Consultancies tend to have a sales team, separate from their project teams, for cold-call lead generation. While this has merits, it is typically the project teams and research-focussed individuals who are best placed to get the most out of existing client relationships. It is these individuals who are most suited to determining client needs, because they can employ their inherent research skills to do this.
For many research individuals this can seem a daunting prospect: How do they begin to understand their client's perspective? We advocate approaching this in the same way that you would approach any research project. If you consider the different stages of a systematic review, it starts with a research question, which in this case is “what is important to my client?”
The next stage in a systematic review methodology would be to think about your data sources, and actually there are a lot more data sources relevant to your client's interests than you may have realised. A good starting point is the news section of the client’s website or company LinkedIn posts, both of which offer good pointers as to what is important to the business.
When we do training in this area, it is often an eye-opener to the project teams just how much information is available on the client’s company websites. For example, within the news section, you can often find annual statements and reports, written for investors, which detail the year just gone and the goals for the year ahead. This is gold, when it comes to understanding your client and the direction they are taking.
The client relationship is not solely about understanding and connecting with the business but also with the individual. One of the best ways to connect is through LinkedIn, since a lot of people put a surprising amount of information on their LinkedIn profile about their interests and their goals. Importantly, LinkedIn tells you how long that person has been in their role, and if they have recently been promoted. For example, if they have moved from a country-based role to a global role it gives you an insight into some of the professional pressures they may be facing and how you might support them to meet their objectives and milestones.
More than once our training attendees have exclaimed “I didn’t realise they were so new to their role”. This puts a different spin on the relationship where the consultancy can feel like a supporting leader in the relationship, rather than a reactionary service provider. Another outcome of these sessions is a realisation that the consultancy staff member has something in common with the client contact; for example, they attended the same university, or have the same research interests. All of these findings are helpful in remembering to retain the human-human connection in interactions, which is core to our model.
It is amazing how many research-focussed project managers fail to connect with their contacts on LinkedIn or follow their client companies. This activity is not time-consuming, yet it primes the LinkedIn newsfeed with important nuggets of information on goals and interests. This means that as you scroll LinkedIn over your morning coffee it starts pushing information to you: “The client is interested in this topic” or “their drug has achieved this milestone” or “they have changed roles”. We then advocate that you follow organisations and hashtags likely to be of interest to your client. As an example, if they are interested in rare diseases it makes sense to follow patient organisations, event organisers and other groups relating to this area. When something of potential interest comes up, you can forward this nugget to your client, with a brief note saying something like: “I thought you might be interested in this…”. Taking time out of your busy schedule to send on items of interest (as long as you are selective and not contributing to unwanted spam) speaks volumes to a client about your interest in their goals, beyond the current project.
There’s another interesting element to this activity, which is that it activates your reticular activating system (RAS). The purpose of the RAS is to act as a gateway to sensory input to your brain – deciding what information is surplus to requirements and what should be stored. So that process of logging what is of interest to your client by following hashtags and relevant organisations on LinkedIn not only delivers you that information in your newsfeed, but it also triggers your RAS to filter what’s important and what isn’t. You then begin seeing relevant items standing out everywhere through the constant stream of data that finds its way to you daily.
Another important search, outside of LinkedIn, is to put the name of the company into an internet search engine along with the word “fails”. This helps to highlight information that might not be widely publicised because it’s information that the company doesn’t want to promote, but it will give you insights into the challenges the company is going through. For example, the company might have failed to impress investors or failed in their appeal in litigation or their drug might have failed to meet end points. What this insight does is it ensures you know what your client is talking about if you ask them “how are things going” and they respond, “not great since last week’s disappointment” or similar.
It's all simply about engaging your research skills to stay informed, be present and engaged in a conversation and be ready to offer ideas and solutions.
One point worth noting is that none of this research should take hours or be onerous. It should be the kind of information you can glean during your morning coffee or a quick search. One of the mistakes people make is spending too much time on research in the name of Key Account Management and making beautiful PowerPoint presentations about it, because all that information will be outdated before you finish. It’s really about creating easy entry points to your conversations with your clients and ensuring the time you spend with them is productive and beneficial.
It can be hard for project workers and researchers to think of themselves as sellers, but in actual fact these are the roles best suited to that type of engagement. By selling, we don’t mean the kind of sales tactics that you get when looking at a new car; rather it’s about building engaging, ongoing and authentic connections with clients and understanding what success looks like to them, beyond your current project, so that you can co-create the pathways to that destination.