The pandemic has obviously disrupted the business development process for corporate trainers. With face-to-face opportunities to build relationships such as conferences and networking events cancelled or made virtual, trainers have had to look for other ways to find clients.
Even though the public health situation may be improving, some of the changes brought on or accelerated by the lockdown may be here to stay while others may be temporary. This is similar to the situation in similar fields such as coaching.
In this ever-changing environment, we’ve discussed business development strategies with top trainers in the awarenow community as well as with external experts and industry observers. Together, they have identified four primary channels for corporate trainers to recruit new clients: client referrals; peer referrals; social media; and writing and speaking opportunities. We will take a detailed look at each of these in turn.
Business Development Strategy for Trainers #1: Get Client Referrals
While a previous article has discussed referrals in professional services generally, getting client referrals as a business trainer is especially valuable. People and organizations are generally more comfortable talking about and “sharing” the work they do with trainers than they might be with work performed by, e.g., therapists or certain kinds of consultants.
The first and most important ingredient in a client referral strategy for trainers is to make a point of asking. Laurie Brown of Laurie Brown Communication recounts that, “referrals are the best way for me to gain new clients. It is important to ask happy clients to refer you to their colleagues.”
Marylin Barefoot of Barefoot Brainstorming also notes the importance of staying in touch with previous clients, as their career journey might put them in places where they have an opportunity to refer you to their new employer:
In my 15 years of training senior executives around the world, there is only one way to get clients, and that is through word-of-mouth. I get all of my new business from people who have been in one of my training sessions. They have either changed companies and would like to hire me at their new company, or a friend or colleague has reached out to them looking for a recommendation.
In short, encouraging your past and current clients to speak openly about their experiences with your service is an organic, low-cost, and highly-effective effective method for broadening your network of clients.
Business Development Strategy for Trainers #2: Get Peer Referrals
Referrals shouldn’t just come from former clients; peer referrals from other trainers can play an important role in a trainer’s sales strategy. This includes - counter-intuitively to some - referrals from fellow trainers, as Gail Nott of Take Wing Coaching advises:
Don't think of other business trainers as competition. I specialize in social media training, and I get my best referrals from other business trainers in other fields. They can be your best referral sources.
Referrals from fellow trainers need not only come from those in different specialties. Capacity, account size, and even geography (less an issue in the pandemic) can all be issues that might lead to a referral from one training organization to another.
The best strategy here is to network and build relationships with other business trainers and the referrals will happen organically over time; this is not usually a “quick fix”. It’s also important to add value to the relationship by referring potential clients back to them and/or providing fellow trainers with some value in return for the referrals they make (We discuss the pros and cons of paying for referrals in our study on referrals in professional services).
A second place to look for peer referrals is with complementary businesses. For example, trainers who specialize in working with a particular software package will often do well to build relationships with its vendors or associated support departments. While that example is fairly straightforward, many savvy trainers go even broader. For example, a strategy advisor or operational process consultant may end up identifying client training needs, and be able to refer an appropriate business trainer to help fulfil them.
Finally, many top experts recommend mining your social circles. Tim Denman of ServGrow explains his strategy of turning his personal network into a source of clients:
I like to gain clients by searching for those in my friend groups whom I believe could use some corporate advice or training. Sometimes, it could be a friend, or a friend of a friend. I use that as an opportunity to present my services and explain why they should work with me.
While it can sometimes be awkward to combine business and personal relationships, it can also be extremely effective if done effectively. Potential clients can have an easier time saying yes when they already know something about you, hear endorsements from people you know in common, and benefit from the implied accountability of knowing that substandard work may have personal as well as professional consequences for the trainer.
Business Development Strategy for Trainers #3: Social Media
As noted in our survey article “Five Social Media Strategies for Professional Services Providers” social media can provide a valuable source of sales leads. LinkedIn, in particular, emphasizes business-to-business networking and providing robust search and filtering capabilities. These capabilities can be used in creative ways to find organizations which need services in a trainer’s niche, are likely to need those services at the current moment, and to identify and communicate with likely decision-makers or influencers on a training hire decision. Michael Sena of Senacea explains this strategy:
My business delivers Excel, VBA, and process improvement training, and I mainly use LinkedIn to establish contact with companies. Leveraging LinkedIn's company insights helps me to validate whether companies are actively hiring, and I can also check if Excel and VBA are desired skills and for which company functions they are crucial. Then, I can connect with relevant people to find out whether they are interested in procuring training.
Naturally, sites like LinkedIn are not merely databases of potential leads; as much as a trainer can learn about potential clients, potential clients should be able to learn about the trainer. In particular, hiring organizations are often looking for work samples, case studies, and portfolios, as Dan Edmonsen of Dronegenuity LLC notes:
We specifically look at the proven track record of the trainer. A portfolio of their previous achievements with other businesses is the main point in our search. We pay extra attention to portfolios to get a solid understanding of what they can offer to us.
That said, on social media, how one communicates can often be as important as what is being communicated. In a way, a trainer’s social media style can be seen as a proxy for their approach to client relationships. Tal Shelef of CondoWizard makes this extremely intriguing observation: “as we hire business trainers, we specifically check their online presence. It shows how they build relationships and how in-depth their skills are.”
Many successful trainers are aware that they are being evaluated by potential clients in this way and take care to build out an active, trustworthy, and authentic presentation of themselves on social media. Andrew Taylor of Net Lawman explains his approach:
I mainly use social media to get new clients. I reach out to where I believe my target might be and comment on posts, interact naturally with people and provide free advice. This element of authenticity is irresistible.
In sum, interacting organically in the same online communities as your clients gives you the opportunity to form relationships in a natural way, and makes interactions less transactional. Additionally, social media gives you another way to show your personality, which can sometimes be hard to do outside of in-person interactions or in the context of a “sales pitch”. This allows potential clients to get to know you better, and see what it is like to work with you.
Business Development Strategy for Trainers #4: Writing and Speaking Opportunities
The fourth major source of potential clients for business trainers identified by our panel can be found in writing and speaking opportunities. While the latter may shift between online and in-person depending on the public health situation (and some changes to online may be permanent), the underlying goals remain the same: to establish name recognition, position within a target niche, and credibility.
Diane Gayeski, a professor at Ithaca College and principal of Gayeski Analytics, shares this strategy in greater detail:
I often gain clients by speaking at my own professional associations at the regional, national or international level, as well as speaking at local business clubs such as the Rotary Club. I also write articles in professional publications. The key is to establish your expertise first, and then to assure clients that you can effectively present to their particular audience.
More so than writing, speaking opportunities provide some aspects of authenticity and insight into your personality and style discussed in the social media section above. On the other hand, writing provides more easily searchable evidence of your credibility on a topic and a quality article can be used as a “business card” or digestible followup to a meeting in a way that can be more difficult with presentations and panels. Use either or both media, depending on your skills, client niche, and opportunities.
Incidentally, not only can these activities lead to client relationships but they can also enhance your credibility among peers for possible referrals, discussed in section 2 above.
While the training industry is continuing to change rapidly, primarily though not exclusively due to changes brought on or accelerated by the pandemic and its associated lockdown, well thought out business development strategies should continue to pay dividends. The top four strategies identified by experts include client referrals, peer referrals, social media; and writing and speaking opportunities. Trainers need not engage in all four of these; as can be seen in this article, many very successful trainers focus on only one of these channels.
We look forward to further conversations on this topic as the topic evolves. For trainers, what are your best sources of new clients? For hiring organizations, what do you notice quality trainers doing that catches your eye?