I talk to professional service firm leaders almost daily. They routinely ask me for my advice about when they should engage prospects in dialogue. This can be a real conundrum. Talk to them too early and they ignore you. Talk to them too late and you miss opportunities.

Knowing when to engage in dialogue is challenging. But there is often an even bigger challenge - knowing who to talk to. For business development and sales people, these two questions are of paramount importance: who and when?

I’m not going to promise you a silver bullet here, because the truth of the matter is that we haven’t found one yet. But we have found a guiding principle that is very effective. It goes like this. Talk to the right people at the right time and the right things will happen.

This is quite tricky. The people have to be right and the time has to be right for you to have conversations that produce deals. So how can you know who is right and when the time is right? I’d like to share some insights here to show you what’s working today.

Key Take-Away:

Most people won’t achieve their career or life goals without the help of a professional service provider somewhere along their journey. If they don’t get that help, they will suffer.

The Ideal Prospect

The most important factor in achieving a great outcome is talking to the right people. Who are these people and what do they look like? I think you are looking for ideal prospects?

An ideal prospect is someone who fits your ideal client profile but who is not yet your client. These are the people you want to be talking to. What’s an ideal client profile?

There are seven major qualities that we have identified that cause ideal clients to stand out:

  1. Impact: you deliver services that have a significant impact on their situation, usually their top or bottom line or both. 
  2. Budget: ideal clients easily afford your services and usually have already reserved a line item in their budget for those services.
  3. Profits: you earn a substantial profit by delivering these services.
  4. Insights: you understand what your ideal client needs often better than they do.
  5. Expertise: your ideal clients want and need your specific capabilities and have limited options for acquiring that expertise.
  6. Culture: there is a good fit between the way you do business and the way your ideal clients prefer to be served.
  7. Chemistry: your staff and your ideal clients’ staff work well together with few conflicts.

I would imagine that you if made a list of clients who fit this profile, some common characteristics would start to emerge about those people. This is what we call ideal client demographics: characteristics like age, race, gender, education, title, industry and other factors.

But I encourage you to go even deeper and make a list of their psychographics. These are the topics that really matter to them. For instance, if you are from a CPA firm, your ideal client may be deeply concerned with taxes, compliance issues and technology systems.

If you are from an IT consulting firm, your ideal clients may be deeply concerned with the reliability, scalability and security of their technology environment. If you are from a coaching organization, your ideal clients may be focused on creating the most productive and unified working environment possible.

If you’re from a law firm, your ideal client may be concerned with protecting their assets or organization from law suits that drain resources and de-focus their staff. If you’re from a financial services firm, your ideal clients may be obsessed with protecting and growing their wealth.

If you’re from an engineering or architectural firm, your ideal client may be focused on producing a building with beautiful aesthetics and practical features that conserve energy and water.

Here is what we’ve discovered after working with service firms in all of these disciplines. They all have ideal clients and all of those clients have major goals. The more clearly you understand and can speak to those goals, the more successful you’ll be.

What’s important here is that you are intentional about building a profile of your ideal client based on the best clients you have today. So when the time comes for dialogue, you have a framework to compare the prospect against your ideal client profile.

If there is a fit, then a conversation probably makes sense. But if there is not a fit, then it may not be best for either of you. LinkedIn makes it very easy today to see how closely someone matches up against your ideal client profile.

So this is the first step in knowing whether or not you should talk to a given prospect. But it’s only the first step because in my experience, a match against the ideal client profile is just the baseline. It’s the bare minimum you need. 

 

When To Engage Prospects

Once you understand who you need to talk to, you then come to one of the trickier parts of this equation – when to talk to them. This is not an easy thing to figure out these days and for several reasons.

Here is the approach that we find works best:

  • Be mindful of the new 90-10 rule.
  • Build a content marketing plan that pulls prospects toward your ideas.
  • Deploy marketing automation so you can see who is engaging.
  • Be diplomatic in your outreach efforts to prospects who are leaning in.

Let’s take a look at each of these key ideas.

 

The New 90-10 Rule

The new 90-10 rule holds that organic prospects want to take 90% of the in-bound journey before they have a conversation with anyone at your company. Dialogue is now at the end of the journey for them and that is a massive shift to how things were just a few years ago.

This used to be the exact opposite. In the past, when a prospect wanted to know more about a company, they would typically place a phone call first and get an appointment to speak with a consultant. Those days are nearly over.

The 90-10 rule has given rise to a new type of prospect. I call them the self-persuading prospect. These people now want to make their in-bound journey completely autonomously – on their own and without talking to a real human being. As they progress on this journey, they are determining whether or not you are right for them.

They are making this calculation, almost 100%, based on what they discover in your digital ecosystem – your website, emails, LinkedIn profile and other digital assets. But mostly, they are looking at your ideas to discern whether or not they find them insightful, applicable and appropriate for their goals.

There are two critical implications of the new 90-10 rule for service professionals:

  • You must have the right content marketing plan, because that is determining whether or not they will talk to you.
  • You must deploy marketing automation so you can see who is engaging and be prepared to talk to them. 

 

The Right Content Marketing Plan

We find that most prospects today will only move inbound in your direction if you give them great ideas. But, more often than not, the best prospects with great budgets are also time-starved. They don’t have enough time in the day to do everything that needs to get done.

This means you need to give them ideas that fit their time requirements. For instance, some prospects are just starting their journey and don’t have a lot of time to do a lot of research about your ideas. This is why you need short-form content, kind of like this blog.

Some prospects need a lot more information because they are trying to decide simultaneously between service providers and service approaches. In other words, some prospects will be looking at more than one service provider and will also be looking at the approach they think each service provider might recommend. That is a lot of information to take in and digest.

This is why you need a content marketing plan that respects the time available to your prospects based on where they are in their journey. Short-form pieces, like blog-posts, are great for prospects just getting started. But long-form pieces, like e-books, are great for prospects who want to do a deeper dive analysis on your ideas and approach. 

 

The Need For Marketing Automation

As prospects are consuming your information, you are persuading them that you are the partner they need. But this often feels like a cat and mouse game. Why? Because they won’t let you know how valuable and influential your ideas are for them until after they’ve made up their mind that you’re right for them.

We hear this all the time. Prospects consume our content and spend a lot of time thinking about the ideas we present them. But they almost never reach out to us in the middle of that journey to say – “hey I think that was a great idea.”

Instead, they try to remain as invisible for as long as possible. We see prospects routinely registering for content with Gmail and other generic email addresses. We know these prospects are afraid that as soon as they give us their contact information, they’ll be pestered by sales calls. By the way, we don’t do that.

This is why you need marketing automation. Despite what you may have heard, the value of marketing automation is not automation. It’s lead scoring.

Lead score is a translation of a prospect’s aggregate digital behavior into a score. For instance, let’s assume a prospect opens an email (2 points), clicks on an email (3 points), visits a webpage (5 points), fills out a form for an e-book (25 points), downloads the e-book (20 points), visits a pricing page (30 points) and visits a services page that is featured in the e-book (10 points).

Their digital behavior suggests that they are definitely interested in your ideas and are on some type of a search. They wouldn’t spend time doing this if they weren’t interested.

If your email, webpage, e-book and service pages are all about the same topic, you can know with a high degree of confidence that they are considering your ideas for that topic. That’s a great start.

This is why marketing automation is so powerful these days. If you don’t have marketing automation, this prospect might be completely invisible to you. But with marketing automation, you can know who they are, what they are interested in and how much time they’ve spent with your ideas. That knowledge is a tremendous help when it comes time for dialogue.

The other beauty of marketing automation is that it can help you decide when the time is right to reach out to a prospect. Here is what I mean.

Digital marketing produces two types of opportunities as it relates to dialogue with organic prospects. Either prospects request a meeting or the service provider requests the meeting. If a prospect requests the meeting, your judgement call about whether or not to take that meeting will be based on their match against your ideal client profile.

But how do prospects decide whether or not to take your call? Here is what we’ve discovered. The closer a prospect gets to needing to make a decision, the more open they are to having a conversation with a service provider.

Their digital behavior almost never lies. A sudden spike in digital activity is a clear indication that a prospect is approaching a decision moment. No one likes to make decisions without being informed and having all of their options on the table.

So the lesson learned is this. A tactful request for a conversation about a prospects’ goals, delivered at the right time and with the right tone, is often just the push they need to enter dialogue. 

 

Practice Diplomacy

Buyers of services have become much smarter, much more sophisticated and far less trusting. They hate being pitched to and frequently avoid anyone who sounds like a “sales person.” This has led to a world of jaded prospects.

But the sad truth is that the need for services, in today’s complex world, is greater than ever. Most people won’t be able to achieve their career or life goals without the help of a professional service provider somewhere along their journey. If they don’t get that help, they will suffer.

This is why diplomacy is so important if you are the person requesting a meeting. If you strike the wrong tone at this critical moment, after a prospect had consumed your content and bought into your ideas, they will go cold very quickly. So I have a few recommendations for you.

First, respect your prospect’s time. Schedule a call at a time that works for them. Stick to the time allotted for the call. Have an agenda and make sure it focuses on your prospect’s goals. Make the most of your time together.

Second, at the beginning of the call, ask this key question. “What would be the ideal outcome for you of our time together today?” Then do everything in your power to ensure you deliver against that.

Third, learn everything you can about the prospect BEFORE the call. Look at their lead score in your marketing automation system and understand what they’ve been looking at and thinking about. Visit their LinkedIn profile and familiarize yourself with their history. Visit their website and learn everything you can there. 

 

How To Do This

If you follow these guidelines, you greatly increase your chances of talking to the right people at the right time. These ideas are part of a larger strategy that is really effective. In fact, I’ve written an e-book about this that’s called Ten Reasons Service Firms Need Marketing Automation Now. If you like the ideas in this blog-post, you’ll love the e-book. It’s free and available on our website right now.