45604844_thumbnailFifteen years ago a know-it-all business development and marketing guy was given a career-limiting assignment: to create national marketing plans for a dozen practice groups in an AmLaw 100 firm.

Naively certain, and with the finesse of the proverbial bull in a china closet, the not-so-smart hot-shot asked a practice leader to describe his ideal target client. The answer — in that instance, and in scores of subsequent interviews across the firm — went something like this:

“My ideal client is the next person that calls me on the phone or walks through my office door.”

While this “waiting-on-the-market-to-come-to-me” strategy was perplexing to the know-it-all manager, the reality is that for decades many professional service providers built a robust practice by — in their view — doing just that.

It was not really that long ago that the combination of a shingle and an excellent work product would create an organic referral, or word-of-mouth network.

Those were the good-old-days.

But the marketplace has changed.

In truth, it was already changing fifteen years ago as I visited with that lawyer. Even then, professional service providers were experiencing something different.

No longer did doing great work assure a deepening relationship. Satisfaction was not a precursor to a return engagement…much less, loyalty. The competitive landscape was getting  crowded.

The Return Of The Good Old Days!

Given the change, it is popular to pronounce that what worked yesterday won’t work in the “new normal.”

But while high-consequence change is undeniable, the basic foundation necessary for successful practice and business development is the same today as it was for your grandfather’s firm.

Before you scoff, stick with me for a few more paragraphs.

Back in the day (you’ve heard the tales…word was bond, and a handshake was more than a social nicety), relationship trumped everything. It engendered trust, and was the impetus for the you-can’t-buy-this-kind-of-advertising of the word of mouth networks.

And all the change notwithstanding, relationship is still the foundation for effective marketing and business development.

What has changed is the way in which professionals must go about building productive relationships. Today’s marketplace calls for a proactive strategic approach.

So here are five ideas on what it takes to build a network that will work — even in today’s marketplace.

  1. Think Strategically. In other posts we refer to this as Smart Targeting. Wait for the market to come to you at your own peril. Instead, consider with whom you most want to work. Build a list of the names of individuals — not companies or industries — that can either hire you, advise you, or connect you to a hiring authority. This is the first step to a network that works for you.
  2. Listen First. Once a target is identified, invest in a season of Intentional Listening. And learn. Research, investigate. Tap the resources in your network in a position to educate and coach. Do this long and hard enough, and you’ll spot the areas fertile for connection, and communication.
  3. Create Visibility. This is about tactics; but resist the easy (and frequently traveled) road. Be creative. What avenues might you pursue that will create awareness with the targets you’ve identified? Do the homework here, and suddenly you’ll know exactly where (and whether) you should advertise, what to sponsor, when to speak, and the subjects to write about. As if by magic, your investments in visibility will begin to pay off!
  4. Deliver Value. #’s 1 and 2 above are the keys here. Those two steps should inform the content of your messages, and the framework of any connection opportunities. And this doesn’t always have to be about your area of expertise.
  5. Instigate Strategic Conversations. This is the substantive face-to-face experience that is the fabric of deep relationships. These are not once or twice a year things. Building relationships requires ongoing conversation; so the number one priority in every encounter with a target is to build a bridge to the next conversation.

There is no silver bullet. (There never was.) And not all relationships are equal. But invest in a robust and strategic circle of relationships, and over time you’ll find you have a pipeline of work — and even produce one or two deep, lasting, and yes, loyal relationships that no measure change can shake.