Incoming! You’ve received an invitation from a prospective client. Whether it’s a request for a meeting, a proposal, a video conference chat or a formal pitch every invitation should start at the same place; it all begins with questions.
Questions are a fundamental tool of business development. They keep you from diving right into “what can we sell,” which is off-putting to say the least. They also allow you to get to the meat of the situation; questions help you uncover what the prospective client truly needs help with which allows you to offer the solution they need. And by asking good questions, you come across as client-centric because you’ve focused on them and not on you.
This all might sound great, but you may be wondering “how do we know what to ask?” Well, before you can ask the right questions, you need to do your homework — by preparing a Prospect Business Profile. Questions are a fundamental business development tool, and the Prospect Business Profile provides the background needed for you to ask the right questions.
Create a Prospect Business Profile
It may seem obvious, but you should make it a practice to gather information about every prospective client you hope to get on your roster. Many successful agencies make this a regular practice. However, few go the extra mile to build a complete company profile on a prospect that goes beyond the basics. In our experience, a prospect will feel a stronger connection if you can show that you understand their business in the questions that you ask. The best way to do that is to first make sure you cover each of the below categories.
- About Them: What they do. Who they sell to. How they are doing.
- The Marketplace: Industry dynamics. Competitive environment. Key trends, growth drivers, inhibitors.
- Business Strategy: How they go to market. What they are doing to stay unique and competitive.
- Competitors: Which competitors are taking share or launching new products that might threaten the prospect’s business.
- Culture & Structure: Company culture. Current and past reputation. Customer service.
- News: Latest products and announcements. Recent press.
Then, you can take that a bit further and learn even more about their company.
- Company Overview: This information is usually available in the “About” section on a company’s corporate website. It provides important insight into how a company talks about itself and the language they use.
- Revenue: Public companies publish this information (“Investor Relations”). Large public companies often include statements from the CEO. A Google News search about the company can also uncover recent changes or announcements. It can be more difficult to find the financials of private companies, but you would be surprised what you can discover between Google News, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, etc.
- Agency Relationships: Past or current agency partnerships are often listed in press releases in the “News” section of a company’s website. For major brands, check AdAge or Adweek online. Both have excellent search functions.
- General Business & Financial Information: General financial information and forecasts can be found through large equity research firms. Some companies publish a list of analysts who cover their firm in the “Investor Relations” portion of the web site. Many analyst reports are subscription only, but you can gain analyst insight via individual analyst quotes in the news. You can often find helpful analyst commentary by simply doing a Google search under “analyst” and the company’s name. Other information is available from analysts like Morningstar via fee trial memberships.
- Calendar & Seasonality: Some companies reference their retail calendar/seasonality on their “About” page. For others, analysts often provide commentary on retail calendars and seasonality.
- Corporate Headquarters & Key Executives: You should know who makes the decisions and where are the decision makers are located. Corporate addresses and key executives can usually be found in the “About,” “Contact Us,” or “Investor Relations” sections of corporate websites.
Once you have all of this information distilled down into one document, you will have an amazing resource for all future conversations. You’ll also have the information you need to ask questions that establish your credibility. Asking a prospective client “I saw recently that you began selling online in addition to your retail distribution. Is that right?” and “To what extent are internet sales impacting your business model?” leads to a much better conversation than “Would you like me to walk you through our credentials deck?”
When you ask prospect-relevant questions, prospects will automatically assume that you have knowledge about the subject being discussed. The key to asking those relevant and intelligent questions is to understand your prospect before you begin the conversation. Do the homework, build your Prospect Business Profile, and you’ll be armed with information to get you to the “next round” with your prospect, whatever that might be.
Lindsay O’Neil, a Senior Consultant at Mercer Island Group, has participated in extensive research across all marketing practices including Media, Digital, PR, Advertising, and Social. She has led and participated in numerous agency searches for clients like Envestnet, Zillow, Barre3, TrueCar, Brooks Running and Hitachi Vantara. One of her key strengths as a consultant is her deep understanding of marketing strategy and agency new business development practices.