It’s 10 a.m. on a Friday morning, and I’m moving a little slower than I normally do. I landed in Detroit at midnight last night, and from there it was a two-and-a-half hour drive home. It was a long three-day trip just to visit two plants and have dinner with one customer, but it was worth it.
My most recent column focused on the topic of “seeding” and the importance of seeding consistently and with intentionality. This column is about “cultivating” and “harvesting” the opportunities that result from the seeding efforts.
Most entrepreneurs I know are natural cultivators; they cultivate products, or ideas, or customers, or relationships, or simply just opportunities. No matter which one of these it is, it gets their full attention, without any need for an enforced discipline or routine or any need to be encouraged. They are often so naturally oriented to cultivation activities that it sometimes is to their, and their companies’, detriment; the importance of the seeding activities are overlooked and harvesting opportunities are missed or mis-timed.
When we are doing what we love doing, “work” is easy. Products, projects and specific business opportunities become our “babies” and we steadfastly cling to them, pouring in all our available time, energy and imagination. The completion of a project, the maturing of a product or the closing of the big deal brings the cultivation period to an end, and it’s often not easy for the cultivator to let go. This is more true for technically-oriented people than it is for relationship-oriented people, but I have also seen some sales- and marketing-focused people completely miss the “ask for the order” opportunity or, nearly as bad, cling to their baby and try to retain control of it even after the deal is made.
Trying to close a deal too soon, before the opportunity or relationship has been properly cultivated, is another costly mistake. Good negotiations require a level of trust and respect, and these things are developed in the cultivation process. Negotiating without having established trust and respect reduces the process to simply having to win on price, which lowers your profit margin potential. It also increases the chance that a competitor will win the deal because he or she cultivated the relationship or opportunity better than you did.
My own strategy for cultivation is simple: “escalate the connection.” Turn a webpage inquiry or tradeshow lead (or any lead from your seeding activity) into a personal email reply as promptly as you can. Sign off with your first name and a simple salutation. Escalate the email connection by following up with a phone call; leave a voice mail if there’s no answer. Escalate the phone call with an offer to meet. If the opportunity warrants, establish a face-to-face meeting with them, and make the effort to get to know them, allowing them to get to know you too. Escalate each connection as far as you can effectively and deepen the relationships that hold promise and opportunity. Face-to-face meetings may seem expensive and unnecessary, but if it’s the escalation step that your competitor won’t make, it can become the differentiating advantage.
Cultivation is key to closing more deals and making a better margin on each deal, and it’s a process that most entrepreneurs do naturally. The difference between success and failure, though, is often a matter of knowing how and when to harvest the cultivated opportunities.
A few months ago, at a trade show, I made a connection that turned into an exchange of email messages, that set up a couple of telephone conversations, that in turn became a series of face-to-face meetings. The most recent meeting was 3,000 miles and two time zones away. Now I’m preparing for yet another face-to-face meeting, but this will be a simple meeting—to sign the deal. It’s harvest time!
And, still, it’s seeding time, because it’s always seeding time.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.