Build Your Client Base

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2008, although the tips and approaches are still relevant today.

Attract New ClientsAre you poised to pounce on any new-business opportunities? Position yourself  and your design business to build your client base, even when you’re swamped, so that your business can benefit better when things slow.

“The mistake most creative firms make is falling into a ‘no system’ system,” says Morgan Shorey, founder and vice president of The List, an Atlanta-based new-business consulting firm. “They market only when they don’t have work. It’s a roller coaster, and it brings on high-tide, low-tide business cycles. If you don’t have a consistent new-business plan that you follow 365 days a year, your business can’t grow past a certain point.” Shorey offers these guidelines for building your client list:

Identify Resources
Before you choose a business-development plan, inventory the resources you have to devote to the task. “Be brutal in your assessment of the time, energy, personnel and money you really have,” Shorey says. “It will determine what kind of system you put in place.” Be realistic about your talents and personality, as well. “If you just can’t make the phone calls, brand yourself through the mail. If you’re a great networker, you need to be on the phone,” she says.

Notch it Up During Downtime
“When the economy is bad, that’s when you should market the most,” Shorey says. During a down economy, top-level “A” brands will typically cut their marketing budgets (because they believe they can retain market position), allowing room for the “B” and “C” brands to make their moves. This is the time when you can increase your presence and gain market share as the economy recovers.

Pick a System and Stick With It
There are several approaches to business development. Understand them, then choose one that plays to your strengths and those of your company.

  1. The “sell and do” system. This approach involves marketing until you get work, then suspending new-business activities while you do the work. When the work dries up, you’re off to the new-business races once again. It’s a bad cycle, and not recommended.
  2. Principal as prospector. Prospective clients like to hear from the firm principal, so this approach is popular. It’s also low-cost (no additional personnel required) and easy to implement. But it also has downsides: As principal, you have limited time to dedicate to new business. And often, principals of creative firms aren’t the best salespeople.
  3. Relationship marketing. Also called referral marketing, this method leverages your connections to generate business. You make new contacts by asking current clients for referrals and/or by joining networking groups that connect you with your target audience. “If you love meeting people and can offer them a warm and dry hand to shake, this will work well for you,” Shorey says. “If not, choose another option.” Because it’s such a personal approach, it provides highly qualified targets. But travel and membership costs can be high. It can also take you away from the office more frequently than you’d like.
  4. New business by committee. Under this system, you choose people from various departments in the firm to share responsibility for business development. It’s good for morale because everyone buys into the new-business effort. It’s also low-cost. But no one is fully responsible or accountable. Not all the people involved are trained in sales, and it’s often difficult to achieve consensus on goals, objectives and approaches.
  5. The hired gun. In this scenario, you hire a seasoned professional with a fat Rolodex. This can work well if you hire the right person and make her accountable. “But if this person walks, so does your new-business program,” Shorey cautions. It also can be expensive: You often get what you pay for with business-development professionals. And the outcomes can be unpredictable, depending on the skill level of the person you hire.
  6. “Spark and Torch.” This program (taught by Sanders Consulting in Richmond, VA) teams a principal with a go-getter marketing assistant. The assistant works a leads database, makes cold calls and sends letters to prospects. When she gets a “spark” (a warm lead), she hands it off to the principal for follow-up. This is good for building relationships with prospective clients. It’s also fairly cost-effective, because the leads chaser doesn’t have to be highly experienced. But it’s difficult to identify, hire, train and keep a good assistant.
  7. Outside consultant. You have many options, from telemarketing experts to coaches who can teach you to deliver more effective new-business presentations. The advantage of using an outside firm: Someone is responsible and accountable. But consider carefully whether you’re prepared to follow the advice of your highly paid consultant.
  8. Public relations. This is popular among firms looking to distinguish themselves via their creative excellence. It includes entering design competitions, pitching your projects or stories to relevant publications and speaking at conferences. By creating a buzz around your company, you push yourself into a position of prominence. PR is good for firm morale and fairly low-cost, but it’s time- intensive and it doesn’t immediately translate into additional work. “It might be a year or 18 months before you see results, and you can’t let up in the meantime,” Shorey says.
  9. The target system. This strategy works because it integrates many new-business tactics, from one-on-one meetings to indirect communications that reach a broad audience. Picture a target, with the bulls-eye representing client meetings. The first ring is your firm’s network, including the press, consultants, clients and friends of the firm (anyone capable of carrying your brand message). The next ring is your “mail to” group^#151the people you communicate your marketing message to via the mail or other indirect channels. And the outermost ring is PR, which sends your message to the largest group of people.

“People are always asking me if they should send out a mailer or hire someone to talk on the phone,” Shorey says. “That’s like asking me if I want a station wagon or a barbecue grill. They’re not interchangeable. The best way to develop new business is to integrate all new-business initiatives into a 365-day-a-year plan.”

Develop a Tactical Marketing Plan
It sounds complicated, Shorey says, but a tactical marketing plan is nothing more than a one-page outline of your strategies. It should include:

  • Your positioning/brand statement (what you do, not who you are): “I create packaging and point-of-sale solutions for top packaged-goods companies,” not “I’m a designer.”
  • Your current market position and target audience (Point A)
  • Your desired market position and target audience (Point B)
  • An implementation plan outlining how you’ll employ various new-business tactics (sales presentations, networking, direct mail and PR) to get you from Point A to Point B. Add specifics: dollar amounts, mail dates, etc.

Don’t Expect Immediate Results
The most common reason that firms don’t follow an integrated, consistent new-business plan is that they’ve completed parts of one (a direct-mail piece, perhaps) and been dissatisfied with the results. “My answer to that is two words,” Shorey says. “Reach and frequency.” Don’t expect an immediate spike in business when you mail a promotion or send out a press release. “Creating brand awareness is a long-term thing,” Shorey adds. “Do you see Tide running only one commercial?”

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