How to Approach Business Development by Forming Relationships with Prospects and Clients

Does the thought of “doing business development” give you anxiety? Likely, it’s because you’re imagining making cold calls, sending out emails to decision-makers you’ve never met, or even having a bunch of lunches and hoping for results. While all those actions can be an aspect of business development, they’re not the most effective way to obtain and retain clients.

At its core, business development centers around forming and nurturing relationships with prospects and clients—relationships that are mutually beneficial. There is a significant difference between selling to prospects or clients and building solid business relationships. In order to approach business development with a relationship mindset, let’s look at the advantages.

Why is relationship building important in business?

Business relationships are a partnership—you work together with the goal of both sides being successful. This partnership allows you to:

  • Have a competitive advantage:

    Great business partners communicate well. This means you’ll always know what’s going on in the client’s company, what challenges they have, and any of their upcoming needs. You become a trusted advisor and one they want to give more business to.

  • Retain clients:

    It’s much easier to maintain a relationship with a client you already have versus identifying new prospects and restarting the business development process. The longer you work with a client and become entrenched in their business, the more efficient and effective you can be.

  • Generate word of mouth referrals:

    Happy clients will willingly pass your name along to others and provide testimonials. This is an essentially free way of doing business development, and you’re not doing anything more than providing great service to your current clients.

  • Stick it out through tough times:

    Business relationships can experience challenges, whether they are due to the economy or other factors, but if you’re both invested in the partnership, everyone wants to make it work. When you put in the time and resources to develop strong client relationships now, you will reap the benefits in the long term.

How to build business relationships

Below are a few ways we’ve found to create successful partnerships with prospects and clients:

  • Focus on the relationship, not the sale:

    “Always be closing.” That was the famous phrase used by Alec Baldwin’s character in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, but if you use this strategy with prospects and clients, it will probably backfire. No one likes to be sold to, so don’t approach people with a transaction mentality. Take time to understand what their needs and goals are and determine how you can best support them.

    As we all know, you rarely get new business on the first or even fifth try. Rather than viewing this as a frustrating sales process, use the “touches” to learn more about the prospect and how they operate. It’s also an opportunity to show them your communication and service style, so when you begin working together, you already have a good foundation.

  • Provide additional value:

    Ensuring you’re providing excellent client service should be the number one priority, but what will take the relationship to the next level is added value. How can you give the client more via your expertise, resources and connections? Are you waiting for them to come to you with a question or issue, or are you regularly checking in to gauge how things are going? Are you offering educational resources, such as an article you wrote, or sending a client an alert that may be helpful to the company? Where can you make introductions that could help grow their business? These are all little things that can make a big difference when someone is considering whether to give you their business or continue to work with your firm for many years.

  • Be honest and address issues head on:

    Not every client relationship is going to go smoothly. There are a number of reasons you can encounter hurdles, but the worst thing you can do is ignore problems or get defensive. If your team made a mistake, be honest and explain to the client what happened. This allows for open dialogue versus burying your head in the sand and hoping the client won’t notice or, worst case, they have to bring it up to you. Most clients will respect that you were proactive and want to rectify the situation to keep the relationship intact.

If the relationship isn’t going as well as you hoped due to lack of client feedback or another challenge on their end, the same rule applies. Don’t let a relationship sour because you don’t want to rock the boat. Having these hard conversations now will maintain a better relationship in the long run.

Business development doesn’t have to feel awkward or salesy if your approach is honest, transparent, and mutually beneficial. And while you may want to secure a new client on the first try, remember there is a lot to be gleaned while developing the relationship that can benefit you once you’re officially working together.

Check out our additional resources on successful business development strategies:

Can’t Commit to Business Development? An Expert Shares 4 Ways to Make It Stick

Podcast: Tips on Building Relationships with In-House Counsel

Leveraging LinkedIn as a Powerful Business Development Tool

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