Getting More Business -- The Art of Client Cultivation

Years ago, when I was a diplomat, I learned the art of cultivation. The process of building confidence, and beyond that, building trust. Patient and proper cultivation could ease discomfort, and even suspicion. It could lessen resistance, eventually leading to cooperative efforts. Over time, good things came from the patient workings of finding commonalities, and focusing on what the other side valued.

Business is no different. For your firm, a proper client cultivation program could lead to securing more who fit the profile of an ideal client.  A client (existing or past) who trusts you AND may possibly have referrals for you won't necessarily think about referring you if you aren't "top of mind" or on her "radar".  But if your cultivation of her is sincere and regular, it's more likely that she will funnel new clients to you whenever she meets someone who may need your services.

These are three things I focus on when cultivating potential and existing clients for new business and referrals:

  • Make it entirely about discovering the other person (i.e. your client). The little things that matter to the other person counts. Not what you hope to achieve, but what matters to them sets a tone of authentic interest in them, whereby they start to feel that you have their best interests at heart, even where you benefit from providing a service to them.
  • Track what they are interested in. Have a mechanism or process for capturing such information.
  • Act on the things that matter to them.

Take a look at thiscultivation card I created for a wealth management firm. It’s a quick and easy means of getting to really know what matters to your client. I recommend that you avoid surveys and such, which are painfully tedious. Worse, they can be highly impersonal, even cold. Remember: you’re looking for commonalities for an event that can bring clients together, and demonstrate to them that you are interested in something they value beyond your services.

So send a cover letter (or better still, a hand-written note) to your client after your first case with them is completed, and include the cultivation card. Most people won’t complete every field, but if they do provide some information, it gives you enough to work with. You can always send the card again at mid-year, with a short note asking them to update their records with you. Or send the card with an invitation to join a client appreciation event you're about to host.

For example, let’s say Ms Smith is a single woman in her mid-50s who has come to you to incorporate her new consulting business. She writes in the cultivation card that she enjoys playing golf, and supports a charity that feeds the poor and hungry. Take a look at the other clients who have provided information in their cultivation cards and organize a golf game for those who have indicated golf as a hobby, and host lunch thereafter (or breakfast before you tee off). It’s often the case that folks have a great time, and you’ll be credited for bringing them together. This is all the more meaningful if most of them are in business and would appreciate a networking opportunity that’s also enjoyable.

(Tip: invite 2 clients, and ask them to bring one or two people along, so that you’ll get to meet new faces too. Remember that birds of a feather tend to flock together and this is a subtle way to meet prospects like the clients you value.)

Ms Smith’s favorite charity is also an opportunity for cultivation: you could ask her whether that charity has silent auctions, and you could make a contribution in kind or in professional service (e.g. a comprehensive estate plan or will). The simple question of asking whether an auction is available would start your conversation with her about the people she knows in that organization, or volunteers with.

Lastly, let’s say she reads The Economist and has indicated that publication in her cultivation card. Why not introduce her to similar publications and purchase a subscription for her next birthday or the holidays.

Cultivation takes time. The key ingredient is sincerity. Too often, we come across “feel good” tactics or efforts which are thinly-veiled attempts at getting more business. Clients are smarter and savvier than this and deserve to be treated as such. Set aside any talk of business and make your cultivation a process of discovery whereby you are genuinely interested in what matters to your clients outside the work you’ve done for them. Better to spend some of your marketing dollars on these cultivating potentially rewarding relationships than on an ad or campaign, and have a genuinely good time with clients who will warm even more to you, and appreciate the work you do. It is a longer process, but likely a more rewarding one over the long term, and a must in everyone’s business development arsenal.

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