Any business owner is familiar with the challenge of attracting new clients and protecting relationships with existing ones.
Fierce competition within many industries gives clients a wide choice of suppliers to choose from, and to make things even more difficult, some clients feel the need to change vendors periodically to avoid the common phenomenon of supplier complacency.
If your ambition is to do long-term business with a new or existing client you will need ensure that you engage as a serious partner: Well prepared, well informed, and far from complacent.
Experience has shown that this has a notable impact on the way that your vendor-client relationship will unfold, as echoed by a senior executive in the technology industry;
“Some of the vendors that we work with engage in a very well-prepared manner. Their people understand our business, they are able to anticipate our needs and are proactive in bringing forward new collaboration ideas. We would hesitate to replace them because it would be like starting from scratch. Other vendors can be quite different. They talk about their products and services, but with little knowledge about us. They are working from a blank sheet of paper”
As this illustrates, clients can spot quite quickly who is prepared to partner and who is not. But this brings with it a challenge for the vendor, who will need to ask:
“How shall we bring people up to speed to partner with our clients? And what if we have many client relationships to look after and time is scarce?”
The amount of preparation you will need to do will vary depending on the type of client that you are working with and the product or service that you are providing.
Although some customisation may be required, here are some easy-to-implement tips that originate from the consulting industry, classifying preparation activities into three areas;
- Basic preparation
- Detailed preparation, and
- Meeting-specific preparation.
1. BASIC PREPARATION
Basic preparation considers the ‘must know’ elements before you engage in a credible discussion with a client. The number of elements is limited intentionally as it should be feasible to collect and assimilate the information within just one or two hours. If time is short, these are the ones to pay attention to.
Industries of operation and geography
Familiarise yourself with the industries that your client is addressing (e.g. consumer electronics, healthcare, insurance) and the geographical scope that they cover, primary office locations, and so forth. Larger organisations may have overseas holdings that may be relevant.
Look into the revenue and profit reported for the last financial year, if published. The amount of money that a business is making is likely to affect the way that budgets are allocated and the scope of the products and services that they wish to procure.
Know the names of the key executives. If clients refer to these individuals in discussions you should not look blank-faced or need to ask ‘Who is Mr. Joyce?’
Product and service offering
Understand the products or services that your client is providing to customers and the way in which the offering is structured and priced.
Customer segments addressed
Familiarise yourself with the main customer segments that your client aims to do business with (e.g. private consumers, students, enterprises, large corporations).
Market position, key competitors
Know your client’s competitive position, rank in the industry and key competitors. This information is generally obtained from published analyses.
2. DETAILED PREPARATION
If more time is available you can extend your efforts into more detailed preparation. The level of detail incorporated could be quite exhaustive, however these items provide a good starting point, typically extending the total preparation time to between a half day and a day.
What is your client’s business vision and stated strategy? This information helps to understand the definition of business priorities and can often be found on the client’s web site or in the introductory section of their most recent annual report.
Review articles about trends in the industry and understand what analysts and the media are saying about the future. Points for consideration may include growth opportunities, the impact of new technologies, changes in regulation or shifts in the competitive landscape.
New products and services
Has your client recently launched any new products or services and what has been the uptake? This could be a hot topic of conversation.
How does your client sell its products or services? Do they manage a sales force, use third party brokers, have own branded stores or sell through franchising?
Marketing and positioning strategies
Positioning refers to the way in which a company presents itself to the market and the values with which it aims to be associated. Some companies aim to be associated with a low price perception whilst others may associate themselves with high quality or leading-edge innovation. Understanding these strategies will give you a valuable insight into your client’s business model.
3. MEETING-SPECIFIC PREPARATION
In addition to understanding the client’s business make sure that you are well prepared for any planned meeting or client interaction.
Topics of discussion
What are the agreed topics of discussion and has an agenda been agreed in advance? In the absence of an agenda which topics should be covered for the discussion to be productive?
Who will you be meeting from the client organisation? What are their backgrounds and probable expectations?
Basis established so far?
If this is not the first meeting to discuss the topics review the basis that has been established so far and the logical next steps in the discussion.
Anticipated questions from the client
Consider questions that your client is likely to ask and establish your approach for answering them. This type of preparation will improve your ability to perform well and will help to drive the meeting toward a positive outcome, minimising the number of issues which require follow-up.
Questions to ask, inputs required
Consider the questions that you will need to ask in order to obtain a clear understanding of the client’s needs, and any assumptions that will need to be validated.
A wide range of information resources can be used to support preparation activities. Some of the most common are listed below.
The client’s website
A good resource for information such as corporate vision, values, product and service offering, organisation and geography.
Provide a wide variety of information such as recent events, new initiatives, partnerships, acquisitions and organisational changes.
Provide financial information (income statement, balance sheet, cash flow statement) as well as an introductory account on the client’s vision and strategy.
Can provide a multitude of information regarding the industry, competitive landscape, the client’s business and key stakeholders, some of which should be regarded with caution unless published by a reliable source.
Contacts and Colleagues
Colleagues within your company or network who have worked with the client before may be able to share very useful advice and information. This can be a very valuable resource.
Clients often have high expectations when selecting their business partners and insufficient preparation may put you in an awkward situation. Be mindful of the need to shield yourself from competitors who may outperform you by engaging in a better assimilated and more partner-oriented manner.
This article has presented a simple approach, classifying preparation efforts into three activities: Basic preparation, detailed preparation and meeting-specific preparation. Together with the intelligent use of information resources these can be used to maximise the value of your interactions and the relationships that you build with clients.
About the author
This guide has been written for ByteStart by Samir Parikh, the founder of SPConsulting AB, a global management consulting firm based in Stockholm. His new book The Consultant’s Handbook: A Practical Guide to Delivering High-value and Differentiated Services in a Competitive Marketplace is published by Wiley (RRP £24.99).
More help on ByteStart
For more on winning and keeping customers, try some of these other ByteStart guides;
- The seven steps of selling – understand the sales process and close more deals
- Sealing the deal – How to close a sale
- The 10 business development truths that will give you an edge over your competitors
- How to build rapport with customers
- The “Magic 10” Tips on networking – how the experts build great networks
- How to avoid death by PowerPoint – 9 Practical tips to captivate an audience with your presentation
And for advice and help on launching and growing a thriving business try some of these popular guides;
- Barriers to growth – how to identify them and how to overcome them
- How you can build your business in 90 minutes a day
- The 3 issues you’ll need to overcome if you want your start-up to reach £1m turnover
- How to deliver a successful business pitch
- The power of the ‘pilot’ – 3 reasons why you should test your new business before launch
- How to choose the best online accounting software for your business