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Most small to mid-size professional service firms today acquire clients by way of referrals. I recently interviewed a leader of a mid-size management consulting firm who stated that 85% of their new business opportunities come from referrals from existing clients or from their network of business contacts. This is a very common scenario.
But the point I want to make in this article is that your greatest opportunity for growth probably will not come by way of referrals. Most of the small to mid-size professional service firms I’ve worked with in the last 20 years recognize that they own just a small portion of the available market.
Many of these firms are only doing business with 15-20% of the people they know buy the kinds of services they offer. So what about the other 80-85%. What does it take to do business with them?
This is the question that I believe professional service leaders should be asking themselves? If you know that referrals can only give you a sliver of your potential market share, what should you do to capture a higher percentage of market share? My answer? Position for the autonomous buyer.
What is an autonomous service buyer?
An autonomous service buyer is someone who needs your services, has budget, has a specific timeline in which they must take action and is actively looking for solutions. But in our experience, this person is not often looking for a company or service provider, per se. They are looking for great ideas that can help them achieve their goals.
There are a few characteristics of the autonomous service buyer that make them distinct from a referral:
- A referral comes from someone who probably already knows you and knows the prospect being referred. An autonomous buyer doesn’t know you or anyone in your network.
- A referral receives an implied endorsement from the person who refers them, as if to say “hey you should trust this person I’m referring you to.” An autonomous buyer gets no such confidence boost as they go looking for ideas. They don’t know who they can trust?
- A referral will come to you, tell you their problems and then you can start to put forward a solution. This creates trust. An autonomous buyer, by their very nature, will not tell you about their problems. They are flying under the radar until they are sure you have good ideas than can address their problems – the very problems they’re not telling you about.
There are more autonomous buyers than referrals out there by a huge margin
The number one reason you should position for autonomous buyers is because there are far more of them out there than there are referrals. Referrals rely on your network to produce inbound conversations. T
he bigger your network, the bigger your pool of potential referrals. But the smaller your network, the smaller your referral pool. Why would you limit your growth opportunities to just your network?
The autonomous buyer is not limited by your network size. There are as many autonomous buyers available as there are people who fit your ideal client profile, need your services, have budget, timeline and reason to act.
When you think about it that way, how many potential buyers do you believe are available to you right now? I’ll wager that the number is many times more than the number of people who are connected to your network. Let me give you two examples.
An accounting firm does business today with 1,500 entrepreneurs. They get around 100 referrals (some good, some not so good) from their existing clients and their network of other professionals. But they also know that, within their geographic area, there are more than 15,000 entrepreneurs they could be working with.
A management consulting firm does business with 200 hospitals today that have between 100-500 beds. There are more than 2,000 hospitals in the US today with 100-500 beds. In an average year, they only get 10 quality referrals to new hospitals that actually produce a new scope of work.
The autonomous buyer wants to be as invisible as possible for as long as possible
We deploy marketing automation software that tracks the digital footprint of users. What we see, year after year, is that autonomous buyers were consuming ideas and considering a service provider’s approach sometimes for years before they reached out for a conversation. Why do they do this?
Usually it’s because the time wasn’t right for them and they didn’t want to be bugged by a salesperson until they had a specific need, budget and timeline. I would wager that you might do the same thing.
Do you give your work email address and phone to anyone you are not yet ready to do business with? Busy people want to engage on their terms and in a way that works for them.
How to position for the autonomous buyer
There are two key steps I recommend and two articles that explain in much greater detail how to take action of these steps:
1. Build an ideal client profile that is rich and nuanced.
2. Build a thought leadership campaign that speaks to your ideal client’s tipping points, when they go looking for great ideas to help them achieve their goals.
There are all kinds of ways to create and provision thought leadership content. But the most important thing is that it is targeted toward your ideal client and full of ideas to help them.
Your biggest growth opportunity will come from positioning for the autonomous service buyer and creating trust with them before they even know you. What’s more, when the time is right for them, they’ll quickly move through your sales funnel.
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