How To Deliver Value To Your Network — Even In Uncertain Times

I was struck by the idea shared by David Ackert on his blog last week, and I highly recommend you check it out if you haven’t already. We spend considerable time and space exploring tactics for effective business development, and frequently note that — when it comes to professional service practice development — relationship is the name of the game.

Invest time and resources doing the things that build relationships, and many of the questions about the action items of a business development plan tend to disappear — specifically, creating (and maintaining) visibility and delivering value. David’s post is a timely reminder that there are times when a word of comfort or empathy provides the most appropriate visibility.

There are moments when the most valuable thing anyone can offer might be a helping hand that has nothing to do with the work you do or the service your firm markets.

If you’re in this for the long haul — if you’re not simply playing a numbers game as you work your way down a prospect list — your plan must include doing what it takes to build and nurture relationships.

This means a focus on three things:

  • Creating visibility;
  • Delivering value; and,
  • Engaging in 360-degree-communication — meaning not just having dialogue when working on a matter or when sending the obligatory occasion-based card or note.

Every single real rainmaker I know consistently invests in relationship. For many, it is intuitive. For others it is carefully thought through and strategic. Either way, if you’re looking for a good place to begin, I’ll refer you to the three ideas suggested in David’s post for starters.

1. Check in on clients and colleagues who reside in the areas affected by the recent hurricanes. Make sure they are okay.
2. Take an inventory of those who are recovering from an illness (however slight). Wish them a speedy recovery.
3. Think of those who have changed jobs over the past six months. Ask them how they are settling in. — David Ackert

One caveat — and if this isn’t clear I’m guessing relationships are an ever-present issue for you whether professional or personal: a real investment in relationship is unconditional…and cannot be manipulative in nature.

The work of business development can be particularly challenging for many professional service providers. But when action plans are rooted in identifying and building relationships, the work will produce lifetime connections…even friendships. And this is the source of the most rewarding work around.

Three Things That Form The Foundation For Effective Networking and Business Development Efforts

Once you have identified the target for a business development pursuit, then what?

The answer is simple. Whether you’re considering initial and broad based networking or a single focused pursuit, the success you seek hinges on the (often time consuming) work of building and nurturing professional relationship.

Specific action steps will vary depending on the situation; but three basic principles should be at the heart of every aspect of your plan.

  • Create and maintain meaningful visibility;
  • Deliver value on a sustained basis;
  • Instigate dialogue.

This is the DNA of a quality relationship. And these three things are the keys to an action plan that will produce results.

A Short Note On Each

When visibility is limited to two or three times a year, the chances of building much of a relationship are slim. Slimmer still if the contact is confined to some type of mass communique.

Productive relationships require visibility.

If you’re handling your visibility plan in a strategic way, you should be delivering value (as your target defines it) in the process. As is the case throughout this discussion, there are no cookie-cutters; value comes in many shapes and sizes. Insight, counsel, hands-on assistance, and yes…even some entertainment along the way are often built into the action steps of an effective plan.

And if there is no dialogue, there simply isn’t going to be much of a relationship. (Doubt this? Try having a meaningful personal relationship absent substantive conversations.) A productive plan looks for opportunities, and instigates the kind of dialogue that provides an increasingly clear picture of what your target seeks — what s/he values most — what causes “sleepless nights.”

It is a simple formula; but execution isn’t easy. Success at a level that ultimately sustains a practice requires commitment, discipline, focus, and time…as is the case when it comes to making any relationship work.

For Everyone Sick Of All The Talk About Networking

Let’s cut to the chase. Why do you need a network? Because your network is your market.

Every day many professional service providers wrestle with how to develop new business — not because of inferior work product or poor client service; but because their network is not large enough to supply the connections, generate the referrals, and open the doors to new work on a sustained basis.

If you don’t have a list of specific targets — the names of individuals that connect you in some way to the real possibility of new work — your network is likely an issue. But it is not an insurmountable problem. Construct a plan that focuses on identifying, growing and cultivating connections with these three types of individuals:

  • Those able to hire you;
  • Those able to introduce, recommend or refer you;
  • Those able to coach you…providing intel that strengthens other aspects of your network.

Meaningful networking isn’t necessarily about social media, working a room of strangers, banquet chicken and happy hours. It is about taking the time to consider which individuals put you ever closer to the individuals able to hire you…and executing a plan of action that connects you to this group of individuals.

So if you’re not sure where next week’s work will come from — if you’re basically waiting on the next phone call and hoping the market finds you, consider the upside of focusing on individuals that connect you to work.

Build relevant connections — through social media, memberships, events and one-on-one conversations, and through the use of any other available tools — and, whether you call it this or not, you’re executing a plan that will grow a network, and create a pipeline of future business.

On Having The Wisdom To Know The Difference

It is much easier to be a critic than a creator; less risky to respond and react than to innovate and initiate; less costly to follow than to lead.

Charting new territory — innovating, establishing relationships and building solutions — requires a vision for the future and a measure of courage . . . an investment of blood, sweat and tears that is easy to second guess from much cheaper and less consequential seats.

The Potential of ‘Why Not’

To clarify, we’re not talking about the discipline and skill set that analyzes, tests and calibrates in the quest for a more perfect solution. We’re talking about a perspective that consistently sees the glass as half empty.

There is a difference between problem identification and problem solving.

The former is a never-ending proposition. To the degree it appears to be acumen, analysis or even leadership, it may be good for the short term; but it is often anathema to actual progress. The danger in constantly naming all that is wrong is that this process (or habit) can morph into a perpetual agenda.

On the other hand, those who chart new territory cultivate and nurture a different perspective — opportunistic, tenacious, and glass-at-least-half-full.

Robert F. Kennedy’s famous quote captures the attitude — “Some men see things as they are and say ‘why.’ I dream things that never were, and say ‘why not’.”

Anyone working on the creation or implementation of a strategy — anyone attempting to lead — is familiar with the tug-of-war between “why” and “why not.” The tension is real. Not every opportunity is worthy of resources, much less all out pursuit. Not every misstep warrants the energy and equity of a boisterous Why.

Leadership knows the difference.

Stalemate on every front might be an indication that a vacuum exists — an opportunity for leadership willing to invest in the honest, unselfish pursuit of solution.

We Might As Well Be Speaking A Foreign Language

When it comes to the challenges of communicating — telling a story, marketing a practice, stating a case — old dogs often wear blinders.

Our attempts at conveying a message stem from our personal understanding or experience, utilize the language we’ve always used.

Understandable. After all, we talk about what we care about, and use the vocabulary and tools with which we are most comfortable.

The only problem is those times our efforts fail to connect. Never mind, fail to motivate.

When Words Don’t Work

A friend was talking about the prevalence of a practice she refers to as using the language of the club. As she spoke, I was probably nodding in complete agreement, imagining I knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Every group has one,” she suggested — a lingua franca — a set of words, terms, acronyms and phrases that, over time, morph into a cultural shorthand for everyone in-the-know.

There is an upside when it comes to connecting with members of the club. But the downside is that the language inevitably sneaks into our everyday vocabulary.

As the conversation continued, I kept nodding in agreement. We all know the type; oblivious to evidence that the mark is being missed, a would-be messenger presses on with the awareness of a bull-in-a-china-closet — throwing around his language…telling us why we should buy his story. We’ve all been there.

“We’ve all done it — without respect to whether it builds a bridge or a barrier.”

Uh oh. Now she was getting personal.

I was still nodding; but with less exuberance. The conversation was causing me to think about moments, even among friends, when the topics I choose and the language I use actually limit communication.

Maybe even build barriers.

Multiple times every single day most of us have golden opportunities to build or strengthen the bridge that enables on-going conversation. This is the fabric of relationship — whether in business, or in a personal context.

Eliminate The Club–Speak

Getting the most out of opportunities to connect, not to mention deepening existing relationship, means eliminating the club-speak from our interactions. It isn’t easy; but here are three initial steps:

  • Remember that the best conversations may not revolve around you — even when it comes to business development and sales, productive conversations focus on your target;
  • Listen intentionally — this is how we learn what might actually connect with the target;
  • Whenever possible, eploy the language of the target instead of the language of your club — few things say “I want to connect with you” with more clarity.

But now we’re back to the issue of Old Dogs. Most of us don’t learn quickly, do we?

Almost all of us are most inclined to talk about what we know and care about — what we do, and how we do it. We easily gravitate to our expertise. Our interests. Our causes. Our point of view.

And our language.

Translation: we sound like every other dog on the block.

Far too often, when I have the opportunity to participate in a conversation — albeit with the best of intentions — it is all about me, framed in the language of my club — my experiences, my own personal interests and concerns. As a result, countless opportunities to build a bridge have been lost.

On the other hand, when I consider the best connectors and communicators I know — whether in business or personal relationships — there is one commonality: their ability to connect is based on a relentless focus on what the target audience cares about, and the language necessary to connect with those concerns.

If you see me, I’ll be trying to get the blinders off. And to my friend, thanks for the reminder.

Essential Elements of Business Development Success | Part 2

If business development is causing you sleepless nights, chances are the source of much of that angst is an anemic professional network, or the absence of strategic targets. Or both.

A healthy network connects you to opportunity flow. We discussed this, along with three ways to address challenges associated with “networking” in a post a few days ago.

Today let’s dive a little deeper, and explore how to identify strategic targets — the critical step when it comes to mounting productive proactive pursuits.

Leveraging Your Network

The time and energy you put into building and sustaining a network should never be done in a vacuum. In fact, the more strategic and mature your network, the easier it will be to identify and prioritize targets for purposes of planning a pursuit.

What are the keys to being smart with your business development resources? First, it is important to remember that there are at least three types of targets.

  • Individuals in a position to actually hire you
  • Those (individuals and groups) who will refer / recommend / introduce you
  • Coaches — individuals who can provide insight and intel relevant to the hiring targets you pursue.

The most effective plans — those with the potential to connect you to a consistent stream of work — include all three target types.

Get Organized

Many of us become adept at shying away from this part of the process; but as a practical matter, critical information about the individuals and groups that make up the network you’re building — should be maintained in organized fashion. Successful sales organizations take this seriously, and rely on a database or CRM solution. It’s not sexy or fun. But clean, accurate data is an asset.

Regardless of how you keep your database, you should be able to sort based on the three target-types noted above (or your own customized catagories).

The Targets of Your Attention

With a list of targets sorted by type, you can begin to create an action plan — how and where to invest the time, energy and financial resources necessary for effective pursuit. Here are a few of the criteria that can help you prioritize, and build a target list that maximizes your efforts.

  • Subject matter expertise — targets whose business, issues, and concerns overlap with your area of experience / expertise (or that of someone in your firm);
  • Decision-maker relationship — all other things being equal, investing where you have a direct relationship with an individual empowered to hire you/your firm should take high priority;
  • Consider the arithmetic — do enough homework to know that cost will not end up being an issue when your pursuit is successful;
  • Connect Dots — 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;
  • Personal Affinity — work that touches on areas you care about will almost always help make a pursuit more organic;

Your best targets should spring from the network you’re consistently nurturing. Being smart here helps establish priorities, and provides a structure for action plans — what events to attend, what to write about where to seek speaking engagements, and even when to say no to “opportunities.”

Strategic targeting is essential to business development success because it helps map the shortest distance between where you are today, and a pipeline of the kind of work you seek.

When It Comes To What We Value Most, What We Do Speaks Louder Than Anything We Say

It is not difficult to determine what one cares about most.

Listen to the language used. Factor the tone.

Observe associations (who do I hang with). We almost always invest time doing what we most want to do with individuals whose values we share.

And, in the event there’s still doubt, observe how I talk about, relate to, and treat others when I don’t think you’re watching.

Key Performance Indicators

If we’re wondering about indicators of personal values and trustworthiness (are we really wondering?), here’s a bit of fodder for conversation.

  • If I willfully disrespect a person, whatever the reason, chances are I will disrespect anyone if the circumstance is right. What constitutes disrespect? See the rest of this list.
  • Any time I use a label to characterize an individual, I diminish the value of that human being.
  • When self interest defines behavior (versus acting in the interest of others) — at home, at work, or in any setting — my actions speak louder than any words…and I’ve just told you what is most important to me.
  • If my reason for not helping someone is they won’t appreciate it, or they’re where they are because they’re lazy, or somehow deserve their lot — I have conveniently forgotten the countless helping hands, cups of cold water,  and unconditional gifts I have received — many undeserved.
  • The instant I suggest I am self sufficient — in that moment I belie the fact that my world view is unthinkably narrow. And shallow.
  • If I am willing to betray the trust of one — to my personal benefit, or simply as a matter of convenience — I will betray the trust of anyonefor 30-pieces of silver, or less.

There is no doubt that when one chooses to operate in the interests of others one runs the risk of being taken advantage of. But for anyone who suggests they believe in the power of giving, this misses the point. Reward accrues to the individual extending the hand.

In what I found to be a powerful TED Talk, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said this:

We the people’…says we share collective responsibility for our collective future…and when we move from the politics of ‘me’ to the politics of all of ‘us’ together, we rediscover those beautiful counter-intuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak; that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor; that it becomes invulnerable when it cares for the vulnerable. THAT is what makes great nations.”

The Proverb is often quoted; but is it convenient poetry? Or do we believe it? …It is in giving that we receive.

Two Essential Elements of Business Development Success

We’ve said it before — business development will never be mistaken for rocket science. It isn’t even Algebra I…unless you employ the most basic of formulas — Success = X + Y.

But this isn’t to suggest it is easy.

Strategic business development requires a combination of factors: focus; tasks and activities that are difficult for some; tenacity; and time. And this combination — the “X and Y” if you want to be scientific about it — can prove problematic in many professional service environments, particularly when intense attention is given to the issue only when business is slow — and there is an expectation for results now.

Even so, consultant-speak notwithstanding, business development is not complex. Yet, aside from exceptions that tend to prove the point, many in the professional services sector struggle mightily to formalize a strategy that generates organic growth.

To clarify, this is not a conversation about growth by way of M&A activity; much less, the manipulation of pricing. While these can mask the absence of organic progress (as well as other issues) for a season, that is a separate conversation.

This is about actually generating new work for a practice or a firm that aligns with present capabilities. Strategic organic growth delivers increased revenue, an improved profit margin, and often a measure of cultural stability.

So what does it take to achieve organic business development success?

Let’s stipulate that there are no cookie-cutters. One size never fits every situation, challenge or opportunity; but with that said, it has been my experience that anyone wrestling with where to begin when it comes to developing a practice suffers from at least one of two issues.

  • A network that is too small or anemic;
  • A shortage (or absence) of strategic targets.

Addressing The Network Dilemma

If you have a distaste for what you believe networking means, try to suspend preconceived notions for a moment. Consider that a network is essential because this is your connection to the marketplace, and the mechanism that pushes work your way. The more strategic and robust your network, the more consistent the flow of work.

A professional network can be put together in a number of ways. Good ones consist of multiple types of connections, and are both diverse, and large enough to put you in touch with numerous sectors of a market. The right connections create a pipeline of referrals, recommendations, market intelligence, and of course, contact with individuals making hiring decisions.

Translation — your network is what actually puts you in the right place at the right time to take full advantage of opportunities.

The problem is that networks are about relationships. This is where we bump head-first into the challenge.

While none of us are afraid of the requisite work, it is a rare strategy that defines an investment of time. Pesky realities like hourly quotas, quarterly reports and annual budgets tend to take precedent over the time necessary for organic greowth — nevermind having to juggle work you may already have on your desk. And business development initiatives tend to get buried under other priorities.

Without exception, successful business development plans meet this challenge by doing three things:

  1. Leverage time and business development resources by identifying the right relationships in which to invest. This means knowing where your target market hangs out, what they read, what they care about, and what they invest time in — and this knowledge becomes your roadmap for where to speak, what to write about, what organizations to join, and where to lend your support.
  2. Create sustained visibilitiy in pursuit of dialogue. The oft overlooked focus here is the word sustained — one-off or infrequent visibility is of little value. And if your efforts don’t point toward dialogue, you’re not on the path to relationship.
  3. Find multiple ways to deliver value (as defined by the target). The richer the dialogue (see #2), the easier you’ll find it to identify what your target values. Delivering real value is the single surest way to differentiate your efforts from those of the competition, and expedite the creation of a relationship.

Where To From Here?

Step one is to take stock of your network — your contact database, those business cards scattered in your desk drawer, the roster of attendees at that last association meeting you attended.

To what degree do the business development activities in which you’re investing actually connect you to a cross section of your target market?

If anemic, the task is to invest in growth. (You should always have an eye on opportunities to expand your connections to your market.) If large and diverse, the first phase of your plan is to identify the specific ways you can create visibility, deliver value, and instigate dialogue.

The relationships that spring from a healthy network are going to help you identify a handful of strategic pursuit targets. And we’ll focus on this second essential element next week.

3 Keys To Business Development Conversations That Don’t Sound Like The Same Old Bull

Honest dialogue can change things fast. It creates connections, seeds ideas, and is the critical thread in the fabric of relationship. It is about seeking to understand.

The fact that dialogue doesn’t come easy is one reason relationships are so difficult. Self-interest, posturing, and the need to be certain we make our case tend to frame much of what masquerades as conversation — in both the personal and professional context.

Then there is the fact that many pitch/presentation/proposal/business development conversations sound just like the one presented yesterday…and the one that will come tomorrow — seeming interchanble — deep experience, proven capability, blah, blah, blah.

And changing nothing.

But when it comes to business development, better conversations and on-going dialogue are differentiators.

So here are 3 ideas that, if implemented, will change the tone of any conversation.

1. Practice an “Intentional Listening” mindset.

This is listening with the intent to learn, versus an approach rooted in convincing, converting, selling or winning.

Some might argue that this is at odds with the process of business development and sales. Not so. The shortest path to new business is to connect with the concerns of your target. And the quickest way to identify these concerns is to listen far more than you talk. Think 4 or 5 to 1 if you need a benchmark. (This is why client interviews are so valuable — it’s an opportunity for the client to be heard.)

2. Know your Target’s story.

This is closely aligned with intentional listening. It encompasses listening to the data, diving into the research, understanding the industry and having an idea of the challenges of the specific business. The conversation (or pitch) that focuses on your qualifications and capabilities sounds like the pitch of every other provider in the marketplace.

On the other hand, ask the right questions — instigate a deep dive into the issues that matter most to your Target — and you’re on the road to productive dialogue. There are no cookie-cutters; but here are three ideas around questions that touch on what might be top-of-mind for your prospect.

  • What are the greatest roadblocks to success in the near term?
  • What does success over the next three to five years look like?
  • What one or two issues would you most like to see disappear?

3. Build a bridge to the next conversation.

In a quality relationship the next conversation can seem to pick up right where the last one ended. The best conversations are part of an on-going dialogue. Almost everyone experiences this at a personal level.

When it comes to business relationships, try approaching every conversation with the goal of building a bridge to the next.

The best business you develop — the business that is most rewarding and most likely to endure — will come in the context of great relationships. And quality relationships are the by-product of better conversations.

How Rainmakers End Up In The Right Place At The Right Time

Confused Businessman Looking At Arrows Pointing In Different DirectionsRainmakers seem to have an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. How do they pull this off?

In fact, it is far from happenstance. The epitome of strategic business development and marketing is increasingly about executing a plan that connects with those most likely to influence or execute a buying decision.

What is the makeup of such a strategy? What are those individuals and teams doing that repeatedly creates a timely intersection with opportunity?

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

1. Identify A Target

Consistently being in the right place begins with smart targeting — knowing specifically with whom you want to connect, and the role each target plays in the development of your professional network.

Strategic targets fall into four categories.

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

One additional note about target identification — it is about naming names. Industry segments, companies and broad general descriptions don’t count. A strategic target is an individual with whom you can build a professional relationship. And that individual has a name. If you’re having difficulty with target identification, this is a signal that your network needs some attention.

2. Learn What Your Target Cares About

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

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

What concerns your targets most? What will determined success? What hinders productivity? What keeps them up at night?

An understanding of the industry or sub-industry coupled with business intelligence that identifies the challenges and opportunities being faced by your target will help shape efforts to connect and communicate.

3. Plan Strategic Visibility

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

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

Make visibility more than the dispensing of content by incorporating collaborative opportunities. Sharing the podium, participating on a panel, or even white-board brainstorming. Interviews and focus groups offer opportunities to listen carefully…and communicate volumes about what it is like to work with you.

4. Build Equity

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

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

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

5. Give It Time

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

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

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

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