Most charities, particularly when dealing with the public sector, tend to focus on just two elements of business development. Which means they’re missing a huge opportunity.
Delivery is quite rightly a big area of focus. Ensuring high quality and consistency in whatever you deliver to the people using your services is the foundation of future business – without it you’ll be found out pretty quickly in today’s competitive environment – but by itself, it’s not enough. Most commissioners can pick up the phone to a bunch of other providers who can all consistently deliver reasonable quality. For them, consistent delivery merely gives you a seat at the table the next time the contract comes around.
The more commercially astute, and yes, that’s often the larger charities, also put serious focus on their bid-writing process. Building their confidence in your ability, and creating a compelling case for your bid, all while deciphering the subtext and staying within the tender guidelines, is something of an art, and it’s invariably the case that those charities who are consistently successful with tenders, have put serious time and effort into building skills and capabilities around the process.
But the really good commercial charities, and I can count my experience of these on the fingers of one hand, invest every bit as much in the third key ingredient: the relationship. A good relationship manager can take every sale you make, and potentially triple it, with a fraction of the effort it initially took to win. Triple, because there are three distinct ways to build more sales from that first contract: repeat, referral and reference; and all of them are entirely dependent on relationship management.
Good relationship managers start building their network and relationships as soon as the contract is signed. They don’t try and hide delivery problems, they solve them rapidly, keep the communication open and positive, and use that resolution to build confidence and reassurance. They know who the real decision-makers are, they listen incredibly well to understand what’s going on in their buyers’ heads, and they continually offer insights, advice and provocations, to underscore the value of spending time with them. Above all, they don’t just turn up at renewal time to try and win the business again; by doing the groundwork from the start, they secure repeated extensions, and make sure the contract is theirs to lose when it does eventually go to tender.
They don’t just aim for repeat contracts though. They constantly look for ways to open up wider conversations about the needs of the commissioner and their colleagues, actively prompting for referrals and introductions to others in the organisation, and outside of it. Commissioners are often well networked, and if they know you, trust you, and seriously value what you do for them, they will almost always be willing to introduce you to others, to whom you could offer the same. One sign of a really good relationship manager, is that they know when to ask and how to ask, and they get personal referrals as a matter of course.
The third thing great relationship managers do, is find ways to reference the best work your organisation has done, in collaboration with their commissioners. From collecting evidence and testimonials, to co-authoring case studies, to joint presentations at conferences to the wider community of potential buyers, sharing the successes and lessons from your work together as a genuine partnership, is one of the most powerful marketing tools you can use. And none of it will happen without a quality relationship that’s been properly and proactively managed.
Considering the time and effort it takes to win a contract, it’s a continual source of surprise for me how little investment most charities make in turning that contract into three or four more.