For months now, many economists have been telling us a recession is on the way. Others argue, nah, all clear on the horizon. Maybe the Federal Reserve will be successful in pulling off a soft landing. Let’s be clear, a soft landing is Fed speak for a ‘mild recession’. But, all data being past tense, we won’t know we’ve been in a recession until it’s already happened. Kinda like not knowing you’re sick until you get a positive diagnosis from the doctor….but you knew all along. We don’t need to wait until we get the official report from economists.

Many of us in professional services are already experiencing a slowdown in business. And, there seems to be some pretty compelling anecdotal evidence to suggest that the management consulting sector is experiencing a downturn. For instance, McKinsey recently announced the layoff of about 2000 employees. I cannot ever remember hearing of a McKinsey layoff. And, many other top-tier firms (including the Big 4 accountancies) are also trimming their staffing levels. And just last week, Barbara Hewitt, the Director of Career Services at the University of Pennsylvania, mentioned in an interview that many students going into management consulting are experiencing delays in their official start date.

But we’re not here to talk economic theory or debate what the Fed should do. The topic for today is what should we be doing with respect to client development during a recession (or a “maybe” recession). To begin, I’d like to add a new wrinkle to the client’s buying decision journey. You may recall the 7 elements of the client’s buying decision journey that Tom McMakin and I introduced in our book, How Clients Buy. These elements outline the 7 mental gates that each client must pass through before choosing to hire us. These 7 elements are:

  1. Awareness
  2. Understanding
  3. Interest
  4. Respect
  5. Trust
  6. Ability
  7. Readiness

So, here’s the new wrinkle that I’d like to offer. Elements 1, 2, 4 and 5 (Awareness, Understanding, Respect, Trust) are things we can largely control (or influence). I’ll call these “Provider” elements. Conversely, Elements 3, 6 and 7 (Interest, Ability, Readiness) are things largely out of our control. I’ll call these “Client” elements. Understanding the difference between these two different element types is helpful, I think, in better understanding a ‘No, Thanks’ from a prospective client. Or mentally overcoming being ‘ghosted’ by a promising new prospect.

Here’s an example: Element 1 – Awareness. Awareness is a “Provider” element. There are things we can do today to make a prospective client aware of us. We can write a new white paper. We can speak at a conference. We can host an industry forum. We can take a new prospect out to lunch. There are truly 101 things we could do today to make our target audiences aware of our practices. Having our target audience aware of us is a great and important start. But, as we know all too well, just because a prospective client knows we exist doesn’t mean she is ready to hire us. Or will ever hire us.

This is where Elements 3, 6 and 7 come into play. Take element 6: Ability, for instance. Ability represents the prospective client’s ability to hire us; does the client have the budget, decision making authority, and organizational buy-in necessary to feel comfortable in green-lighting our work? If your prospective client’s budget gets cut in half for the coming fiscal year, this is out of your control. And, in no way represents that you are bad at your job or that you did anything wrong. It just is what it is. Such is life.

So, we have a new lens to examine the 7 elements of the client’s buying decision journey. I believe it is helpful – especially during difficult economic times – to focus on the things we can control or influence: the “Provider” elements. While we can discuss interest, ability and readiness with a prospective client, it helps us maintain perspective when we remember that these are things largely outside of our control.

Having lived through (and survived) several significant economic recessions in my career (The Tech Bubble, The Aftermath of 9/11, The Great Recession), I wanted to share a few thoughts on how we might think about client development during a “maybe” recession. Here’s what I learned. The best thing to change about your client development efforts during (or leading up to) a recession is……NOTHING. That’s right. Don’t change anything.

Because the things that we can control with regard to building awareness, understanding, respect and trust are completely decoupled from the status of the economy. It simply doesn’t matter whether the economy is booming or in a deep recession. We still need to build relationships with those we wish to serve, and we need to have them respect our professional ability, and, lastly, we need for them to trust that we are upstanding people.

And the best part about practicing the client development techniques that actually work (unlike, say advertising….which doesn’t work for us), is that they really don’t cost that much money. It’s mostly our time. And, as we’ve learned from the best, we need to practice these things every week of every year. Regardless of what the economy is doing.

I’d like to share a chapter from my recent book, How To Win Client Business, that I think is helpful during these ‘maybe recession’ times. The chapter is titled, Why Advertsing Doesn’t Work for Us. I hope you find some useful guidance from this excerpt.

Chapter 16 – Why Advertising Doesn’t Work For Us – How To Win Client Business