By Michael W. McLaughlin
When it comes to marketing, most consultants know what they should aim for: high-value visibility within their professional networks and with targeted clients to create profitable demand for their services.
What some consultants overlook when identifying potential clients is marketing to the organizations that are part of their clients’ supply chains, specifically their suppliers and customers.
Most businesses depend on their suppliers, sometimes in an uneasy partnership, for everything from raw materials to reclining office chairs. For some clients, a few strategic suppliers account for the majority of the “must-have” inventory.
Those key suppliers often have their own consulting needs—like how to improve service to their customers (that is, your clients). Your first-hand experience with organizations on both sides of the equation is a source of credibility for you and a compelling selling point for your services.
Think about the auto industry as an example. The web of vendors serving auto manufacturers provides just about every part that ends up on a new car. Executives in the supplier organizations know how to manufacture and deliver those parts to their customers. But many lack the broader view, forged by experience, of how to serve those customers most profitably.
It’s becoming more common for consultants to extend their marketing reach to their clients’ suppliers with powerful messages and services to boost supplier profitability and efficiency, and to improve overall supply chain relationships. For instance, you’ll find firms offering to help clients de-mystify doing business with Wal-Mart, K-Mart, and Target, to name a few.
But you don’t have to limit your marketing to organizations that serve the giants of business. Most suppliers can use help with their customers, regardless of size.
What can give your business an edge is your direct experience working in the client’s supply chain. Of course, I am not advocating that you use proprietary client information in an effort to sell work. Even if that action was ethical—which it isn’t—that’s not the point. The opportunity lies in leveraging your existing knowledge into a new, related area of service that is a natural extension of your business.
I know one consultant who worked extensively with a client to make substantial changes to the way the company handled inbound freight, paid for that freight, and managed returns—among other changes. The client and consultant knew that these changes would benefit the client and the client’s suppliers.
They also knew that suppliers throughout the industry would benefit too. Based on the program they developed, the consultant designed a materials management service to help suppliers work more closely with customers, raise service levels, and reduce delivered cost. Using some key client introductions, a series of articles, a workshop, and a direct marketing campaign, the consultant launched a successful new service.
What made the service even more credible to new buyers was the proven track record of the consulting team and the value that the initial client achieved.
Customers Are Clients Too
Consultants can also look forward in the supply chain, to the client’s customers, for new opportunities. One consulting team, for example, assembled an industry-wide panel of executives that included the client’s biggest customer plus others in the same industry.
The panel met on a regular basis and undertook projects to help standardize many of the business processes used in that industry. The goal was to make doing business together more efficient and cost-effective for everyone involved.
The consultant sold the panel idea to its members on the strength of broad industry experience, including consulting expertise with the industry’s customers, suppliers, and distributors. The consultant acted as facilitator for the group and completed several new projects for the executive members of the panel. That consultant became the service provider of choice for helping the group achieve its objectives.
Convening an industry panel is no easy task, so many consultants prefer to prepare marketing programs, based on their expertise, and directly approach specific customer organizations.
Many executives find great value in such cross-industry expertise because it can be an essential part of uncovering innovative practices. Without access to the knowledge that an independent, third-party consultant has, it’s easy for executives to become isolated in their own “silos.”
Often, it only takes the right combination of an executive’s specific company knowledge and a consultant’s general industry expertise to create a breakthrough.
Finding the Seam
Looking for opportunities along a client’s supply chain isn’t for everyone. Some areas of service are so highly specialized that it is difficult to make the leap. But you should be able to identify some possibilities for marketing your business within your clients’ supply chains.
If you are not pursuing such a strategy, you can ask yourself a few questions to decide if it’s right for your business:
- Are shifts in your clients’ industries significant enough to cause fundamental changes to the way customers and suppliers do business?
- If so, what part of the business will be most highly impacted and what is the scope of that impact?
- What are the essential, new business practices that potential clients need to succeed?
- What role can you play in facilitating changes, and how can you communicate the value of that role to the market?
Some consultants work closely with their existing clients to help identify opportunities and potential clients for a new service. Other consultants approach potential clients directly. In either case, your existing relationships with your clients can serve as an effective calling card.
Exploring new business opportunities in the circle of your client’s supply chain can work to your advantage on several different levels. First, it gives you the chance to meet new contacts, allowing you to expand your industry reach.
That effort also offers you a chance to attract new clients in a relatively short period of time. And finally, it lets you work with diverse clients in an industry, which creates a platform for extending your qualifications as an industry thought leader.
As you’re planning your next marketing initiative, remember to think in 360 degrees. You’re likely to find some promising opportunities.