A client called me recently to tell me he had been promoted. That was the good news. The bad news was that his phone had stopped ringing and his calendar was emptying out. Prior to his promotion, he had worked extensively with a senior professional in his firm, and had led most of the execution of the actual work which his colleague had sold. His firm had reshuffled relationship responsibilities, and he was now being asked to develop business with a group of new clients, most of whom did not know him from Adam. He was, in effect, leaving behind some very senior-level client relationships—albeit as the number 2 from his firm—and facing the challenge of building new ones.
This is not an untypical situation as we progress in our careers, especially in a large firm. Let’s look at the various strategies you have at your disposal to face my client’s challenge. With a systematic approach, success here is nearly assured.
- Leverage your current relationships to create new ones.
The most powerful introduction to a client who does not know you comes from one who does know you and the quality of your work. You need to make a list of every current or past client whom you believe could provide a referral and who may have a connection into one of the new clients you would like to meet with. After all, you’ve done great work for these clients at a very senior level—they should be quite comfortable connecting you to someone they already know. Systematically contact each one of them, and set up a meeting. Spontaneous word-of-mouth referrals do happen, but if you ask you’ll get 5 times as many as you will just waiting and doing nothing. [PS: the professionals who excel at getting referrals often mention this at the very start of the relationship: e.g., “My practice is based mostly on word-of-mouth, and in a year—assuming your are as delighted with our work as my other clients are—I will probably ask you for an introduction to someone who could similarly benefit from our approach…”]
- Offer your clients a fresh perspective on your sector or practice area.
Take a deep dive and invest some serious time on this. Interview key internal and external players to build up a fresh perspective that you can use to create demand for meetings and provide you with interesting talking points. Don’t send out some big document or research report– clients get more written reports than they can handle on any given day. Give them a teaser in an email, phone call, or letter, and then use the point of view you’ve developed to create a dynamic face-to-face meeting. One of the fundamental principles of effective salesmanship is curiosity. You need something that is evocative or controversial that will evoke your clients’ interest in having a meeting in the first place. Surveys can be an excellent way to gather this type of data, and the sample size doesn’t have to be as large as you think to be credible—quite a few business books have been written based on just 25 or 30 executive interviews.
- Use the your firm’s network to get both advice and introductions.
If you work for a firm that has multiple offices, practices, industry groups, or product areas, you have an untapped resource at your disposal. It is highly likely that someone else at your firm knows the executives you would like to build a relationship with—or, at least, they may know someone at the company who can be a coach to you and/or make other, subsequent introductions. Identify others whose own networks encompass one or more of the clients you want to get to know. Also, get advice, selectively, from your senior people. If they don’t have a direct contact themselves, they may know another client who does. Be focused in your approach, and make it clear you’ve done your homework both about the companies and potential messages you might bring them: Go to a few of your most experienced, senior, client-facing executives, and ask: “There are two particular companies that I’m trying to build a relationship with…I’ve looked at several potential entry strategies, but hit a dead end. Any thoughts? What’s worked for you in this type of situation? Who in our network do you think could help me?”
- Find a coach.
You many not be able to reach, on your first try, the executive you want to meet. A coach can help introduce you to the right people at the client, enable you to understand who’s who in the organization, and generally advise you in developing and growing a relationship. A coach could be a lower-level professional, a former executive of the company, a board member who has had a good experience with your firm in the past, or (as in 3) a colleague in your firm who already knows the organization. Always find yourself a coach.
- Identify these clients’ “watering holes.”
This is a classic although somewhat longer-term strategy. Where do these clients congregate? What do they read? How do they spend their time outside of work? Nowadays, there are so many specialized media and forums that it may well be possible to narrowly target some conferences, events, and publications that will allow you to meet these prospective clients.
- Segment and prioritize.
You cannot go after 10 or 20 clients at once, so you need to set priorities. Do some of them have strong, pre-existing relationships with one or more of your competitors, making it difficult or impossible to break in? Is there a conflict or dissatisfaction that will give you an entry? Would it make sense to first talk to the mid- or smaller-capitalization companies on your list, versus the largest ones? Which ones are geographically close to you? Which ones are going through turmoil caused by declining profits, competitive incursions, price competition, reorganization, or other events? Which of these clients is most ideal for you and your firm, given what you can offer? You might want to identify 3 groups, and go after them in phases.
- Be different and memorable in your approach to these clients.
A plain-vanilla letter asking for a meeting to become acquainted with you and your firm is not likely to get a lot of attention or interest from a busy top executive or CEO. Nor will sending a brochure—clients receive hundreds of these each year, and they all look similar. The same goes for a letter which says you “just got promoted and wanted to meet”…or that your boss is in town and you would like to get together with him. If you send a letter, it needs to have a pretty strong “hook”—something that will really get the recipient’s attention. I prefer leading with some very solid content, the offer of value-added ideas—but novelty approaches, if used judiciously, can work from time to time. A client of mine got the attention of Southwest Airlines former CEO and founder Herb Kelleher by having one of their associates run around in front of Southwest’s headquarters building wearing a wild turkey suit (Kelleher’s favorite bourbon, apparently). Others have sent letters in a box also containing a wastecan with their company’s logo on the side, and a line in the letter which read, “I know you probably put most unsolicited correspondence like this in the trash, so just in case, this letter comes with its own wastebin. That said, we believe that a brief meeting to discuss…” While these more outlandish approaches may not appeal to you, the basic principle is the same: Evoke your prospective client’s curiosity and get his or her attention. Of course, if you employ points 1 and 3, above, you won’t need to be quite so creative—you’ll already have a warmed up introduction.
So keep in mind the hierarchy of ways to get to know a new client executive, from (approximately) best to merely good:
A referral from a current or past client
A referral from another respected party (e.g., a law or accounting firm that also works with the client)
Renown from an article, interview, book, or speech. “I heard you talk at the ABC conference last month and wanted to speak with you…”
An introduction from a colleague in your firm who already has a strong relationship with the executive you want to meet
An introduction that occurs when a client sees you working in a related setting (e.g., you are a lawyer or banker involved on the other side of that client’s transaction), and the client is impressed with your ability and professionalism
A passive reference (e.g., a letter of reference, permission to give out someone’s name, etc.)
A personal introduction in another setting—eg, a non-profit cause, a social event, etc. (this is a terrific way to become connected, but it is takes longer to develop)
An unusual or curiosity-evoking approach: For example:
You get yourself seated next to the executive on an airplane flight
You send a letter which sets out a contrarian view that you think will intrigue the client
You offer to share some really interesting research
A letter or phone call asking for a meeting to get to know each other or exchange ideas (while you’re at it, light a candle—you’ll probably need it!).
In order to capitalize on any meetings you do set up, you need to (a) ask provocative, interesting questions that help uncover a client’s most urgent issues; (b) bring some ideas or perspectives to the client that he/she will find useful and thought-provoking; and (c) ensure that you get a second meeting after the first meeting—that you create some kind of “advance” so that there is a follow up action or next step!