Surviving the Downturn – Part One

During my last 15 years in private practice, I’ve seen at least 3-4 cycles of ups and downs, during which employers can be relied upon to boost the recruitment industry in their vain and often meaningless search for this mysterious ‘holy grail’. The saviour with the Midas touch, who will single-handedly, with one giant leap, transform a struggling business into a successful one.

And why do they keep on repeating the same behaviour and get the same results time after time? For the same reason that we play the lottery, I suspect; if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t possibly win. However, I submit that as much as the psychology is the same; so are the chances of pulling a winning ticket. And yet, businesses can be relied upon to keep doing it again and again; just so long as there’s a chance, then it’s worth the gamble. After all, it’s only a small outlay for a potentially sizeable return. I can certainly see the lure and understand the thought processes which drive such decision-making. However, in much the same way as playing the lottery, it really has very little chance of success.

Business Development is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a clear and definable skill which has its roots firmly planted in one-to-one relationship building. And yet, so misunderstood is this role and so misaligned has it become over the years, that the role has become synonymous with something which sits in the twilight zone between sales and marketing. A role which requires an incumbent to make repeated and unsolicited calls to leads and potential customers, armed with a brochure or sales pitch of the latest product or service offering. The ultimate door-knocker, if you will. The snake oil salesman of yesteryear; and if that’s not bad enough, businesses which err towards a marketing bent, often swamp leads or potential customers with so much useless and confusing collateral, that they barely know what it is they are being asked to consider. Both approaches are about as useless as baling water out of the Titanic with a saucepan.

So, is there a better way?

Yes, there is, and one which is guaranteed to give every business the best possible chance of surviving and beating a downturn. Firstly, recognise that business development is a clearly defined skill, with purpose, clarity and definition; and secondly view it as a long-term sustainable investment, which, over time, will pay a steady and ever-improving return. Recruit and develop a talent pool of those who are the most natural and gifted relationship-builders, from whatever discipline they come from, and set them to work on forging long-term ‘trusted partner’ status with your key existing and target potential clients. Give them the freedom to operate outside of constraining and restrictive targets and work practices and reward them on their skill and ability in maintaining an ongoing dialogue with their clients. It’s this dialogue which is key to sustainability and which, ultimately, propels them and the business into trusted partner status. The most successful business developers don’t actually sell anything; they don’t need to, because their clients are only too happy to buy from them, as and when the opportunity arises. And what’s even better, is that they continue to buy, again and again and again. Just so long as there’s trust, there will always be a return. It may not be immediate and it may not scoop the jackpot, but it will be consistent and reliable.

What value does this level of consistency and reliability have in the current economic climate? However, just like any solid and worthwhile investment, it requires time, patience and good judgement, which might well be a better bet than a weekly punt on the lottery.

Jeremy Thorn is the founding President of QED Consulting, a qualified Executive Leadership Coach and also Non-Executive Director of several fast-growing businesses. He is also the author of several prize-winning business books and a frequent speaker on management topics internationally.

First published by The Telegraph online business club

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