It's 2018 - will it take nerves of steel or sheer hard work?
The life and times of a business developer!
I am in BD mode, get to work and open my laptop, switch to LinkedIn and Twitter to read the latest topics and catch up with what my network is interested in.
Yesterday it was great to see stories on everything from snow to cryptocurrencies and ToysRUs – proving our human instinct and emotive drivers switch on to great stories.
I am reading the book, Sapiens at the moment (highly recommend!) and in the book there is a theory that states one of the reason’s we advanced so well as homo sapiens is through our ability to gossip! Gossip is really storytelling – we obviously needed to hear the stories about how to survive, how to keep our young safe and how to keep our boundaries from being attacked.
In today’s business world we have exactly the same need. To get closer to our clients and contacts we need to know our network better. We do this by finding out more about them as a person, as well as their day to work challenges – that way we can have relevant conversations and tell stories that are interesting and engaging.
This got me thinking about the stories and tips I could share about the things that keep us business leaders awake at night, particularly in relation to the next 12 months, or even three years.
Whether business leader, entrepreneur or business development lead, there a number of changes facing us this year. I daren’t mention the B word and of course, there is the G acronym too. I remember in the early 90s, an old boss of mine instructed us all to never use the R word or it was a disciplinary offence (not sure you could say this now!). His view was that it would breed more uncertainty and there was danger of talking ourselves into another recession. I think there was some merit in that.
As an entrepreneur, and old enough to have experienced two recessions, I hope I am now wise enough to know that uncertain times can bring opportunities rather than just keeping me awake at night, especially if you have your network behind you.
For most business leaders there are three things that keep us awake at night:
1. What if our market or service dies tomorrow? Which sector or service do we focus on next and how soon can we get there? How soon can we adapt with the skills we have? Do we have a network to help us? Do we have the cash and resources to do it?
2. Can we keep up with all these legislation and technological changes? Speed of change in technology is a real headache for all of us but it is essential, and we need to adapt. I read somewhere that AT&T was retraining their senior team on AI and other technological advances to keep up with the inevitable changes … good for them! This is definitely the right attitude for change.
Then there is the latest GDPR legislation which will bring further stress to those that really don’t know what to do next. Compliance is something us business leaders cannot shy away from. A top tip from a successful business owner recently was that one of the things he learned when he set up his business the first time around was to create the infrastructure of a much larger firm, even though he had only six people working for him at the time. This has stuck with me.
3. How do we keep the good people we have? How do we motivate or incentivise staff? And do we have the cash to do it?! According to a client of mine, it doesn’t actually take that much cash to incentivise your staff – finding clever ways of keeping them interested in your business by rewarding them for their service is the way to do it. There so many ways that don’t cost the earth - share option schemes or providing an inclusive and happy culture and getting staff to share and develop ideas for the future of the business are just two ideas. During the 2008 recession, we found incentivising staff hard, there were no rises in salaries and no bonuses, but we managed to hold on to the majority of staff through hard work and determination.
Which businesses are most vulnerable this year?
According to a recent St Andrews Uni study (https://www.standrews.ac.uk/news/archive/2018/title,1863531,en.php), the smaller SMEs feel less at risk as they are small enough to adapt by scaling up or down. Apparently, it is the larger exporters, innovators that will struggle.
To support this insight, I recently attended an event where I heard first-hand the story of an angel investor sourcing smaller innovative tech companies to support the large tech giants in their quest for ‘the next big thing’. Innovation is something the smaller businesses can do, they are flexible to adapt and don’t have reams of processes to go through. As a small business that operates in three sectors legal and professional services; construction and technology, we are under no illusion that each of our sectors will have negative and positive impacts, but by continuously evolving and keeping our ear to the ground, we hope to adapt our services to their needs, and more importantly add value by responding to their changing environments.
So, what can businesses do, large or small, to survive 2018+?
1. Base your marketing strategy on what you know you can sell
In uncertain times it is safe to take one of two, or both of the following strategies – 1. either offer new things to your existing market or 2. offer your current services to new markets.
Grow with your clients by providing them something newer, better and smarter.Make sure you offer the best customer service you can. Don’t forget your key clients – they stay with you through thick and thin. Spend time with them and if it feels too long since last time you contacted them – then it is!
Grow your new markets by giving them the best of other industries. Every client wants to know what the latest best practice and proven techniques are – ideas that might help them innovate. What are you providing to other sectors that might benefit them and help them stand out?
2. Don’t take on unnecessary risks
As with any business decision, there are risks and there are some that need to be carefully considered. For example, accepting tougher payment terms. Recently we were asked to take 100% of the risk on a project that was a significant size for our business. We turned it down, but the decision was not taken lightly – not least because we wanted to keep our contact for the long term.
My view is to be grounded in reality and if something looks too good to be true then it probably is.
3. Know where your next project coming from
Have you noticed that your bidding opportunities have decreased? If so, the only way to get build momentum for new work is to create a positive pipeline through your existing networks. It is hard work and a daily effort but once you start, you should see the opportunities come in. Depending on the scale of the business an annual pipeline of at least two times your revenue is a good rule of thumb.
Get some good disciplines going:
Set up and review your leads tracker daily – is there someone you should phone today?
Regularly find ways to stay in touch with your contacts – comment on one of their articles. Provide them with resources. Or introduce them to new work opportunities.
Can you go and see your clients or contacts this week? I have always been taught that true humility is understanding someone’s stories is always better than yours. Show enthusiasm by actively listening to your clients and contacts.
Keep those clients and contacts you value most close to your chest. Only share if it benefits your business.
Don’t forget you don’t get anything out of this life without putting something in. If you give 100%, your contacts and clients will give more!
4. A good blend of marketing and business development – not just one or the other
Someone recently said to me that it was not necessary to have both a marketing and BD plan, just a network of contacts – ‘that will see you through!’ Yes, this can be sufficient if you are working in a silo or for yourself, or in a transactional business but for many of us, without a good profile online, a decent website or a strong sales team behind you, there will be no evidence to support your story.
5. Have enough cash to see you through
Cash is always difficult one, as this will keep us awake at night! Best practice for a small business is to have a least three months’ worth of overheads and profit.
Have you got a good mix of high margin projects, blended with quick wins and turnover projects, and maybe a dash of pro bono work?
Take all decisions with the utmost caution – is it necessary to take on new people at this stage? Is it necessary to spend on that exhibition/event this month?
Review your business plan regularly and reassess your goals if you have to but do let your staff know about the new goals and how they can they help you deliver them.
My final word, when the chips are down, and it feels like a struggle, don’t give up. Work hard and keep your nerve, especially if your gut feel says what you are doing is what the markets need. Don’t be afraid to continue to build value in your business - build networks, invest in your people and adapt to technological, market and legislation changes.
I hope this blog has been helpful and if you have any further tips, feel free to add comments for our fellow business developers, business leaders and entrepreneurs.