The weekly news digest The Week has a regular column called Boring but Important. For many consultancies the task of finding new clients outside the relatively cosy world of networked referrals falls under a similar heading.
But the importance of communicating with all of your potential new customers systematically, and from scratch if necessary, is a must-do activity. This can be referred to as ‘cold’ prospecting.
Many consultancies will be thinking about this as we launch into the New Year, while facing up to the sobering reality that if you don’t maintain pro-active dialogue with companies potentially well-matched to your services, you won’t grow new revenue streams efficiently. Not talking regularly with key prospects is like driving your business with the handbrake on and will leave you exposed if you lose major accounts.
Having no dialogue means you won’t benefit from keeping apace with the ever-changing matrix of clients’ issues and agendas, which your business proposition must address continually or become outdated by.
Bearing this in mind, what can you do to improve your chances with potential clients?
In my experience the most critical asset is a progressive mindset and consultancies should also take a measured dose of reality in two key areas:
First, a passionate corporate self-image can turn into a bunker mentality and isolate you from decision-makers who may not be paying as much attention to your company as you’d like. The reality in my experience is that very few really know (care) who you are and what you do, unless you’re actually in a working relationship together. The only way to counter this is to engage people regularly, understand their issues and match your offer to them. In this way you can make yourself more relevant and, therefore, more valuable to them.
Second, you’re never as different as you think you are. To the ears of most prospects, everyone claims they do more or less the same thing (irrespective of whether they can deliver in practice), so you should work hard to make your message as specific as possible.
Most consultancies fail to take this seriously enough. Matching your message(s) to the precise issues at each target company is the only commercially viable route to take, but it requires focus and clarity.
You should ask all relevant people in your organisation to approach cold prospecting with the same imagination and commitment as they would for an important client. Cold prospecting activity is about opportunity not cost, and there should be put in place a long-term plan with adequate resources. Again, just as with client work, don’t cut corners. A weak link in the chain will undermine the entire process.
To build the most effective business prospecting programme you need to insist on best practice for each component involved to gain a ‘sum of the parts’ result. Also, training is important if you’re going to best manage it in-house. Many consultancies, with some notable exceptions, have neglected taking such a systematic approach.
The problems of this for the business don’t show up as much in the good times, but when things take a downturn they become very obvious and a cold prospecting platform is often then hastily, but wastefully cobbled together. Ideally, this discipline should be managed in the background 365 days a year and throughout the entire life of the business.
In terms of key practical steps, matching your business proposition to its most fertile audience is paramount and you need to make a detailed targeting model based on your particular business plan in order to achieve this. Every consultancy has unique aspects to its offering and the most fruitful sector or territory for one consultancy will be a complete waste of time for another. This evolves over time so you must use this targeting exercise frequently in order to establish the best contact strategy for each and every one of your prospective client targets.
Admittedly, it’s no easy thing for new business and marketing directors to accomplish a perfect cold prospecting platform. This is mainly due to time constraints. Prospecting inevitably takes second place when a pitch comes along. However, it is also due to the variable quality of the different components that make it all up.
If you take from the following menu: good data, ideas for selling tools and collateral, language skills, press analysis, co-ordination with other marketing activity (for example PR and events), training, organically developing messages and the actual ability of the prospectors themselves, you have quite a lot that can fall down.
A progressive new business programme which adopts effective cold prospecting will integrate nicely into most consultancies’ marketing mix. By extending some control over your audience and your scope for talking to them you can take the destiny of your business into your own hands.