How to develop your business-to-business operation

If you really want to be successful in developing your business, here - in strict order - are the five smart things Mac MacKay says you should do

  1. Ask your customers how to serve them better - what they'd like you to do more of, what less of? Listen to (and do) what they say. Don't accept "You're OK" as an answer. Keep asking until they tell you how to deserve a "You're terrific!" Don't stop iterating through this until at least 90% of your customers would be willing to provide you with a written testimonial, and until at least 80% of your new customers come from unsolicited referrals from your existing customers.

    We've discussed a lot about listening to customers in all sectors of business - it's just as important in retail, too.

  2. Invest heavily in your existing business customers by demonstrating an interest in their affairs. Meet with them regularly, to discuss their business; attend their internal meetings; conduct free in-house seminars for them; read their trade magazines; and do them small favours. Notice that all of this means a lot more than just entertaining and socialising with customers - that stuff is nice, but secondary. Work harder on the business relationship first, not just the personal one.

    Don't stop doing this until you automatically get the overwhelming majority of their new business without even having to propose on it. Yes, existing customers do represent the best source of new business, but to deserve theirs, you have to earn it by being willing to invest sufficiently in the relationship. Don't invest anything at all in winning new customers until you're sure you've captured all the best opportunities in your existing client base! Those who have already retained your prior attention. That's professionalism.

    Review what has been said about building customer loyalty elsewhere.

  3. If your referrals aren't providing enough new-client business to meet your needs, go back to steps one and two, and make sure you're doing all you can to follow them. Then do this: Decide which new customers you would be willing to serve free. You won't - but think about which ones you would serve for nothing if you had to. Why this crazy thought? Simple! Customers want providers who are enthusiastic about them, interested in them, committed to them, and dedicated to them. If you're not willing to be enthusiastic, interested, committed, and dedicated, your marketing will fail. Professional business people are supposed to care about their customers, aren't they? So why go after someone you don't care for?

    If by chance you do win the business of someone you don't feel enthusiastic about, you will only have to spend your days serving someone whose business doesn't interest you. Is that what you really want? Remember that the results of your marketing will determine whatever fulfilment your career will offer - which customers you'll get to work with, what professional challenges you'll be exposed to, how much fun you'll have in your work, and so on.

    Don't aim your marketing only at low-hanging fruit - dream a little. List who your dream customers are, and them set a plan in motion to win them. If you aren't convinced yet, ask yourself what percentage of your customers you really like, and what percentage of your work you find intellectually stimulating. Are you satisfied with those percentages?

  4. Once you've decided whom you want to serve (and I do mean serve), design a package of activities to demonstrate - not assert - that you have a special interest in them, that you have something of value to offer them, and that you are willing to work to deserve and earn their trust.

    Don't give small amounts of uncustomised attention to a lot of prospects through mailing lists, brochures, newsletters, and the like: That's equivalent to standing on street corners saying 'Hire me, I'm good!' You're more professional than that. Prove your interest and your worth by giving your prospects something useful: an article, a speech, a piece of research, an idea, or a seminar. Prospective customers don't want unprofessional puffery. They want you to give them the evidence on which to base a sensible decision.

  5. Once a prospective client shows some interest in considering you, forget about talking about yourself and your firm. Successful marketing has less to do with you and your capabilities than with your abilities to find out what customers want. The key is listening, not talking. The key talent in good selling is being good at getting the client to tell you his or her problems, needs, wants, and concerns. Treat your prospect like a client from the minute you meet: react, give ideas, explain options, and provide an education. Don't wait until you're being paid before you're helpful. You're a professional - prove it by being helpful from the beginning.

What about all the other marketing tactics, such as brochures, newsletters, publicity, advertising? Haven't they been ignored? Yes, I certainly have, and so should you. You might want to spend some time and money in this area, but it is fatal to think that they are your primary marketing weapons. Of course, it can't hurt to be quoted in the newspaper, and, yes, your client might want your brochure to show that due diligence was done. But this is backup. All real marketing (and all real professionalism) lies in steps one through five above.

The good news is that professionalism and marketing are not in conflict with each other at all: They are the same thing. Both are defined by a dedication to being of service and helping people. As Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People: "You'll have more fun and success when you stop trying to get what you want, and start helping other people get what they want."

For more information on this subject, see the Resources box on the right.