“You never know where the next piece of business is going to come from.” I have heard those exact words from at least a dozen rainmakers I have interviewed over the years. For all the targeting and prioritizing that we do when selling our services, there is still room for some healthy opportunism. These unexpected opportunities remind us how imperfect our judgment is when picking targets and result in us winning some major assignments. Here are three people who have unexpectedly given me opportunities and lessons to be learned from each. Names have been changed.
If you passed Stephen in the street, you wouldn’t notice him. He is short, quiet and lacks pretension. He seems shy by nature, though he engages easily one on one and has taught himself to work a room.
I first met him doing just that at an association meeting. There he focused on other people, getting them to talk about something that interested them, so that later, reflecting on the conversation, I was more likely to remember the person doing the talking, than to remember Stephen.
On the last day of the conference we found ourselves the first to arrive at a breakout room to hear some speaker I have long since forgotten. He asked me questions and, like others I had seen the night before, I was soon talking about myself and finding it a pleasant subject, while he sat there quietly, a twinkle in his eye. He suggested that we get together some time after the meeting.
That was twelve years ago. I didn’t believe then or for quite some time that his firm would hire us. But it did. It took him four years to get us in, but he did it. Since then he has become a friend. I have boundless respect for this man, as do many others. Still, if you put him in a crowd, he will become inconspicuous, almost as if he had protective coloration that helped him disappear into his surroundings.
Lesson: Stephen is a reminder that substance is more important than show, something we all know, but need reminding of from time to time. He is also a good example of how valuable it is to have a sponsor in a client organization.
I also met Rachel at an event, this one sponsored by a team that consulted to law firms from a Big Four accounting firm. Not having learned how to get a good seat at such an event (see posting of June 2007, entitled Three Ways to Get a Good Seat.), I took pot luck by grabbing an unoccupied seat between two other participants. Rachel sat on my left. She worked at a mid-sized law firm as director of marketing. The firm didn’t sound like one we would be eager to work for. Still, she seemed a nice person, and to me that counts for something.
I sent her one of my books and called her a few times. She wanted to bring us into her firm, but clearly lacked the influence to do so. I put her into the call-twice-a-year category and went about my business.
Three years later, I answered the phone and it was Rachel. She had moved to a prestigious firm and brought us in to what was a strategically important account.
Since then I have gotten to know her. She has dealt successfully with things that would bring most people down, and remains irrepressibly optimistic. She is truly heroic. But it took me a long time to learn that.
Lessons: People move around. Someone who is a poor fit in one company may be a star at another. You can’t always recognize a hero when you see one.
A partner at a large firm, Jake was under pressure to sell more work. To help him, the firm put him into one of our programs, and I worked with him for six months. He was openly skeptical, but did what we suggested. He took direction, worked hard at developing business, and hung in there for six months. But the business didn’t come. Not long after our program ended all his hard work began to pay off. I learned this from others and called to congratulate him, but he didn’t respond to my voicemail message, nor to any other message that I left him.
I did a lot of work for his firm, and when I was in town would stop by his office. When he was available, he was cordial, but undemonstrative, the conversation was stilted. He left the firm and I called him at his new employer. Again there was no response. I didn’t try again.
Last year I got a call from someone in his firm asking us to come pitch our services. The oman said that Jake was among their most successful rainmakers and had recommended us. One of my colleagues went for the sales call. Jake introduced him to the assembled crowd, saying that if they followed our advice, they would eventually win work, that by following our teachings, he could confidently generate the revenues he was equired to, year after year. We got the assignment and are still working with his colleagues. With that kind of endorsement, it is no surprise.
I called to thank him, and we had another stilted conversation. Since then he hasn’t returned my calls.
Lessons: I am reluctant to say, “Expect the unexpected,” because you might puke. Other than that, all I can say is thank you, Jake. You may not have returned my calls, but you were there for me when it counted. To the rest of you, all I can do is point out that you never know where the next piece of work will come from.