Photo by Dean Moriarty
Trying to figure out who the best prospects to target can be one of the most challenging parts of business development. We can spend years courting promising clients only to scratch our heads wondering why they never hire us. We wine and dine them, provide free advice, remain diligent in staying in regular contact, yet generate little if any business from them.
So, what is it that prevents them from engaging us?
One of the most common reasons I see is that professionals don’t learn enough about their prospects to determine if they are the right prospects. They may think they are going through the proper motions to build a new client, yet they are doing it blindly. It is like flying a plane without instruments. You may still get from point A to point B, but with the proper flight information, the chances of reaching your destination safely and accurately are much higher.
By following the 80/20 rule (80% listening / 20% talking) in business development meetings, one can learn critical information about their prospects that can either lead to a more promising client relationship or save potentially wasted time. The challenge most professionals have is what to ask.
The standard questions are “What cases are you working on?”, or “Who do you typically hire for outside help?”. I am being generous by stating the second question. Often professionals don’t think to ask that.
To build a strong base of clients, we need to get past the basic questions.
I heard a GC once say, “why outside counsel does not inquire about my team is beyond me.” I had to smile when I heard that because he is right. Knowing how large his internal team is, what their internal capabilities are, and for what type of work they bring in outside help can tell us a lot about whether he will hire us, and if so, how large the opportunities may be.
Let’s look at some additional information you can gather from your prospects to give you more clarity on who to target and also put you in a better position to win the work.
An often overlooked question is “What are your criteria when hiring outside counsel / consultants?” If their criteria do not align with what you can offer, you might be courting the wrong prospect. If you can offer what they are looking for, then you now know what to focus on in your verbal and written proposals.
Another commonly forgotten question is “Who are the key decision-makers that decide who to hire for outside help?” This question is typically not asked because we want to believe that our main contact has the power to choose outside providers on his/her own. One of the most disheartening things to hear from this contact is “I pitched you to my other two colleagues who are also in charge of selecting an outside firm, and they decided to go with someone else.” Ugh! Shame on us for not asking the question prior to submitting the proposal. More importantly, we need to learn who the key decision-makers are early in the relationship to give us time to get to know the others before a proposal request is submitted.
Learning about our contacts and their business helps us navigate who the more viable contacts are and how to put us in a better position to win work. Let’s also not forget to learn about them on a personal level. Understanding what is important to them outside of work will not only help us identify common interests and build a trusting relationship, but it will give us an opportunity to stay top of mind without coming across too salesy.
One of my favorite questions to ask is “What do you enjoy doing outside of work?” This simple question can open a wonderful conversation and potentially take the relationship to a deeper level. You might be able to identify common interests for the two of you to enjoy. More importantly, learning simple things such as hobbies, activities, sports teams, and family dynamics that keep them occupied will give you more ideas on how to stay in regular contact with them.
I am a firm believer that knowledge is king to conducting business development effectively. Every time you meet with a business contact, try your best to learn something new about them. Whether it is professional or personal, the more you know about your contacts, the quicker you develop trusting relationships, put yourself in a better position to win work, and prioritize your precious BD time courting the right prospects.