Sales pipelines, consultancy, and navigating the lockdown

19.58, Wednesday 22 Jul 2020 Link to this post

I gave a talk, right at the beginning of lockdown, about how to keep your business going when the context changes. a.k.a. perspectives I wish I’d had at various points over the last 20 years.

One topic was about how to find clients (or customers, or partners). I’d just had a 6 month project evaporate so this topic was very much on my mind – the project I’d been developing was in the 80% Likely bracket of my pipeline, and I had been enormously looking forward to it.

(The talk was at the tail end of that 6 week period around April where literally all economic activity went on pause. It still bad now, but for that period is was zero and we didn’t know it was the tail end at the time.)

The sales pipeline is invisibly coupled to a wider context that you can’t see

The way I see it, when you’re building a company (and I include under that everything from startups to individual practices) you’re building two things:

  1. Product
  2. A machine that lets you continue producing that product

That “machine” is usually about selling the product for money. I think about it as (loosely) a pipeline with four stages:

  1. Marketing
  2. Development
  3. Sales
  4. Work/product operations

The beating heart of a company is to perform activities to drive this machine. A pure software play with sales automation will have one set of activities. A consultancy will have another, such as:

  1. Marketing: you do talks, build your website, have coffees
  2. Development: you discuss possible projects and figure out how to work together
  3. Sales: you work with the organisation to confirm the project
  4. Work: you do the work, which may result in more projects.

These are the ACTIVITIES which appear to create results.

But here’s another way of thinking about it: the activities are only effective because they catalyse a pre-existing, active, INVISIBLE CONTEXT.

What do I mean? Well, I’m thinking about my own boutique consultancy right now, Mwie Ltd, and when I think about what’s going on behind the scenes, there are stories like…

  • I have coffee with a friend and I chat about my availability and interests. By coincidence, they have a separate conversation with one of their friends who mentions a project at their place of work which is just beginning. My friend puts us in touch.
  • I have a series of meetings with a possible new client and we each share what we know about a particular strategy (for, say, new product development). By doing this over time, we develop a common language and also trust. When there’s a part of the strategy that I can take on as a project, the new client knows how to describe what I can do to their colleagues, and can go to bat for us to get budget approval. This happens through formal documents and informal conversations.

The invisible context is made up of these kind of conversations, existing business processes, my reputation, shared language, and so on.

To dig deeper, my “machine” broadly operates in two contexts:

  • The general context is my brand: how others understand my capabilities, cost, interests, and fit; my reputation; and the formal/informal conversations (among people I often don’t know) which propagate this.
  • The specific context is client organisations: what deliverables they require and the words they use to understand that; how budgets at different levels are allocated; the formal and informal methods of getting project approval.

These are active, vibrant contexts, and mostly out of my sight or direct control.

If my marketing and sales activities are successful, it’s because they are effective only within these invisible contexts.

(One of the reasons it takes time to build a company is the machine and invisible networks need time to evolve together – and this happens often naturally, without having to give it much thought.)

When the invisible context changes, the business machine may no longer be effective

So I hit a particular problem at the beginning of lockdown: I usually stay top of mind by having coffee with people, and I develop projects over a series of informal meetings.

But what happens when suddenly all conversations are happening over Zoom? And what happens when half my week is given to childcare (as emotionally delighted I am about that). I have fewer conversations. ALSO: my friends have fewer conversations. The serendipity part of the machine no longer functions.

And how about developing projects? I used to build trust over lunch and whiteboards. Is trust built in the same way over Zoom? Who knows, maybe building common ground happens in a different way. And how about the goals of the work itself? What if I’m preparing the ground for the wrong kind of projects. It’s all up in the air.

I refocused Mwie Ltd on its 5th birthday in November 2019, and now the machine is broken.

Start from the beginning and have a beginner’s mind

What what I did personally - and this is also what I said in my talk - is decide that I have to go back to the beginning.

I can’t assume that any part of my business machine will work.

All I can do is begin at the beginning, and feel my way.

What is the beginning? Awareness. I can do is talk about what I’m interested in and show that I’m available.

And out of that, I can have conversations. And out of that, I can talk about work. And out of that, I can develop projects and figure out how to run them in the new normal. All from first principles; I can’t assume that anything I’ve done before is the right way to go now. I’ve done it before, I can do it again.

So that’s why I’ve been blogging. It worked, by the way.

WHAT’S INTERESTING is the work that has been developed is in no way what I would have expected. And so the next task is to figure out how to generate this kind of work deliberately.

What about Job Garden?

I have two main things that keep me busy, in a work sense:

  • Mwie Ltd, my boutique consultancy as discussed above. Current clients: Google and McKinsey.
  • Job Garden which creates portfolio job boards for investors, and launched its premium tier earlier this year.

The sales process for Job Garden is a whole different ball game than the consultancy, and I’ll talk about that another time.