Six Models for Building a Client Franchise

“How do I build a following?”

“How can I increase my leadstream?”

“How do I create a brand for myself in the marketplace?

These are important questions, and I get asked them frequently. The answer to all three is–it depends. There is no one right approach to building a client franchise, no single model that works for everyone. It depends on your interests, your personal and professional strengths, and even where you live. But there is a science to it. In studying hundreds of highly successful professionals over the years, it’s clear to me that there are six distinct network- or brand-building models that you can follow. These models overlap and they can be complementary to each other. But I find that most people “major” in just one of them and “minor” in a second because few of us have the skills and time availability to successfully pursue them all. Let’s examine each of these, listed in order of approximate prevalence.

  1. Industry Focus
    Some professionals succeed by becoming industry experts. One client of mine, for example, runs the automotive group for a major consulting firm. The “pond” he fishes in consists of just a few hundred senior automotive industry executives around the world. He only works for automotive companies and their suppliers. He lives and breathes the industry, attending trade shows and industry events, showing up at annual stockholder meetings, writing articles about the future of the business, and so on. He is sometimes quoted in the press as an “industry expert.” He has a broad base of knowledge about all the key functions of an automaker–manufacturing, marketing, sales, purchasing, and so on–although he’s not a truly in-depth expert in any of them. Because his industry is global, his consulting practice is also global. Because of his knowledge and reputation, he is sought after by key figures in the industry, and he is able to get meetings even with automotive executives whom he doesn’t know. From a personal perspective, an industry focus can be very attractive because it gives you the opportunity to work with clients across a range of issues. It’s also easy to figure out who your target clients are!
  2. Functional or Product Focus
    This is another very common route to successfully building a client franchise. Instead of focusing on an industry or well-defined set of clients, you major in a skill area, function, or product that can be used by a variety of clients in multiple industries. I have an investment-banking client, for example, who is an expert in high-yield debt. He knows everything there is to be known about junk bonds, and he works with virtually any corporate client of his bank, depending on whether or not this product is of interest to that client at a particular point in time. Another client of mine is an authority in change management, and again, she works with clients in many different industries and geographic locations. This network-building model is often linked to number 3–a focus on creating intellectual capital–because notoriety around your chosen function, product, or practice area is a key to success. Industry experts often also have a functional or expert skill set–it’s a question of breadth versus depth and relative emphasis. When you pursue this model, you really go deep into your specialty. This model is attractive because you possess a clearly defined area of expertise which is needed, potentially, by almost any client in the world. You’re not sunk, either, if a particular industry is in the doldrums.
  3. Intellectual Capital Focus
    All service professionals need to develop and accumulate intellectual capital–ideas, insights, frameworks, and concepts-that clients find valuable. However, some will make this a primary focus for building an inquiry stream from clients. To a great extent this is my own strategy: I devote considerable energy and time to research, and I have published extensively on the topic of developing enduring professional-client relationships. When you have an intellectual capital focus, you create interesting ideas, get them out into the marketplace through books, articles, speeches, etc., and then see who is interested. The beauty of this model is that if you are successful, clients will contact you–you will rarely if ever have to cold-call, prospect, or even spend much time networking. On the downside, your ideas do need to have some real sizzle in order to rise above the clutter. As I said, while all professionals will do some intellectual capital development, a relatively small percentage will use this as their main client development model. These last three models often complement the first three:
  4. Large Client Focus
    Have you known a lawyer, consultant, or advertising executive who spends most of her time working for just one major client? Some professionals, who tend to be very relationship focused, get to know a client extremely well, build an internal network with multiple buyers at that client, do good work, and never leave. In large professional firms, having a single client like this can really propel your career. Sustaining a multi-year, multi-million dollar relationship with a large corporation takes a particular set of skills, however. You generally have to be highly credible with top executives but also able to build bridges at middle management levels. You have to have the patience and tenacity to survive reorganizations, firings, and the inevitable ups and downs that will occur. In my opinion, only a minority of professionals is capable of this, especially at the CEO level, but if you can manage to build this type of flagship client, you will–among other things–benefit from very low selling costs and little downtime. Often, industry focus and large client focus are combined.
  5. Social Networking Focus
    Some professionals–usually extroverts–excel at social networking. They are always “in the flow,” hosting dinners, joining associations and clubs, going to cultural events, attending various happenings, and getting involved in non-profit causes. They are also good at using these connections to connect with decision makers in prospective client organizations. You can have a social networking focus almost anywhere, although I have noticed this model is more prevalent in Europe and Latin America. Don’t underestimate how valuable this approach can be. Years ago, when I moved to London to help start my firm’s office there (as a lowly associate), one of the partners procured the first two flagship clients of the practice through his wife’s social connections. These clients became the bedrock of the new office, ensuring its rapid success.
  6. Geographic Focus
    In a world where functional specialists may fly all over the world to work with clients in far-flung locations, there are still geographically-oriented business communities. If you live in Houston, Atlanta, Rome, or Budapest, there are many opportunities to develop roots into the local community and focus on potential clients in your city. Of course you’ll bring some functional or industry expertise, but a distinct geographic focus can be a valuable complement to the other five models. Some firms even do this explicitly, and have generalists build local business relationships which are then served by bringing in the right experts from functional and industry practice groups. In the largest cities–e.g., New York and London–you may be able to pursue both a geographic focus with either an industry or functional model.

To summarize the 6 models:

  1. Industry Focus
  2. Functional/Product Focus
  3. Intellectual Capital Focus
  4. Large Client Focus
  5. Social Networking Focus
  6. Geographic Focus

Often, these six models are combined into natural clusters. For example:

  • Industry + Large Client
  • Functional/Product + Intellectual Capital
  • Geographic + Social Networking

Of course, I’m sure we could find a financial services expert, specializing in trading systems, who lives in New York and only works for banks in the Big Apple…and loves giving large dinner parties and taking people to Lincoln Center. But that’s slicing things awfully thin. The critical success factors for each model are really somewhat different–each requires a particular set of skills and strategies to succeed–and to do really well at just two of the six is itself a challenge for most of us. These models are intuitively obvious. You cannot do all of them well, however–you need to pick one or two paths that fit your professional skills and personality especially well. What’s important is to make your choices explicitly and then develop the right implementation strategies to pursue them.

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Andrew Sobel is a leading authority on client relationships and the skills
and strategies required to earn enduring client loyalty. He is a consultant
and educator to major services firms worldwide. Andrew is the author of the
business bestsellers Making Rain: The Secrets of Building Lifelong Client
Loyalty (John Wiley & Sons), and Clients for Life: How Great Professionals
Develop Breakthrough Relationships (Simon & Schuster/Fireside). He can be
reached at (Tel: 505.982.0211).

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