Be client curious – improve your client development to win more business

Having written about why it’s so important to focus on acquiring new business when you’re profitable – and by new business I mean clients you’ve never worked with before – it seemed like time to write about client development, and share a surprisingly effective and simple tip on how to improve it.

Client development should be ongoing, continual and as natural a part of doing business as it is providing your actual service. Because then, if the going gets tough and the investment into acquiring brand new business needs to be put on hold for a while, your existing clients don’t get a shock as you suddenly turn to them and become a whole lot more interested.

So, to my tip: be client curious.

It is simple, effective and a genuinely pleasurable experience for the customer. By ‘be client curious’ I mean show curiosity and be inquisitive. This works for prospects too, incidentally. Then be proactive. Show them you want to know more about them and their business, industry and people; their challenges, highs and lows, successes and failures. Keep an eye on their competitors, watch what they do. Share this information freely and frequently. Make suggestions based on your knowledge and experience. Give away relevant advice and recommendations that show you understand their problems.

Remember back to any ‘A’ levels you did (for those in the UK) – where the teachers went on about how reading around the subject would be the difference between a C grade, and an A grade. Taking your client’s brief and just delivering it is the business equivalent of being spoon-fed the knowledge you need to just pass your exam. Well done, you passed – another day gone, another client reasonably satisfied, another salary cheque received.

There is far more to building a successful client portfolio than just good service.

For those of you with an interest in the business, with commercial leanings, with client revenue targets, with ambition…. There is client development. Get interested in the client, genuinely, and start asking questions. Read about their industry, sign up to alerts and pass on timely snippets of relevant news. You will learn more about them, be better placed to offer higher value advice, hear about related business challenges and projects well before they become pitches or tenders….. the list of benefits is endless.

  • They’ll be flattered and pleased by your interest, share their own developments and concerns with you, and ultimately start asking more about you.
  • You’ll naturally talk about other products and services you offer – and the cross-sell can happen.
  • Your relationship will deepen and greater trust will develop.
  • Greater trust means more work and more referrals.

And all that simply from being curious about clients, inquisitive, and proactive. What’s not to like?

Let’s look at possible obstacles in that process. You don’t have time to read around the subject / think of questions to ask / search out snippets of news from the myriad of info available for every client. You aren’t a naturally outgoing or inquisitive person, you’re a specialist and have a serious service to deliver in a tight timescale. Shouldn’t the sales guy/girl be doing all that stuff, isn’t that what they are paid to do?

Not enough time for client development?

Everyone is busy, but the successful ones – and the successful businesses – are focused on client service and client development. There are ways to streamline the process, and what works for your business will depend on your size, services and set-up. Here are some thoughts.

  • Profile and group your clients – for example into separate industry sectors – and assign a person to become the resident ‘expert’ in that area. They are the knowledge gatherer and they take responsibility for feeding client news, industry news and other useful titbits out to the person/people managing the clients in that sector.
  • Set up Google alerts (free) or invest in an industry insight tool like Meltwater (not free) – there are lots available at various price points.
  • Brainstorm all clients with the team and together create a list of 20 things you would like to know about your client / sector etc. that you don’t already. The nosiest most naturally inquisitive member of your team may find this so easy that they could write your list for you without hardly knowing your clients. They should be open questions (no yes or no answers). Make this your starting point and set yourself the challenge of asking one question at every meeting or during every phone call. Top tip – don’t ask these questions by email – it just feels like homework for a client and they would rather ignore the whole email than try and respond in writing. You want to start a conversation, not query the client’s knowledge!
  • It can’t be the sales team doing this – they need to stay focused on winning brand new business, clients you’ve never worked with before. It also can’t be the sales team because it has to come from the person the client already has a working relationship with, so that respect and trust can develop and grow.

Worried that you can’t give out free advice and recommendations, or you’ll sabotage your own consultancy income?

Don’t be. This is about demonstrating thought leadership (now, that’s a whole ‘nother topic) and building trust. When you offer relevant and useful advice to a client in response to a problem they have, it moves the conversation up a level. It helps to position you away from being a supplier (potentially of a commodity, where your client could change suppliers any time) and towards being a partner (someone they lean on who really understands them). People do business with people, and in the longer term they remember and rely on those that help and support them. Be confident that the paid  consultancy or strategy work will follow as the relationship builds.

Can’t get yourself (or your team) to be interested in the client’s business?  

If you are struggling with being genuinely interested in a client’s business or sector, I see three options.

  1. You become interested. Someone once told me that ‘anything in detail is interesting’, when I asked them how they could contemplate doing a three year doctorate on the intricacies of complex, synthetic hydrocarbons as lubricants in subsea marine engines – or something like that. I’ve reminded myself of this idiom plenty of times when I know I need to pay more real attention to a prospect or a client, and it works. The more I learn, the more interested I get and the more I want to know. It’s a virtuous cycle.
  2. You are in the right job but the wrong industry.
  3. You may have the wrong attitude to be good at client development. You might be better suited to a role as a specialist in a bigger team supported by an account manager or client director who has that responsibility. This is a common set-up in many larger professional service organisations.

Finally – this whole approach of ‘be client curious’ works equally well in prospecting and sales during the qualification stage as it does in client development.

(Note on plagiarism – I coined the phrase ‘be client curious’ as I began writing this article as it seemed to perfectly sum up the approach I think you need to succeed in client development. I have unashamedly borrowed it from the phrase ‘Be Life Curious’, used by Psychologies Magazine – so thanks to them for that starting point!)

Need more help with your sales and marketing?

I’m Kim Mason, a freelance sales and marketing consultant based in Hampshire, UK. I work best with small businesses selling higher value products and services B2B. Find out more here about whether I’d be a good fit to help you.

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