  1. Consider where your subject matter expertise aligns with the business drivers of a target. If alignment (or the lack thereof) isn’t clear, dig a little deeper. Identify business drivers and making a relevant and productive presentation or pitch becomes much less challenging.
  2. Do you have a relationship with the decision-maker? All other things being equal, investing where you have a direct relationship with an individual empowered to hire you should take high priority;
  3. Consider the arithmetic. Do enough homework to know the rate, project costs and timeline of working with a target will not end up being an issue when your pursuit is successful.
  4. Where do you have allied and extended relationships. Draft a relationship map that shows all known connections between you/your firm, others in your network, your target’s organization, and the decision maker. Targets should increase in priority where you possess strong connections closer to the decision-maker.
  5. Do you have a personal affinity for the work done by any of your targets? Work that touches on areas you care about will almost always help make a pursuit more organic.

Smart targeting will have dramatic impact on the marketing and business development plan you create. It helps you select what events to attend and which ones to pass up; when a speaking engagement fits as a development tactic; what to write about; when to say no to “opportunities;” and where to invest resources.

Smart targeting — as difficult and uncomfortable as it may be at times — is the key into map the shortest distance between where you are today, and the existence of a pipeline that will deliver opportunities over the long haul.

Real Leadership Inspires Uncommon Vision

Some accomplish it with a pen mightier-than-any-sword. Some with eloquent oratory.

For many the tool is as simple as an invitation — how may I help you? Or the offer of a cup of cold water

Some speak volumes with the sheer force of example.

Whatever the methodology, real leaders encourage conversations — around core ideas, fundamental values, consequential agendas, and aspirational vision.

To be sure, if loud enough, any voice may be able to distract for a season. Given the resources, would-be leaders can spin, finesse, obfuscate, and monopolize messaging. But merely storming to the front of a room, grasping the microphone or hovering over a pulpit does not constitute leadership.

In fact, having to announce ones credentials might be indicative of a leadership vacuum.

Real leadership, no matter the venue, is marked by the presence of inclusion, dialogue and a collaborative pursuit of advancement, progress and solution.

And while the conversations may be disconcerting at times, the progress of a team, an enterprise or any community depends on the honest dialogue and collaborative spirit that leads to the identification of common ground and shared experiences.

Real leadership has an authenticity that inspires uncommon vision — to see a bigger picture, to dream of what could be, and to engage in a noble pursuit, wherever it might lead — because we know the pursuit was borne of a selfless commitment to the greater good.

Breaking News — Business Development Is Not Complicated

Business development is not complicated.

Hard work? Indeed…because it is, at its core, about succeeding at relationships…and we all know that almost anything having to do with relationships is hard work.

But the quest for formulas, fast-fixes and a magic planning template notwithstanding, biz dev success does not reside in a silver-bullet or one-size-fits-all solution.

Strategically sound plans and solid processes are critical tools, to be sure; both increase efficiencies and facilitate accountability.

But the foundation of effective business development relationships is precisely the same as it is in a more personal context — a relentless focus on your target.

Getting BacK To Basics

Business development in the professional services arena is a simple process:

1. Identify a Target.

2. Determine what your Target cares about.

3. Think about and work on the relationship (speaking to what your target cares about) every day, for as long as it takes.

Not a complicated process. Yet, we struggle mightily; and when we don’t give up, we seem to exercise creative genius when it comes to finding ways to complicate, over-think and sabotage our efforts.

Here are a few thoughts on how to keep it simple, and on track.

Step one — Targeting — means letting go of the ever popular all-things-to-all-prospects strategy. Targeting involves a proactive, strategic pursuit.

It is an acknowledgement that waiting on the market to beat a path to your door is a slippery slope to irrelevance.

It is built on the realization that reacting does not constitute a viable go-to-market strategy.

Targeting is about learning what a prospect might care about; what precipitates sleepless nights.

An effective business development plan is about connecting the dots between what your target cares about and what you can do to help. That’s it. The best plan highlights the value you bring to your strategic relationships — whether referral source or hiring authority.

Spin it, complicate it and if-and-or-but it all you want; relationships that endure — professional or personal — are about listening, learning, investing time, and meeting needs. Do this, and trust develops. And the relationship grows stronger.

Try building a practice without identifying targets and you’re going to be frustrated, at best.

Are there skill sets, tools and more sophisticated processes that will help? No doubt.

But anyone serious about business development can realize success with attention to this simple process. Those who find a way to personalize it, and incorporate it as a daily routine are the ones that make it rain.

What We Need Today Is A Few More Lifeguards

Some days remind us that every human being has a story. And most of the time we don’t know many of the details. This week brought several of those days.

The specifics — not really appropriate to recount here — have prompted plenty of introspection on my part. Much of it has centered on how we treat those we encounter.

Angry Words

I simply don’t understand a predisposition to do everything possible to prevent connecting — with family, colleagues, those with whom we disagree, even a random stranger.

Perhaps it is naivety; but I’m glad I don’t get it. Basic human kindness seems like one of the things we should be able to get right.

Sure…we all have a bad day — one where the knee-jerk response is to take personal frustrations out on another individual.

But I don’t get the constant comments meant to demean, belittle or even wound another person. What purpose does this serve?

Is it designed to communicate?

Maybe at times it is effective. The first phone call I received a few mornings ago lasted less than 90 seconds; but in that time the word stupid was used repeatedly to convey an opinion on a particular matter. Communication received. (Once was all that was necessary.)

So I suppose we should stipulates that communication may be taking place when hateful words are spewed…when ideas meant to tear down or diminish value are uttered.

In the meantime, nothing is being built.

What didn’t occur during that random phone call was any bridge-building. The occasion was one of disconnecting — from any real conversation…any exploration…any attempt to find a productive solution.

And in the process — whether in phone calls, social media posts or face-to-face encounters — we may be missing important stories. Stories of hunger. Of insecurity, pain or trauma.

Or we might be missing a moment of joy.

This week my heart broke over the details of three human stories. In each the only thing that matters is doing the right thing with another human being. Winning an argument, proving a point, being correct or vindicated — none of this matters one iota. To be there…to extend a hand…to represent hope…to be aware enough to simply sit, and care — this is what matters in so many moments.

In a brief post today Seth Godin concludes with this thought: “If you’re not drowning, you’re a lifeguard.”

The New Testament puts it this way. “By this will men know you are My disciples; that you love one another.”

May human kindness and gentle words be the order of our days.

A Requiem For The Art of Dialogue

I remember when we used to be able to disagree with each other.

Friends could have a debate, and go home friends. We could work alongside others, and build neighborhoods with folks with whom we shared differing views. Somehow we managed to identify common ground, and get things done.

Those were the days.

Or maybe it was all smoke and mirrors.

In any case, it sure seems like dialogue is dead now. It has become acceptable to scoff at the very idea we might have a conversation with one with whom we disagree.

These days hyperbole and name-calling have replaced any give-and-take. Cranking up the volume, and soundbites scripted for the talk-show circuit try to masquerade as discourse.

When was the last time you heard (or participated in) a calm and reasoned debate around deeply held perspectives. How did it end?

The Sounds of Dialogue

When I was a know-it-all kid I thought Dad was just being disagreeable when he’d advocate for a view in which I knew he did not believe. Years later I came to realize that those debates were training exercises — Dad’s way of teaching us kids what dialogue sounds like.

Taking unpredictable positions, he forced us to listen first. Canned positions were rarely sufficient. Exploratory conversation was essential. It took some give-and-take to understand where he was coning from — to figure out where and how we might connect.

None of us around the dinner table (he always staged these exercises over a meal) appreciated the tedious way in which he orchestrated the drill. Rarely was there a winner. What was the point? Years latter we came to appreciate the reality that, intentional or not, those sessions were a practicum in the art of dialogue. We learned what it sounds like. And if it isn’t dead, the art is fading fast.

These days it’s about nailing the soundbite; sticking to the talking points no matter what the question might be; tearing down in favor of building; being audacious in 140 characters; or producing the coveted viral moment.

It’s about the highlight reel and a WOW moment. It is controversy posing as discourse. It’s about a headline, a spotlight, or a reality gig.

It is about making my point and winning the moment. Without respect to implications on the next opportunity, it is about laying claim, and staking territory.

And before we know it, we’ve gone a day…or a week…or a month without engaging in a single real piece of dialogue.

Little by little, have we forgotten what it sounds like?

It isn’t how-was-your-day-mine-was-okay stuff. It is more than comparing golf scores and vacation itineraries.

Dialogue is about honest explorations and intentional bridge-building.

If we really want more than just attention…if we care about meaningful movement…if our communication is more than posturing or pandering…we can still rescue dialogue from the brink of extinction.

Where and how to begin? Step away from the podium. Spend some time listening — not for ways to shoot holes in what you hear; but for common ground…for shared aspirations. This is where dialogue begins.

Unless we rediscover the art, very little of real consequence will change — whether the venue is personal, professional, social or political.

Will we disagree. Certainly. But we might discover that those faint memories of when we could disagree and debate and walk away with self respect and friendship in tact weren’t a figment of our imagination at all. Those were the good ole days. And they weren’t so bad.

When And How To Evaluate Your Business Development Efforts

How do we measure progress? What constitutes ROI on what is plowed into business development efforts?

The practical challenge is that between the initial work necessary for productive business development efforts and any tangible signs of growth, it can be difficult to see the progress that is being made.

This is especially true if real progress calls for basic levels of culture change.

It is doubly tough to be patient when we address business development at moments when we are desperate to see immediate fruits from our efforts. Unable to see signs of growth in the short term, there is often a tendency to shift from one possible solution or strategy to the next.

By contrast, a successful strategy is one that has been in play long enough to be made up of a healthy blend of investments in the future, and past efforts that have created networks, solidified reputations, grown relationships and are delivering viable opportunities.

A Formula For Success

Build around silver bullets or new flavors of the month and you’ll probably 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 area often enough to stay flat, or 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.

  • Engage in smart targeting. Productive networks and strong relationships don’t just materialize from hope. Here are three characteristics of areas where your efforts can be most productive:
    • High consequence change
    • Shared affinity and/or aspirations
    • Relevant expertise and experience (personal or organizational)
  • Maintain focus. Turn your attention to business development only when its convenient or you have nothing else to do, and you’re not going to find much you can build upon. A pipeline of work develops in the context of on-going visibility, an awareness of capability and experience and realities of the market. Stay plugged into your efforts, or risk throwing your investment away.
  • Measure in this context. Target smart and maintain focus and you will have an appropriate framework for measuring effectiveness.

Productive biz dev isn’t about waiting forever, never taking stock, and constantly wondering about results. Quite to the contrary, build around a realistic and solid framework and you’ll begin to see something that may seem rare these days — new clients and organic growth.