Blow your own trumpet

Conventional strategies for bringing in new business aggravate rather than attract clients. Better to work on your social skills, says Adrian Shaughnessy

New business: these are arguably the two most important words in a design consultancy’s vocabulary. You can use other terminology. You can call it ‘business development’, ‘marketing’ or ‘sales’, but ‘new-business’ has that Ronseal directness that focuses the mind. It means getting new work through your door.

What’s the best way to sell design? Is it wise to try to sell it like any other business-sector service? Or is design inimical to conventional sales techniques? While we’re on the subject, I wonder if it’s feasible today for any business-sector services to be sold successfully using conventional sales tactics. Consumers seem increasingly resistant to modern selling strategies. Cold calling, most forms of direct mail and the ubiquitous spam are imprecise, intrusive and wasteful. Just ask anyone who has had a call at home at 8pm selling double-glazing or financial services, or has had to clear out thickets of unwanted e-mails. And if the general public doesn’t like these tactics, we can be sure they won’t be any more popular in the professional sector. In the context of selling design, most sales activities have the effect of saying ‘I’m desperate’.

But if you’re the new business person in a consultancy, you have to get new work through the door. Even when business is buoyant this is never an easy job. And it’s especially difficult today, when the buyer is nearly always king, competition has reached new peaks of intensity, and new business success is measured not by the number of jobs won, but by the number of pitch lists you can get on.

If you’re responsible for new-business in a big, well-upholstered design group you will have the funds to use all the latest sales and marketing strategies. You will be hip to current CRM thinking. You will operate a sophisticated, turbo-charged database. Your bedtime reading will be fierce-looking documents with titles like ‘Customer Value Maximisation’. You will host seminars, give lectures, publish research, get written about in The Economist and maintain an ultra-slick website.

The rest of us have to rely on less sophisticated methods. We might have a brochure and a modest website. We send out e-mail newsletters, and every so often we send out an eye-catching mailshot. We enter design competitions in the hope of being able to append the words ‘award-winning’ to our name. We send work to the design press in order to attract media attention. And occasionally we spruce up our portfolio and call existing or potential clients and ask them if we can show them our latest work.

Occasionally, just occasionally, these tactics succeed. But regardless of our best efforts, most sales activity relating to design is close to worthless. My bet is that a huge proportion of new business opportunities for design are created in one of two ways: the first is via word of mouth, and the second via random encounters in the business and social nexus that most of us live in. In other words, we get most of our work from people who’ve heard good things about us, and from networking.

Now, I’m not advocating a ‘do nothing’ policy here. What I am saying, however, is that the secret of new business is to persuade clients to call us. A call from a potential client with a nice project and a bit of cash to spend is the multiple orgasm of new-business. But how do we attract those calls? Well, by doing great work all the time, which gets people talking, and by shamelessly exploiting the chemistry of human relationships.

I know of consultancies that don’t do ‘new-business’: no portfolio, no website, no slick brochure. Yet they have clients queueing up to commission them. They rely purely on their reputation to generate new business. But this policy won’t work for everyone. For most of us, new business is a never-ending slog and we try anything and everything.

My recommendation is that you give everyone in your consultancy a second job description. By adding ‘new business’ to everyone’s job title you remind people that no matter what their job is, they also have a business-generating role. It starts with the receptionist, and goes all the way though to the directors. Even suppliers and professional advisers can be harnessed in your resourceful drive to bring in new business; treat them right and they become powerful advocates of your company. Then just sit back and wait for the phone to ring. The first call will be from someone selling corporate hospitality, but the next one…

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