You’ve probably heard some variation of the joke where a significant other, weary of repeatedly being asked to profess love, announces “I’ve told you that I love you. I’ll let you know when and if that changes.”

Humorous to some…maybe. But I doubt this is an effective relationship strategy.

Yet, in many ways this captures the way we approach the relationships we seek to cultivate through our business development efforts — announce bona fides, make our pitch (sort of)…and then wait for the phone to ring.

It is conceivable that in a market long gone, this approach might have worked . Maybe. When things were less crowded and less competitive…when a business could be built on a handshake. Maybe.

Today anyone hoping to win the trust of a potential client with a couple of emails, a pitch that is little more than the “we-hire-the-best-people-and-do-the-best work” presentation being made by everybody else, is likely to struggle mightily for any market share.

For the professional service provider seeking trusted advisor status, rewarding business development seeks to create a working relationship with a prospect.

Joking aside, in any other context we understand that productive relationships are not built overnight. They require focus and attention. Yet, we continue to see professional service providers go to the marketplace announcing a case for a working relationship…and then walk away believing their business development work is done.

This disconnect brings us to the sixth in our series on Building A Business Development Plan — a component that most planning efforts simply overlook — sustaining the pursuit.

You may excel at everything we’ve discussed up to this point — you have a solid strategic foundation, have identified specific targets, tended to the health of your professional network, created visibility and delivered value via your initial marketing and BD. But unless you sustain the value of these efforts over time, your biz dev initiative is likely to come up short. It certainly isn’t going to provide maximum return on your investment.

The Sustain Principle

This phase of the planning process addresses the value to be derived by leveraging the time and energy invested thus far. Put another way, this is about focusing on ways in which you can build on your initial efforts. Specifically, this portion of your planning should focus on activities that:

  • Sustain and enhance your detecting efforts;
  • Increase your target’s awareness of your relevance in the marketplace; and,
  • Continue to make valuable contributions to your target.

The difference between rainmakers and those who continually find themselves as the runner-up, is often the difference between a series of one-off so-called campaigns, compared to the focus necessary to sustain strategic efforts in these three areas. So here’s a quick look at each.

Detecting (After The Thrill Is Gone)

The fact is that if you don’t love business development, maintaining focus on a single target for an extended period of time does not come easy. It is tempting to spot an area of potential need, and rush in with a pitch. It’s one thing if the need relates to a burning platform of some type; but trusted advisor status is most often earned in the context of building and maintaining a working relationship.

And a working relationship takes time to develop.

Practically speaking, this means your business development plan must include a sustained focus on your role as a detector (as discussed in Part 5) — of influential relationships, consequential market or organizational movements, and ways in which the experience you, your firm and/or your connections possess might prove relevant to a working relationship with your target.

Ideally, thanks to the work you began earlier in your pursuit, you’ll have a methodology and even an infrastructure in place for this detecting effort. It will build around industry, market, company and executive research.

To leverage your time, find regular ways to tap the information and skillsets of your business development and research team as well as your coaching network.

Staying plugged into this detecting role is critical to sustaining meaningful visibility and building a solution that is relevant and resonates with your target. It is, as much as anything else, a mindset — a determination to listen, learn and digest everything you can find about your target. This is the lifeblood of a successful pursuit.

Creating Increased Awareness

A frequent question from professional service providers goes like this: “How often should I reach out to a target? When does it begin to feel like stalking, or get creepy?”

A bit more conversation often reveals that this line of questioning is closely associated with the “I sent them an email with links to our website, and I’ve been watching (fill-in-the-industry-monitoring-service)” approach to client development.

We’ve all been on the receiving end of those once-a-week (or worse) telemarketer calls. And daily marketing emails are not typically the path to a productive professional service engagement.

But neither does meeting at a conference, sending a generic email and (sort of) maintaining a website bio usually lay the foundation for a strong relationship. It is certainly not the recipe for making it rain.

So how does one maintain visibility without stalking? First, let’s stipulate that writing those big sponsorship checks might work. Might. The more every competitor in the market is writing the same check, the less likely it is anyone but the one writing the largest check will create any meaningful awareness.

A more strategic approach begins with the step noted above — doing the work related to detecting. The more you know and understand here, the easier it should be to decide when and where to plug in. Unless your budget is not a concern, you’re gong to want to find a strategic way to respond to these “opportunities.”

Without respect to the check you might write, personal involvement speaks volumes. A good coaching network can be the key to identifying the organization(s) in which you should become involved — professional, charitable, and even at the personal level. Identify a shared interest and not only will it will be much easier to maintain visibility, you’ll have an opportunity to collaborate in pursuit of a common goal…giving your target a taste of what it is like to work with you.

A visibility calendar can include a wide-ranging menu of items from which to choose — from holiday greetings and firm “alerts” to personal good wishes or congratulatory notes; from unique “VIP” events to an invitation to speak to your firm’s relevant industry group; from distribution of your thought leadership to strategic requests for the thought leadership of your target. The list is limited only by the creativity you and your marketing/business development team bring to the task.

And yes, it is conceivable that an ad or sponsorship might have a place here. But unless you’re prepared to spend at least 5-figures, don’t count on moving the visibility needle with these conventional tools. 

Deliver Value (yes, more)

In Part 5 we explore ways in which a business development pursuit should actually deliver value. And, at the risk of being that preverbal broken record, your work as a detector should informing not only your early pursuit efforts, but ways in which to keep the value coming. (If it is not, consider two possibilities: one, your detecting focus needs some work; and/or two, this may not be a good primary target.)

The more mature your pursuit, the more likely the awareness and visibility efforts discussed above will present opportunities to deliver measurable value.

At the same time, high level strategic targets warrant a specific focus on unique issues. Whether industry, market or company specific, the degree to which you are aware of and able to address consequential movement is the degree to which you will begin to differentiate yourself from the competition.

It is not unusual for professionals to fear that a) they might be giving too much away (or even revealing proprietary secrets); or b) the value offered may create professional liability. These are clearly concerns that must be addressed; however, where issues of liability can be managed, activities that provide real value almost always serve to change the business development conversation.

Somewhat predictable value offerings include continuing professional education curricula, white papers, and even research projects. One accounting firm we’ve worked with focuses on “whiteboard collaboration sessions” in which service provider and target jointly explore the creation of a solution to a pressing issue.

Once again, the more mature a pursuit, the more likely you will find ways to collaborate with your target…providing a glimpse of what a working relationship with you/your firm actually consists of. In a highly competitive marketplace, the return on an investment in this “give-a-glimpse” strategy can dwarf the return on every other marketing or business development tactic.

How Long Do You Keep This Up?

Some professional service organizations have been tracking strategic business development efforts for long enough to be able to project the duration — from target identification to winning or losing — of a pursuit. This experience helps with budget forecasts, and provides a basis for the realistic evaluation of ROI. 

For those just beginning to explore the science, the pursuit of a wholly new working relationship will require a significant amount of time. We suggest planning for eighteen to thirty-six months. In fortunate situations where a relationship predates a pursuit, the sales cycle can be considerably shorter. in any case, building and strengthening a working relationship requires much more than identifying a prospect and making a pitch.

Rainmakers build working relationships by sustaining the activities that create visibility and deliver value to highly valued targets.

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Eric Fletcher

With more than twenty-five years of experience, spanning broadcasting, advertising, marketing and professional services business development, Eric Fletcher is a seasoned connector — of ideas, people and strategic growth-oriented solutions. For the past fifteen years he has managed and directed teams focused on targeted business development and client service in the legal industry. Today he heads the marketing and business development efforts for Liskow & Lewis, and resides in New Orleans. Opinions expressed in Marketing Bran Fodder are his own.