I remember this like it was yesterday. In early 2009, I was speaking at a conference of design and technical professionals – my focus on charting a path to business success in the deepening recession. Faces in that audience remain etched in my mind – their look of anxiety, lost confidence, shock, paralysis. No one knew what would come next, how to respond, or what to do. It was (particularly for firms on the front-end of design) a moment of epic uncertainty.
Then, near the end of my remarks, an attendee rose with a comment: “I get what you’re saying here about the need to contact clients, but frankly I just don’t know what to say.” My response then, “well, just say that.” In most cases, I suggested, when you don’t know what to say to clients, then tell them you don’t know what to say. Usually this is exactly what’s needed. We really don’t expect answers to tough questions, at least not in the moment. What we want is for others to show up. To make a connection. To share and empathize – and feel.
Many professionals, valued for their ideas, expertise, and experience, are reluctant to say that they don’t know or have never seen this before. Much better to hide away a while to think, to ponder the issue or challenge at hand, and to wait until a solution appears. In the meantime, radio silence will have to do – sorry, she’s “gone thinking.” In this moment we risk losing the primary value of a relationship – not an answer, but a connection.
Now, it’s the summer of 2020, and here we are. Unfortunately, we are yet again thrust into another moment of epic change and disruption (though we may harbor hopes of a quicker rebound this time). But today, right now, it is nearly impossible to guess what will happen next year, six months from now – or perhaps even next week. And again we’re asking ourselves – what is that we should be saying, and asking of, our clients and customers in the business.
Let me empathically say that I believe we have an extraordinary opportunity – a golden chance to capture real competitive advantage. Why? Because so few others will seize this moment and act. [Remember that success in business (and in life) often comes through doing work that others avoid, doing the things you do differently, and showing up when others won’t.]
But what exactly is it that we should do, right now? In my view, the list of possible initiatives is endless. More discussion and debate would surely be helpful. And some ideas are relevant to many firms, while some are quite specific to yours. More work to do.
That said, here are eight thoughts, two each from the four sides of our Business Development Diamond – describing comprehensively the business development system:
With Prospects (Sales):
We all had projects, proposals, and prospects of various types in the pipeline in early spring. Some of these initiatives were unaffected by the shutdown, others were delayed, and some were cancelled. Some may come back later, but some will likely not – at least in their current form. And lots and lots opportunities have simply stalled, caught up in the limbo of our world today – not ready, not sure, not yet.
During this period, two specific actions have worked well for me – and they’re at opposite ends of things. For some projects, I’ve actively argued for charging ahead as originally planned, the work more relevant and important because of the disruption and changing conditions. Some of these proposed engagements have required a modification to the original approach. On the other hand, I have in other situations actively advised the client to pull back, change, or stop a proposed project (in one instance we’d just agreed to the work a couple of weeks earlier). In many of these ‘let’s wait’ situations, I’ve proposed an alternative effort to replace the original – not that, but this.
Key point here: be pro-active, take action, lead. Reach out for all clients where you have anything pending – projects, proposals, opportunities, ideas – and let them know you’re there, still in the game, still thinking, working for their welfare. If postponing a project now is in the client’s interest, then do it. Just don’t sit on the sidelines, waiting for someone else to decide.
With Projects (Experience):
You know this, but I’ll say it anyway: the marketing effort doesn’t end when you win the work. In fact, what we do – and how the client experiences what we do – provides an exceptional opportunity to build and strengthen client loyalty. Further, this client experience may be the best opportunity for true brand differentiation in the entire business. I’m not talking about that age-old saw that says, “the work will sell itself,” with which I decidedly disagree. Instead, I mean this: executing the work well (quality project and solutions delivery) – along with an amazing client experience in the process – yea, that will sell itself. Most professionals understand that their business is about relationships; but not enough of them (yet) work hard enough (yet) to ‘sell’ their delivery experience to those relationships. [For more information about the power of client experience, check out our friends at Client Savvy – www.clientsavvy.com. ]
So, what is it we can (and should) do differently, now? First, recognize that what’s truly different today is not that we’re all on Zoom or Teams, rather than over at the local cantina. Here’s what matters: some, but not all have more time on their hands; most have much higher levels of stress and anxiety; change and disruption causes us to reflect and ask why; questioning things leads to more change; and empathy is king, because we’re all caught up in this together.
Here are two, pretty straightforward thoughts: first, show up, and show up more often. More calls. More touches. More deliberately. It’s time to admit that ‘Hey, you wanna go to lunch?’ wasn’t worth much anyway (except for the eating). It’s harder now to share a meal (or a round of golf), so how about we bring something even more valuable to the party: our time, attention, and ideas. Do more, add more, make the extra pass. Show up.
Second, care more. Do something special, and unexpected. Send a handwritten note (warning, you’ll need to find the post office), or an article link, or a valuable book, or a small but personal gift. Demonstrate that you care, and that you’re thankful, for the work and the connection. [I’ve just sent off this week a gift to a colleague who played a central role recently in my winning a big project. I looked for something unique, special, and tailored. I don’t drink alcohol anymore, so I’m going to miss enjoying this with him. ]. Care more – more than you have to.
[Alright, too much here! So let’s pause now and pick it up next week. Then, I’ll add my ideas covering the remaining two phases – reinvigorating inactive client relationships, and new, proactive and permission-based marketing.]