Acquiring new clients means meeting with C-level executives, directly. This requires innovation. Find out why.
Many companies tend to rely upon their core customers in order to secure their business and grow. However, this tends to limit growth prospects to existing customers and assumes that existing customers are willing to increase their budget dedicated to a given supplier. But when companies want to increase growth significantly, developing existing clients won’t cut the deal – they have to acquire new clients. And I’ve found that many companies have addressed the issue in very different ways, some of which are successful, some of which aren’t. It turns out that acquiring new clients means meeting with C-level executives, and that means innovating.
I/ Growing existing business is very different from acquiring new clients
The problem is that as companies grow with their existing customers, they learn processes to develop existing clients and they promote people, internally, who have developed this client-specific know-how, and have developed an interest and an ability to develop the existing client base. Doing so, the entire company is geared towards serving their existing customers in a better way but, little energy is effectively devoted to acquiring new business. And, when the company finally hires someone to acquire new clients, many are surprised by the new hiree’s methods and ways of doing business.
Business sales executive expect that those in charge of acquiring new business will use the company’s existing ways: they would be using the same processes, operate according to the same values and make decisions based on the same criteria. But that doesn’t work. Acquiring new clients means innovation; in fact, it means an innovative approach to sales: an innovative way to creating relationships, an innovative to identifying business issues, an innovative to penetrating new accounts. It turns out that a new client business developer has to be much more creative and much more imaginative than those in charge of growing existing business. That’s a fact.
And, I want to share some of the tactics I’ve used to acquire new clients. It all starts with recognizing that acquiring new clients means creating new relationships. Most decision-makers are happy to work with existing suppliers, largely because they know it’s a safe and tried route: “you never get fired for hiring IBM”, as the saying goes. But, business developers need to understand that any decision-maker hiring a new supplier is facing uncertainty. Bringing in a new supplier is taking a risk, a risk that may jeopardize the decision-maker’s career prospects if the supplier doesn’t perform as expected. This often remains misunderstood among business developers. They may be too focused on pitching their value proposition at the expense of listening to what clients say and at the expense of uncovering implicit buyer signals. The only way to mitigate this risk is meeting directly with the buyer’s boss, a C-level executive. If you connect with a buyer on behalf of his/her boss, then he/she will feel safe to go on with a Purchase Order. Now, having said that: how do you meet with C-level executives?
II/ To meet with C-level executives invite out for dinner former leaders who have worked in the target company
First of all, I really believe in setting up dinners with leading executives that have recently left the target company. I’ll refer to these dinners as a “networking dinner”. Inviting every single former leader out to dinner is a potent way to start the relationship. There’s something about having dinner which is much more intimate than having lunch or a regular business meeting. Plus, sharing a meal can be somewhat personal. My experience is that it’s very effective in creating relationships. Obviously, the purpose of this networking dinner is to get to understand what the target’s context is, by asking questions such as:
- How do they do their business?
- Who are their clients?
- Why do their clients pay them and what for?
- What value does the target provide to its clients?
- Whose the target’s competition?
- What are the key questions that are on every leader’s mind?
- How do these questions structure their priorities?
- How do they allocate resources and based on what criteria?
- Who’s career is at risk and why?
- What can be done to help those whose career is at risk?
I’m not suggesting that each of these questions ought to be asked explicitly. This will obviously depend on the relationship that’s created over dinner. But, one should aim to get some kind of answers on the above-mentioned questions, in some form or other. I’ve found that information pertaining to careers is often the most powerful. It uncovers relevant business issues, one for which leaders will fight for, one for which leaders will invest in and one for which leaders will allocate resources to.
Obviously at the end of the dinner, it’s important to ask for contacts. And I’ve found that, given that the former leader has left the company, he/she tends to be very generous in sharing contacts – at least more generous than when still working in the company. When leaders have left their company, they are actually quite happy to share their network because it helps them maintain and develop it. So, networking dinners are a potent way to acquire new contacts. And when you call on the new contact on behalf of the former leader, the response turns out to be very positive.
Using this method I’ve met with a number of C-level executives in multi-billion companies. To be totally honest, it’s the only way I was ever able to approach C-level executives. So this is the first way to acquire new clients: start by inviting out for dinner former leaders who have worked in the target company and who will connect you to current leaders, working there now. Once, you’ve met with current leaders on behalf of former leaders, never forget your debt to the connector (the former leader) and invite him/her out for dinner to share your news.
III/ Offer modest gifts to managing directors and inquire on whether they have been received
The second way is sending out a gift of modest value (no more than 15 euros) to a target working within the target company. For example, three or four years ago, I sent out chocolates to Olivier Brandicourt, a managing director of Pfizer‘s Primary Care Business Unit, a 20 billion dollar business. And one day I showed up to his office in NYC, took the elevator, went to his admin’s office and asked if Olivier had received the chocolates. She replied yes. And then, out of gratitude, she introduced me to Olivier, whom I had never met. As Brad Sugars says, “The rookie gains new customers, while the veteran gains goodwill”. Here, chocolates got me goodwill.
Again, this is a very creative way of approaching key decision-makers and it’s very different from what other traditional business sales directors are used to do. Given that they work with clients with whom a relationship has already been established, they are less likely to develop these skills. They are less likely to develop what I call, “lateral approaches to building C-level relationships”.
So, I guess I’ll leave it at that for now. To summarize my point: acquiring new clients requires creative approaches which are different from the more standard approaches that are used in developing existing clients. I have tested successfully two approaches: networking dinners and modest gifts. That’s my take on how to acquire new clients.
I would be more than happy to learn from your experience. How have you acquire new clients? What tactics have you developed? And, in what ways are creating new clients different from developing existing client? And, in what way does acquiring new clients involve innovative thinking and innovation in sales?
- For 10 tips on how to acquire new clients, please refer here
- For a description of how to acquire new clients fast, please refer here
- For a discussion on the advantages of acquiring new clients, as opposed to growing existing business, please refer
- For another discussion on the importance of understanding career dynamics, please refer to this post