The most successful consultants I know have frantically "systemized" their existing networks and relationships.
You probably frowned as you read the word systemized. People picture themselves as robots, whose goal is to turn all of their relationships into transactions. But this couldn't be further from the truth.
A system doesn't need to be cold and automated. What we want from one is simply to increase efficiency, clarity, consistency, control. It turns out that a systemized network is easier to nurture, and doing that leads to deeper and healthier relationships.
This activity is key to building a strong marketing strategy and will allow you to increase your visibility and consistently generate opportunities at a relatively low cost. It's not a surprise I aggressively promote this practice among clients and friends. When done right it has virtually no downside, and it works:
Still, many consultants out there don't do any of these.
When things get busy we tend to focus on delivery and end up neglecting relationships. Contacts that are an important source of joy and business don't hear from us for months. We stop meeting new interesting people, and our energy level drops.
Every consultancy founder and partner would benefit from having a stronger network.
The Two Drivers Of Weak Networks
Sometimes consultants approach me frustrated with their current network. Despite investing time and energy in building and deepening relationships, they are getting nothing back. The problem is not effort, but the right focus.
Brian Uzzi, Co-Director of Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems (NICO), is one of the leading experts in networking. I've added several of his exercises to the training program I deliver to consulting partners - if you want to learn more about his work, you can start by reading this piece at HBR.
Confirming his research, I've found that consultants fall prey to two behaviors that hurt their network: The self-similarity principle, and the proximity principle.
The self-similarity principle states that we tend to choose and deepen relationships with contacts who look like us - in terms of experience, worldview, etc.
While many consultants are aware of the "similarity attraction bias" in hiring, we often forget this also affects our relationships. Of course, the self-similarity principle exists because it brings with it several benefits:
Of course, if your network is too similar (Uzzi provides some helpful benchmarks to evaluate it) the cons start to overcome the pros. You won't have access to discrepant information, which hurts creativity and problem-solving. And since people tend to introduce their contacts to one another, over time you end up creating an echo chamber.
Another obstacle to building a strong network is the proximity principle. The idea is simple: we prefer to populate our networks with the people we spend the most time with.
These could be your partners or team colleagues. The people who go to the same gym you do, or with whom you play golf every weekend. Or the folks who attend the same church as your family.
It doesn't matter the reason - similar interests, close physical location, or a random combination of factors. The fact is that the world is not carefully designed around your work, and life will steer you toward certain people.
If you want to consciously improve your network and leverage it to grow your consulting business, you need to take control of that process. That's why we need some kind of system or mechanism to steer our attention to the relationships that are likely to be the most important to our long-term success.
A Weekly Review Process To Manage Your Relationships
This system should not (and must not) be complicated or require much of your time. Otherwise, you won't implement it. Apart from doing a full network review, here's a suggestion for busy consultants to start proactively nurturing their relationships today:
The very first thing you need is to take some time to list those people. Who are the most important contacts that can help you grow and improve your business? This list can include not only dream clients, but also strategic partners and mentors. We call this the "primus list", and it should include no more than 15 people - if you are doing this for the first time, you might keep it under 10 names.
Then plan how you will initiate or move the relationship forward. Next to each of the names on your primus list, write what's the next proactive step you can take to do so. It can be sharing an article or presentation, asking for a time to catch up, inviting them to an event.
The second step is taking action. Pick at least 2-3 of these actions to perform this week. Pre-commit by blocking time on your calendar for business development - think of it as client work and you will take it seriously.
The last step is reviewing your list:
The simple act of revisiting the list every week will nudge you to find ways to add value and do more. Bonus points if you invite someone else to keep you accountable.
Of course, this is a simplification. There are a lot of ideas, tactics, and best practices to make such a system work. But if you consistently do this - every single week - you won't have pipeline problems for long.
Business development doesn't need to be complicated to work.
Want a PDF template you can use for your primus list? Grab one here.
“The fact is, you can win consulting business without marketing, without optimizing your impact, without knowing how to put together a compelling proposal, or without pricing your project well. But you can’t win without relationships. No executive is going to hand you $2.5 million or $250,000 or even $25,000 without having some sort of one-on-one relationship with you.”
When asked what tips the scale when selecting a service provider, consulting buyers ranked an “existing relationship” in first place.
Do you have a practical system to stay top of mind when things get busy?
Apart from the lack of a clear plan of action, the most common excuse for consultants to neglect their relationships is an obvious one: time.
And let's be clear: if you're running the business, discretionary time shrinks in a direct proportion to how much you're growing. More meetings. More deadlines. More people wanting to get some of your time.
But at the same time, the bigger the responsibility the bigger the importance of your relationships. With your team members. With your clients and prospects. With your partners.
The conclusion is simple: You need quick ways to nurture relationships.
While earning trust will always take time, research and practical experience show that this is possible. Here are the best ways we've found you can deepen a relationship in less than 6 minutes:
As part of our training and advisory programs, I have templates and best practices for each one of those tactics. If you're a subscriber and need some inspiration, just drop me a line and I'll gladly send them your way.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to avoid overthinking it. As James Clear said:
"Simple is nearly always better. But if it's going to be complicated, then make sure the problem is worth the complexity. A great deal of time is wasted creating complex solutions to relatively unimportant problems."
The frequency of interactions is one of the top drivers of likability and mindshare. You don't need to spend hours planning every message. If you want to earn trust and stay top of mind, stacking those small actions over time is a far better strategy.
And one you can always implement, even with a busy schedule.