How to Win a Client in 10 Days (Part I)
Despite the press announcements about an economic recovery, things remain difficult for many service professionals. Historically, white-collar professionals have accounted for only about 2% of the unemployed; today, they represent 18% of those out of work, an unprecedented statistic. By some estimates, the market for general management consulting services has contracted by 20-30% over the last two years, after decades of double-digit growth. In almost every services market you can think of–consulting, accounting, law, banking, software, and so on–there is downward pressure on fees. Is this cyclical–are we experiencing the typical symptoms of a downturn? Or are we seeing a secular, long-term shift in these markets? Personally, I think the latter–although it doesn’t really matter, because we don’t control macro trends. What we CAN control is how we formulate our service offerings and then build and manage our client relationships.
So over the next two issues of Client Loyalty, I’m going to describe some of the things you can do to strengthen your client franchise, framed as “How to Win a Client in 10 days.” I admit that it’s more likely to take ten weeks or ten months. But another way of thinking about these ten days’ worth of suggestions is to consider doing one of them each day with a different client.
Day 1: Drop all the paper and start having a conversation with your client
Every day a whole forest is leveled somewhere just to provide paper for the long reports put together by service professionals. Desktop publishing technology and the modular nature of these documents means inexperienced individuals can, with little guidance, produce huge slide decks for any given meeting—in minutes! These documents can reduce rather than increase dialogue, they make clients passive listeners who glaze over after about ten minutes, and they put the emphasis on data and information rather than developing an understanding of what the client really thinks and feels. Try having some “paper” and “PC” free client meetings. Use paper documents as leave-behinds, and instead talk from a short outline of key points or draw spontaneously on a flip chart. You’ll look different than the competition, you’ll become quicker and better on your feet (which is where most advising occurs!), and you’ll connect more deeply with your clients.
Day 2: Use a hook to engage your client and earn the right to ask questions.
Time is everyone’s scarcest resource, and even if you’re on the payroll, so to speak, you have to earn the right to use that time. If the first page of a book doesn’t grab your attention, you usually put it down. Clients are no different: If they don’t feel there is a compelling reason to speak to you in the first place, they won’t make time for you, and if the first five minutes of the meeting don’t engage them, they’ll tune out. In communicating with your clients, lead off with a fact, conclusion, or implication that makes them want to listen. What’s going to motivate you to cock your ears: (A) “Today we’re going to review our findings from phase one of the revenue enhancement and churn reduction program. First, let’s review some of the methodologies we used in approaching this problem.” or (B) “We’ve discovered that customer churn is 25% higher than your internal analysis had indicated, and it’s costing you $10 million a year”? The Beatles, for example, experimented in some cases with five or ten versions of a song before finally recording it—and the difference is mostly in the opening 4 or 5 measures—the guitar, piano, or bass lick that either grabs you or leaves your mind wandering. For your next meeting, think carefully: What are those initial measures of your song going to look like? What’s your hook?
Day 3: Pretend you’re independently wealthy.
Chuck Lillis, the former CEO of Media One, the giant cable company now part of Comcast, once said to me: “You know Andrew, I wish all of my professional advisors were independently wealthy. That’s because I would then know that they were putting my agenda first and telling it to me the way it really is.” Don’t we, in fact, listen more carefully to advice from someone we perceive as having no personal stake in the outcome? I’ve interviewed dozens of CEOs about their most trusted relationships, and many of them have told me, “Everyone who walks through that door over there wants something from me.” You’ll win your client over quickly if you can at least have the mindset of independent wealth. Go about your work like you genuinely enjoy it; treat clients the way you’d treat a peer or a friend; never, ever act like the meter is running; and be fully prepared to walk away from an abusive or unethical client. This will give you an attractive aura that draws clients to you.
Day 4: Start acting like a deep generalist rather than simply an expert-for-hire.
Just last week I watched an executive vice president from a small but well known consulting firm give a presentation on strategic trends in a particular industry. He had 60 PowerPoint slides, and when he reached page 40 he stopped dead in his tracks. “I’m going to skip over this section,” he told the group. “These slides are on a segment of this industry that I don’t know very well, they’re not mine.” Please! If you’re a narrow expert, you’re a commodity—clients can invariably find 2 or 3 other experts to take your place. Deep generalists are harder to replace. What’s the difference? The expert is a specialist who delivers data and information, and who carefully (obsessively!) delineates where his expertise begins and ends. The deep generalist is usually also a specialist but she’s added breadth to her depth—she has layered on knowledge about the client’s organization and strategy, about the industry, and about the general business environment the client operates in. Deep generalists are able to connect their expertise to their clients’ strategy and goals. And they never say, “Those aren’t MY slides”
Day 5: Ask questions and listen—develop your empathy.
The great Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was asked by a journalist, back in the late 1960s, what he thought of the new mainframe computers. Picasso replied, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” How many have the confidence and vision to ask the tough, provocative questions: “Why do you want to do this in the first place?” “Why do think the organization has been unable to solve this problem without outside help?”; “What business are you really in?”; or, “What will happen if you do nothing?” Remember what the great American poet Robert Frost said: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.” Don’t just tell and give expert answers—learn to ask thought-provoking questions and to listen deeply.
Next Month: How to Win a Client in Ten Days—days 6 through 10.