Monday, February 18, 2008

The EKG of Prospecting -- Inflection Points

For many professional services firms, there is a misunderstanding of how they should prospect for new business. A key component to this misunderstanding stems from the belief that prospective clients have an ongoing need, and therefore interest, in their services. Unfortunately, this is not true. Prospective clients experience some type of event which creates an inflection point, and this inflection point triggers a period of interest by the prospect in the services of a professional services firm.

I like to think of this as the EKG of prospecting, and it would probably be helpful if we even had the sound effects from some TV program where the patient (prospect) was wired into a machine that would emit an audible sound when the heart beat occurred (when the prospect had an interest in your services). The visual effect would be helpful as well...flat line, flat line, heart beat, spike in interest, flat line, flat line, heart beat, spike in interest...

If you are in the business of selling professional services, or "promoting" professional services since many of us still don't want to admit that we "sell" our strategic and consultative advisory services, then you need to understand that some inflection point happens to create a spike in interest.

For example, most of us do not sit around thinking about evaluating accounting services 12 months of the year. However, preparing our annual tax return in the February to April time frame every year is an inflection point -- that spike of potential interest that accountants could seize to add clients to their business. Another inflection point happens on April 16 for every person who was dissatisfied with their current accountant and the tax filing process. If we had a bad experience, we are prime prospects for an accountant that promises something different.

The point is simple, most people are not in constant need, or at least not in constant evaluation, of professional services. Some inflection point happens and then the interest in the service spikes, and once a suitable provider of the services is found, the interest goes back to -- you guessed it, a flat line.

So, how do you use this to your advantage if you are a professional services provider looking for new clients? Here are a few easy steps to follow to capitalize on the inflection points for your business.

1. Define the inflection points. What happened within the market, within the company, or to an individual decision maker that created interest in your services? The best way to find the inflection points for your business is to analyze why your current clients were open to evaluating your services. Go talk to them. Understand what happened to make them open to either looking at your type of services for the first time, or for them to contemplate a change from their existing service provider.

2. Identify what else happens at the same time. Very few things happen in a vacuum, whether in life or in business. The events which cause an inflection point for your business will, in all likelihood, also cause inflection points for other businesses as well. The more you understand what other types of businesses might be impacted, the better you can define potential partners or "early warning systems." Often there are a series of events that happen in a serial manner, one event creates the next and so on. If you can determine what service or product company is impacted by the inflection point just before yours, you have the makings of a great partnership. They can help you by being a lead source and you can help them by being a trusted referral to extend their relationship with a client.

3. Develop an automated alert system. Creating partners in the life cycle of inflection points will be helpful, but there are probably many other ways to create an automated alert system. There are old school ways to peruse business publications for notifications and public filings or listings, but the information age has shuttled in so many new ways to automate this process. Google alerts is a great way to create business rules that will automatically search press releases, news stories, and information sources for companies or criteria that you specify. Another great way is to create a web email account where you subscribe to industry newsletters and then run searches against your own email for company names or criteria. Finally there are subscription services for almost any type of information from court cases (for lawyers) to new business filings (for accountants), and pretty much everything in between.

4. Create your basic communication and positioning package. Now that you know someone that probably needs your services has reached an inflection point -- meaning that their antenna is up and ready to receive your message -- you need to make sure you know what you're going to say. I think the best way to do this is via corporate story telling and case studies. Create a set of collateral and materials that tell your story -- I know what you're feeling now, and here are the things that you will need to overcome between now and reaching a complete fix of your situation. Help you prospect understand how you will add value by showing them the benefits that others have received from using your services. You can generate interest and credibility with the potential new client by providing information via regular mail, email, phone calls, or by otherwise capturing them at their height of interest in your services.

5. Act fast. Leveraging inflection points is not a task that you can put off until next month, next week, or even tomorrow. The spike of interest lasts for a period of time -- different for every different type of consulting services -- but it does not last forever, or even for that long. The evaluation period may last for a while, but most prospects will not evaluate an endless list of professional service providers. They will make a decision quickly to select a new provider because there is not much differentiation between different providers. It is all about first impressions, your professionalism, and sometimes just being first to engage them. Acting fast will not guarantee you a new client, but acting slow will insure you are not part of the game.

Leveraging inflection points is not a hard thing to do, but it is a hard thing to systematize and to do consistently. Most professional services firms look for new business when they are slow, or when they need business and new clients. Unfortunately, when they decide they need new business the firm initiates a process where they communicate with prospective clients on their flat line, not during a spike in interest.

Think about, and define, the inflection points for your business. If you can capture the moment of time when your prospects will have a spike in interest in your services (the heart beat blip on the screen) then you can create a very efficient prospecting plan for your professional services practice.

Spend the time to create the plan, and the system, because this will create a very time efficient system for prospecting for new clients of your consulting and advisory services.

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