A common problem many professional firms face is overly relying on only one approach to business development. They focus all their efforts on word-of-mouth & referrals, or on networking, or on responding to tenders/RFPs. Typically, the basket they keep all their eggs in is the one they are the most comfortable with: it's worked for them before, they have the skills to do it, and it doesn't push them outside their comfort zone.
This works fine when times are good and there's plenty of work for everyone. But in tougher times, if that one source dries up, they are left stranded.
I advise my clients to run a portfolio of different approaches. I usually get them to focus on four very different areas:
- Current Clients: investing in “superpleasing” their highest potential current clients to secure their business, win expansion and extension projects, and get referrals to new clients. Typically this area uses the approaches of Client Relationship Management and Key Account Management.
- High Probability Potential Clients: targeting 3-5 named companies which meet their core targeting criteria (size, industry/sector, geography, leadership, cultural fit, etc.) and where they have a good chance of winning business (e.g. an ex-client, previous/current contact, a good opportunity for a referral in). Typically, personal approaches are used: direct contact where there is a pre-established relationship, referrals where there aren't.
- Ideal Potential Clients: targeting 3-5 named companies who meet all targeting criteria and would be the absolute perfect clients – but where there are no immediate entry routes to establish a relationship. Typically, longer-term relationship building approaches need to be used: for example searching for and courting potential referrers, running a targeted mail campaign sending selected articles and research, offering to run a free seminar for a client organisation.
- “Bluebirds”: these are clients who are won unexpectedly rather than being directly targeted. How can you win these sort of clients? By having a channel or approach aimed at getting visible to a broad set of potential clients. For example: public speaking at events with a high preponderance of target clients, running a seminar at a large client industry event, optimising your website for keywords frequently used by target clients. The key here is to use approaches which give access to a broad set of potential clients (rather than the more focused approaches discussed earlier which narrow down to a few specific clients – but with a higher probability of success with each one).
Focusing first on current clients is common sense, and should be a core part of any business development strategy. After that, adopting a portfolio strategy like this balances out the short-term potential of the High Probability Potential Clients with the long-term higher gain of the Ideal Potential Clients – while still keeping the possibilities open for serendipitous new business through the use of a “bluebird” channel.
Larger firms with more business development time & resources available can adapt this strategy by increasing the number of Current, High Probability and Ideal Potential Clients targeted – and adding an extra “bluebird” channel.
My advice for most firms though is to always add resources in that order. For many professionals, the “bluebird” channels (e.g. web, speaking, articles) are seductive ones as they offer the hope of attractive new clients without the challenge of personally engaging in the process. Resist the urge to focus too much effort on these channels – the big payoffs are usually in the more targeted, personal approaches.
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