It is quite easy to assert that your firm’s relationship capital will grow if you have a focused and proactive approach with your Tier 1 clients. The more challenging question is, how do you operationalise proactivity? How do you take a strategic intent of being proactive and make it real and profitable?
One of the answers, in my view, lies in the discipline of regularly preparing unsolicited proposals for each of your key clients. Adopting this discipline means constantly thinking of fresh ideas on how to make the client and client’s business more successful. This in turn encourages all the right behaviours: meaningful conversations with key influencers, in-depth research, active client listening and commercially-focused product innovation. In other words, it’s part of the bedrock of best practice client relationship management.
One of the goals of key client strategy is to bring the best of the firm to the client and the whole of the client to the firm. The unsolicited proposal provides a wonderful cross-selling opportunity to showcase the firm’s services and capabilities outside the current offering. It prevents pigeon-holing and helps the client view firsthand the additional ways your firm can add value. A thoughtful proposal can get you an audience with more senior decision-makers and those from a wider cross-section of the client’s business.
One leading Australian firm has a target of preparing at least one unsolicited proposal for each key client every six months. The measure centres on the preparation of unsolicited proposals, not necessarily presentation to the client. Clearly not all their proposals measure up to the mark and never go near the client. In those proposals that do get presented, there are one or two that the client grabs immediately with both hands and feet (and sometimes even teeth). More commonly, however, the proposals start a conversation that lead to a new business opportunities down the track. Seldom are the proposals bought without revision or reshaping of the scope of works. Similarly, seldom are the proposals bought with another supplier in the frame.
Your firm may, from time to time, run a special campaign to promote a new product or service. While these proposals are unsolicited they form a different kind of offer, one that is slightly more standardised and less tailored to the client’s specific needs. I would put these in a different bucket to the proposals built through a deep appreciation of the client and their business. In my view, an over-reliance on product promotions as the major form of unsolicited proposals tends to “dumb down” the strategic account planning process. It favours the lazy. It can also irritate clients if there too many approaches with the next best thing that’s just another off-the-shelf solution.
Successful unsolicited proposals need to be based on a deep understanding of what’s on your client’s strategic and operational agenda. A good starting point in uncovering new value-creating opportunities is to start to question what are the client’s strategic priorities? How are they seeking to compete? What are their main pain points? etc. etc. etc. Using a structured framework or lens through which to view clients can be quite helpful. The lens I like to use is adapted from George Day’s generic drivers model which identifies the four core drivers that underpin the performance of all organisations:
- Increase sales and market share
- Improve profit
- Manage risk
- Build business value and sustainability.
This generic model is detailed in the diagram below:
While clearly the language would need to be adjusted for government and non-profit client organisations, the underlying principles are the same. The idea is to use the model to ask four open questions:
- Which of these bubbles and arrows are the client’s top priorities at the moment?
- Which are likely to be in priorities in the future?
- In what ways do we currently assist them in addressing these priorities, or where do we have an impact?
- Using all our firm’s capabilities and assets, what else could we do to add or create real value for this organisation?
Fresh opportunities often emerge when there are significant changes within the client organisation. The following often a signal a need for further advice or assistance:
- Major restructuring
- Major changes in share price
- Major change in regulatory environment
- Major corporate relocation
- Entry into new business or market
- Emergence of new competitors
- Emergence of new disruptive technologies
- Appointment of new CEO, board member or senior manager.
At a more operational level, the client’s complaints about current providers might be a good signal. A visual inspection of their facilities might also generate further ideas. In one boutique business advisory firm, each senior partner tries to ‘spend a day in the life of their client’ at least once every 18 months. The aim is to  get a first hand view of how their services are being used, and  identify opportunities in areas which the client didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Pitching your ideas to the client
A recent blog post by Mark Rolston on fastcodesign.com site talked about the five things to focus on when pitching a bold design idea to a client. Many of these points are equally relevant to presenting your unsolicited proposal:
- See the problem through the client’s eyes
- Find the lens your client is looking through
- Stay the course
- Speak in a language the client can understand
- Deliver with passion and conviction.
In your hands
The next time you hear one of your colleagues lament over the fact the phone had stopped ringing, ask them when was the last time they had presented an unsolicited proposal to their key clients. In most cases the response will be negative and defensive. The power of these proposals is that they’re in your hands. The shoe is on your foot. While clients may still say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, the long-term positioning and relationship capital benefits are considerable.
I will be presenting on this topic at a First Movers breakfast seminar/webinar hosted by Beaton Research & Consulting on 15 August 2012 in Melbourne and 16 August 2012 in Sydney. The title of the seminar is”10 strategies to get more from your firm’s key account program and your critical client relationships”. Please click here to find out more details and to register.