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The secret to winning work in a virtual (or hybrid) world

It happened. The trend that we have been speaking about since the first lockdown has finally made its way from theoretical nightmare to “ok, let’s do this”. We identified early on in 2020 that whilst marketing in a virtual world is easy to achieve, particularly given so much was online anyway, business development is just that little bit harder. We spoke to professionals who were finding it tough and we have worked with them to overcome some of the challenges.

We identified a spectrum with two extremes.

On one side, firms putting their heads in the sand and waiting for the whole Covid nightmare to be over; for things to get “back to normal”. These were exemplified by firms who postponed events rather than pivoting them. They moved dates forward, first perhaps to the autumn, then on to 2021. Another sign of this extreme? Freezing business development spend. Not because of the immediate fear in March 2020 of what lay in store for the market, but because what had always been done could not be happen and they was felt it could not be replicated.

This then brings us to the second extreme. Those firms who soon realised that work was coming in and they were going to be okay. Those who realised that their competitors were not doing anything and that they had an opportunity to create new and strong relationships unchallenged. They opened up their business development budgets quickly and started to be creative. They didn’t try to recreate online what was previously off it. They used data. They used empathy. They did things a little bit differently. Not because they understood the virtual world better, or because they had access to better technology, but because they understood people and relationships better. They understood what was at the heart of business development.

Relationships and virtual business development

Relationships are the engine of professional services firms. In 2020, for the most part (although there have been exceptions), professionals have managed to sustain relationships with existing clients without too many hiccups. First, there was the immediate problem of helping clients deal with Covid-19 and lockdowns. Then there was the opportunity to resume normal client work and to speak to clients over Zoom or Teams or Google Hangouts. Marketing was happening in the background. Events had moved online. Everything was seemingly ok.

Everything was ok, up to a point…

The point we appear to be reaching now was a very predictable one. Pipelines have been sitting dormant. Existing transactions have closed. Professionals are starting to find themselves with time on their hands and are thinking again about business development. However, things aren’t back to normal and doing virtual business development is no longer a nice to have.

How do we know we have reached that point? The surge in events (online!) on “how to win work virtually” or “networking online”, spurred by customer demand. These events tend to have one thing in common: they focus on the technology; on the best platforms; on how to use social media. Now, some of this is of course relevant. However, the virtual tends to be overplayed at the expense of people. These courses can often skip over the limiting beliefs that got these professionals to the point they are at now. The also shroud in mystery the principles of business development and ignore the basics.

What are the basics of good business development?

1. Remembering that business development is only part of the equation.

Business development is about creating relationships. These can be stand-alone; but the best business development makes the most of opportunities that have been created by the professional services firm’s marketing. Marketing and business development are often amalgamated, and the terms used interchangeably. This does a disservice to marketing and can lead to frustrations in business development efforts that fall flat. Understanding the difference is key to successful BD in professional services firms.

How does this apply to the virtual world?

Your marketing strategy exists in the real world. That is sometimes easy to forget. Who is your target market? What are your key messages? What services are you delivering to your clients that meet their needs? These may have changed or evolved over 2020, they may be as they were pre-2020. It is likely that the tactics used to raise awareness have centred on digital marketing tactics: your website; online advertising; sponsorship of online events or publications; PR. These tactics will have been reaching your audience. The starting point of doing business development in a virtual world is to understand what opportunities your firm's marketing is creating and to have a business development plan to leverage these.

2. It’s about relationships.

Relationships don’t happen with companies, they happen with people. What people do you need to know? Who do you know already? What do they like or dislike? What’s going on with them? What would they value? Asking questions that relate to people can help you devise a business development plan that resonates and helps you to win work. It can help you leverage the opportunities we spoke about at point 1.

How does this apply to the virtual world?

Think about who you need to speak to. What’s the best way to connect with them? Is it someone who you know well who you could ask for a virtual coffee or catch-up? Is it someone who you don’t know so well (or at all!) who you want to try and get to know? If it is the later, do some research. Are they someone with lots of followers and who is active on social media? If so, an invitation on LinkedIn is likely to be received positively. Are they someone who seems to have a very small online footprint? If so, they are unlikely to respond positively to an approach out of the blue and they may prefer an email with a reason to engage with you.

All this is really no different from the way that you should approach business development "in person", and indeed, virtual BD might prove easier as you have much bigger clues about how a person might like to engage with you. At the heart of this is thinking about what value you might be able to add to the other person. It’s also about being genuinely interested in them.

3. Luck and design.

Business development is about design. You should be looking at data. You should have a clear idea of who your profitable clients are and who the clients are that you are looking to attract. You should know who the gift-givers are at these firms. Understand the network of relationships that you have will people in the companies you work with, or would like to work with. You should have a pipeline and a target list. You should be engineering opportunities to get in front of these people.

You should also not overlook luck. Design helps you make your own luck, but notwithstanding, you might be in the right place at the right time and a happenstance encounter might lead to opportunities that you could never have foreseen.

How does this apply to the virtual world?

Virtual business development perhaps requires a little bit more thought. You can’t just attend numerous industry events in the hope of exchanging a pocketful of business cards. You will need to be very specific in who you reach out to. You will need to have approached business development in a more targeted way. Data will be your friend – and this goes back to point 1. Your marketing should have helped produced some data that you can use to design a business development plan. Who is engaging with you online? Who has been attending your webinars or reading your newsletters? All of this can help you understand which approaches will be the most likely to succeed.

However, don’t forget luck. Fortune favours the brave – that random “like” on LinkedIn – the second- or third-degree contact – might just be put in front of you at the right time – it is up to you whether you are in the right place and seize those opportunities.

4. Limiting beliefs hold people back.

Relationships are two-way. Not only do we need to think of clients as people, we also need to remember that the professionals doing the business development are people too! Some will find making approaches easier than others. For some, data and logic will drive them. There are the professionals who will feel confident in their abilities, others will wonder how they will ever get good at business development. Talking about the limiting beliefs stopping professionals from doing business development, making the unconscious conscious, can have a profound impact.

How does this apply to the virtual world?

Contacting someone on LinkedIn and asking them for a virtual coffee is different. Attending an online networking event and being forced into a virtual breakout room exposes not only the professional but their home. It is uncomfortable for many. It’s new. Speaking on a webinar for the first time and engaging attendees virtually is hard for even the most seasoned of speakers. Thinking about these fears and unconscious beliefs is often what holds people back: the technology and the “how to” are usually secondary, even if they are held up as the blocker. Understanding what is really stopping professionals doing business development and working to remove these limiting beliefs is – in the virtual – hybrid – or real world – a useful starting point.

So, what’s the secret of winning work online?

The secret is that there is no big secret! Winning work online is no more complicated to winning work in the real world. There will be rejection. There will be people who get you. Those who are bold will have one approach, those who are more reserved will find a different way. Those who work in a team will triumph.

Relationships will prosper beyond technology and will adapt with whatever “normal” there is. People do business with people. Virtually, in a hybrid world, or in person. To find out how Client Talk can help you with your business development contact us.



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