What can Jack Reacher, the hero of Lee Child’s action series, tell us about prospecting and finding business?
All the core bits, it turns out.
I’ve just been on a family holiday to Copenhagen, one of the nicest cities in the world. Nice – both in terms of the feel of the place and the character of the people who live there. Even when they’re asking you to move out of the way they seem to sing at you rather than bark angrily.
It’s also a hugely expensive city – but somehow seems worth it.
You just get drawn into that cool Scandanavian style of it all – and suddenly spending en enormous amount of money on a cup of tea and a sandwich just seems ok.
On this trip I had the chance to devour a couple of Lee Child books, including “Night School”, where Reacher and a team of other operatives need to find an American who is cutting a deal with a terrorist group, with negotiations taking place in Germany.
They start by looking at the whole population of Americans in Europe. Reacher says “The percentage play would be to start making lists”. Military personnel, civilians, whomever you can find. It’s a percentage play because some people won’t be on records, for example if they drive in through a land border that isn’t recorded.
Perhaps around 200,000 Americans in all. That’s a big number.
Now, compare that to the way in which you might start your prospecting process. It’s much the same. How many companies are out there. In the UK, that’s around 2 million.
How many are large businesses that turn over more than £10 million? That’s around 30,000 or so.
How many are smaller ones that make between £300k and £3 million? You’re looking at around 850,000 companies.
A big list, however you look at it.
Then, you start working through the list, just as Reacher and the team did. They excluded people based on various criteria – if they couldn’t have been in a certain place, for example. They were trying to work down to a small number.
You’re trying to do the same. The difference is that with a list of several hundred thousand, starting at A and dialling is going to cost you – in time or money or both.
That’s the mistake most of us make with prospecting. To start with the assumption that what we do is interesting to a lot of people. That everyone out there is a potential customer.
We need to turn that around and shrink the population we’re working with as much as possible. What’s the characteristic of small populations?
What you do is look for a number of different characteristics. As Reacher goes on to say, “Guys willing to betray their country for money”. Guys willing to do other bad things. “Like a Venn diagram. Not many people where the circles meet.”
That’s the point really. Getting the number of circles right. Too many, and you end up with no one. Too few, and the population is too large. What you want is the right number of circles to come up with a population size that is right for your prospecting engine.
Let’s apply this to a real business process, one that is increasingly applicable in today’s data driven business environment.
One of the areas that I am interested in is data-driven decision making. So, if I wanted to create a business out of this capability as a service, who should I target?
For a start, it makes sense to target businesses that create data. That rules out organisations like hairdressers or garage mechanics. While they promote their businesses through word of mouth and social media they don’t generate the kind of data that requires analysis and processing.
On the other hand, businesses that source a wide range of products and need to manage the associated data, firms that have large number of sensors that record and monitor data and organisations that work in financial or commodity markets are a good fit for what I do.
The next thing is that the businesses I target should currently have highly manual ways of working.
If they’re very technologically savvy, then they don’t need me. It’s the ones that are struggling, that are drowning in a mountain of data that require help.
Another criteria to look at is whether data is a core focus for them. If they sell clothes, for example, the data they create – specifications, sizes, photos – are secondary to their core focus on fashion and trend. The data bit is the messy backdrop to their core business of making people feel great in their clothes.
If, however, they make their living by arbitraging the differences in pricing, then data is a focus and they’ll do this as part of their core business.
Let’s add another circle. How open are they to outsourcing?
If they are the kind of firm that prefers to keep everything in-house and hire their own staff, then you’re going to struggle to get them to engage. Instead, if they see the value in using partners and contractors with specialist expertise, then you’ve got a chance to engage with them.
Creating these circles and looking at them like a Venn diagram gets you clear about what your ideal customer will look like. It doesn’t actually cut down your list – because you might not know some of these things about them – but you do know what kind of customer you want, and that’s a start.
Now, you can design your marketing and advertising to target this kind of customer. When you’re researching prospects, you can prioritise the ones that look like the ideal customer you now have in your head. When you’re talking to them, you can ask questions to find out where they sit in your Venn diagram and keep them in or out.
To succeed you need to focus on the clients that make up the core of your Venn diagram – these are the ones that you have the greatest chance of engaging with and converting to sales. The ones that will fill your pipeline with business.
Going back to Copenhagen, its reputation as an expensive city will put many people off travelling there.
That’s not a problem for the Danes. Some people will save up, just so they can experience the city. Others, who have the money, will go there willingly. It was a big deal for us, but we went because it was a special, one-off experience that we wanted to do.
The ones that turn up, the ones that are in the centre of Copenhagen’s Venn diagram, are the ones that will put money into the city.
And that’s just good business.
ps. As a reminder, this is the eighth post in a series that I’m planning on eventually collecting into a book on Consultative Selling. If you are reading this and are interested in this topic, please let me have any feedback, good or bad, so I can make this as useful and easy to read for you as possible.