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 and 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.
My suggestion to clients is to protect against this by always having multiple approaches to win new clients. In particular, I suggest they focus on 4 types of client:
1. 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.
2. High Probability Potential Clients: targeting 3-5 specific companies which meet the core criteria for being a good client ( in terms of their size, sector, location, leadership, cultural fit, etc.) and where they have the relationships already in place to stand a good chance of winning work. For example, an ex client, or a contact that’s been nurtured over recent months. Typically, this will require the use of personal approaches are used: direct contact when there is a pre-established relationship, referrals when there isn’t.
3. 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.
4. “Bluebirds”: these are clients who are not directly targeted, but who “drop in your lap”. Of course, they don’t drop in your lap randomly. You need to be out and visible to these sorts 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.
Medium and larger firms can afford to invest more heavily and have more people involved, allowing them to aim for larger numbers of named clients in each category, or perhaps an extra “bluebird” channel.
My advice, however, is to focus first on the targeted channels. Bluebird channels can be very seductive. They always involve interesting activities rather than grinding out results from pre-existing relationships. But in reality, it’s your pre-existing relationships that are the ones most likely to have a high payoff.