Hello and welcome. Today’s episode focuses on what it means to be an ambassador for your clients, your firm, and your own personal brand. As our profession continues to evolve into one that is more advisory than ever before, embracing this concept can help you become increasingly successful.
There’s no better individual to help us understand what it means to be an ambassador than today’s guest, Amy Franko. Prior to founding Amy Franko Associates, Amy worked in B2B sales in tech giants IBM and Lenovo. Then in 2007, she made the 180 degree pivot into entrepreneurship. It is her experiences working in, and now with, some of the world’s largest organizations that give her a unique perspective in the area of business development—specifically becoming an ambassador. She’s also the author of the Amazon best selling book, The Modern Seller. With a combination of great content and actionable resources, some of which we’ll be talking about today, I personally found The Modern Seller to be a great resource in my business development journey. Amy, welcome to The Upstream Leader.
Jeremy, thank you so much. I’m really looking forward to our conversation today.
Yeah, I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun. This is a topic near and dear to my heart—business development has always been fun. Being an ambassador is such a great way to think about this. But before we jump into that, help us understand how you became the leader you are today.
As I think about that question, I really can’t help but look back to growing up. So I’m the oldest of five. I have four younger sisters, and there’s a ten year age difference between myself and my youngest sister. So you can imagine the hectic household that I grew up in.
I think that looking back on that experience, leadership was always something I think, just in my DNA, you know—just I grew up in a leadership position in my family, and that very much has translated into my work life, and also my, you know, nonprofit service life. And I’m a big believer in that you get to choose whether to be a leader, you don’t have to be someone who is a leader in title. When you make the choice to be a leader, you don’t have to be the person who is the longest tenure in the room, you don’t have to have the biggest title in the room. It’s a choice to say, “I’m going to lead myself, and lead my life,” and then that, I think, translates into opportunities for all of us.
And I think that’s the approach that I took. I had leadership opportunities in high school and all through college. But I think it’s just the choice and the, just internally, just making that decision to be a leader. And those opportunities start to present themselves. So for someone who’s listening today, no matter where you happen to be in your career journey, your personal journey, I hope that gives you some encouragement to say, you know, “I can be a leader myself, for myself today,” and that can translate into future opportunities, whether it’s to lead people, or you continue to lead yourself. How we show up matters.
Definitely, I appreciate that perspective. And as I think about leaders in the accounting profession, and then they hear these two words, business / development, you don’t get much more of a higher level of discomfort than when they’re thinking about business development. There are so many young leaders in our profession—that is right outside their comfort zone. And for some, they don’t even see the comfort zone anymore, it’s so far outside of it.
As we think about this, you’ve written the book, The Modern Seller, which as I read that book, it really to me, it talks about this idea of business development. And in our profession, we’ve got so many people that are scared—scared of business development, they’re scared of selling, or being perceived as a salesperson. And there’s an interplay here, right? There’s sales, there’s business development, there’s marketing, there’s helping clients get better. I thought you’ve done a very nice job explaining the interplay of those. Can you do that for our listeners here, that maybe haven’t read the book yet? How do all of those relate to one another? Because at the end of the day, we do need people to buy stuff. So there is a sale that will take place, but it doesn’t have to be transactional. So talk a little bit about how all of that interplay works.
A sale does have to happen. Our clients work with us, because they say “yes” to solving a problem, or they say “yes” to pursuing an opportunity, and they’ve chosen us. And so in order to get to that point, there’s sales, happens. Business development happens. And much of what I see is a mindset shift needing to happen. Mindset and skill set go hand in hand, and kind of the irony of being out of your comfort zone, if you will, is that many times, we have to make the decision to say, “I’m willing to be uncomfortable with this and build these skills.” And then you build the mindset that goes along with it.
The catalyst for building the modern seller—which I think might be a good jumping off point to talk a little bit about this interplay idea—the catalyst for the modern seller was my own work with my clients where I was seeing some, I like to call them “skills behind the skills,” that needed to be built. You know, when you are in business development, or you’re in sales, you’re doing things like prospecting. You are presenting. You might be negotiating an engagement. You might be asking for the business. Those are all things that are tactical that we need to be doing to be successful. But there were some other skills that I was seeing that were real foundational, and the idea of being an ambassador is one of those skills.
So in the book, I get into five different skill sets or capabilities that I see modern sellers and modern business developers needing to build: there’s “agility,” there is “thinking like an entrepreneur,” “being holistic,” “being social,” which is about strategic relationships, and then this this concept of “being an ambassador.” And I think this concept of being an ambassador really brings together the concepts of marketing, business development—it brings them all together, because marketing and business development are so intertwined now. Marketing activities have become so much more sophisticated, and they serve the business development activities. And I see marketing and business development activities as different activities with the same purpose—which is to create awareness, to create opportunity, to help us serve our prospective clients and our current clients. But the more that we know about how marketing and business development are integrated together, the better we will be, ultimately, in serving our clients.
So talk a little bit more about that. You mentioned they’re similar.
But for everybody that’s listening, how are they different? Because that’s a very important differentiation to understand, marketing versus business development. Talk about how they’re different real quick.
Yeah, so I see marketing activities or marketing strategies—these are the things that help create. They are the seeds that are planted, that help create awareness, they help create credibility and trust. They’re the beginning stages of that. So think about the thought leadership, maybe, that your firm puts out. That’s a great example of marketing. Joining a webinar is often a great example of marketing. That doesn’t necessarily indicate a business development opportunity, it indicates that, “Hey, we’re getting to know one another, and building that trust and credibility.” So I think of marketing activities, are those things that we’re kind of spreading, and getting to know people in our marketplace, that might at some point have an interest in working with us.
Business development activities are those activities where say an opportunity is identified. Someone who read a piece of our thought leadership, or participated in a webinar, they raised their hand and they said, “You know, I have a problem that you might be able to help me solve.” That indicates a business development opportunity, and then kicks off those business development activities: qualifying that problem, is that a problem we can solve? Proposing ideas and solutions, presenting them, helping the customer make decisions about what to do next. Those are all business development activities that further the relationship that was created in the marketing side of things, but they’re very, very integrated. You can’t do one without the other. So hopefully, that helps give some differentiation from my perspective on what I see is marketing. And what I see is business development.
Yeah, so thinking about those two, it sounds like—and you can please correct me if I’m wrong—marketing is more of a, one directional, it’s from me to you, one to many, right? If I’m going to go speak at a conference with 5,000 people, that’s marketing because 5,000 people I’m planting the seeds in their minds of ways that I’m it might be able to help them. I might be an expert in an area, an article that’s written for a publication in the Journal of Accountancy, an industry publication, a blog post, a LinkedIn post, all of that is, really, it’s one to many. So that would be categorized as marketing.
But then once we identify, and I love the word you used, an “opportunity,” and that opportunity could be a client, it could be a referral relationship, it could be someone who’s important that you just need to be connected with. But now once that communication becomes two way, and it’s one-on-one, now we’re into the business development, because it’s all about cultivating an individual relationship, rather than using a broadcast spreader to throw as many seeds out there as possible. This is that one plant and how do we grow the one plant? Is that fair?
I think that’s very fair. So you’re speaking at a conference, whether it’s in front of 5,000 people, or virtually in front of 5,000 people, and five people come up to you afterwards and say, “You know, I think you might be able to help me with something in my organization.” That’s the bridge between what was a marketing activity, to now what is the opportunity to develop that relationship further—to develop business, to see where that relationship heads, and whether it heads to some type of engagement, or maybe even something different. I think that’s a really fair, accurate way to describe all that.
Yeah. And for those individuals that are listening and thinking, “Man, I’ve been doing a lot of marketing, I maybe haven’t done as much business development as I thought,” I can tell you, I’ve been there as well. There were numerous times I thought, “Man, I’m doing so much business development.” And really, as I look back, once I understood this difference, I realized I’ve done a whole lot of marketing, but I’ve not done a whole lot of developing.
It’s the development that leads to projects. It’s the development that leads to the transaction, the relationship. And I just use the word transaction, I probably shouldn’t have, because I know you talk about this—that it’s important that we aren’t looking at something that’s transactional, but as a relationship. And that’s really where this idea of an ambassador resonated with me. And I believe you had ten factors or attributes of an ambassador; talk a little bit about this concept and how it applies for those that are now doing the business development, the importance of that ambassador mindset.
Yeah, and to that point, before I forget to mention this—in the book, there are a couple of different inventories that you can use, and one of them is a loyalty engagement inventory, that gets into some of those factors, and also some of the client value factors that you want to be thinking about. So that’s available to you. So those are some things that are actionable in the book that you can actually use yourself, to take back to your firms if you have an interest there.
But what I’m thinking about, you think about all the potential opportunities that we have to work with different types of clients, and I know you, at Upstream, you talk about A, B, C, D clients. Ultimately, we have a goal that we want to have in our fold as many A level and then B level clients as possible. And so this idea of being an ambassador, and building loyalty, is what can help us to get there. I think if we kind of, maybe take a step back and think to even, you know, five, ten years ago, it used to really be that satisfaction was the bar. If you had a satisfied client, my friend, you had arrived, right? “They were five out of five on the client survey.”
But now, satisfaction is really more or less a ticket to entry, because there is so much more choice out there. Even just think about your own buying patterns, and your own behaviors. Think about the last service that you purchased. There’s so much choice out there. And you’re talking to your friends, asking them what they bought, you’re doing your own independent research. You are maybe looking on social sites to understand, you know, the more complex the the product or service, the more research you’re going to be doing. That is a really great indicator of this move from satisfaction to loyalty, and we want to be able to move that needle along, and I would argue that you can do this with your best clients. But I would also argue that you can do this with your prospective clients—just in the way that you approach business development.
Because one of the tenets of being a modern seller is that the product or service that your organization provides isn’t nearly as valuable without you as part of the equation. You’re attached to that: your expertise, the value that you provide, the value that you provide individually. Those are some of the seeds of loyalty that we can be planting.
And I would also say that someone who’s really strong as an ambassador—they do two things really well. They are: they act as a bridge between themselves and the client, themselves and the industry, themselves and their greater communities. So they are someone who really much espouses the values of their organization. They’re choosy about where they’re going to work because they want to really espouse the values of their organization.
And simultaneously, they’re also individual rock stars in their own right. They are someone who cultivates their own brand. They rise above their peers, in addition to espousing the values of their organization. And you could, as I’m describing that, I’m sure anybody in their mind’s eye, there’s probably at least one person you can think of in your life—a peer, a coworker, whatever—who is that person. And that’s what we want to be, we want to be able to do those two things.
Yeah, every firm has at least one. And they’re in the partner group somewhere, because that’s the very foundation. And to me, this is so important because we’re becoming an advisory profession—not just historians anymore. And we’re looking for those A and B level clients. And I love what you said there. Because if you aren’t choosy when picking your clients, it’s going to be really hard to have a bunch of A and B level clients unless you—you’ve got to go get A and B level clients. You can’t let the D clients in the door. And what’s the easiest way, one of my favorite quotes from Sam Allred, which is one of our founding partners, is “The only thing worse than pursuing a D level client is landing one.” And it’s so true, because it’s not a fun process. And it’s not going to be fun, then once you get them.
So it’s important that we recognize we’ve got to be looking for A and B level clients, and this concept of being an ambassador—and I’ve actually got one of your inventories pulled up, so I’m gonna use that as my cheat sheet for this part of the conversation if I may, so I get it right. You list some of these factors: you’ve got to be an owner, an expert, an elevator. You’ve got to be impact-oriented, strategic and tactical, a unifier, a loyalty magnet, a lifetime value creator, a thought leader and a brand stand out. And those ten attributes—and I’d love to get your thoughts on this—in my experience, your C and D level clients, they don’t care if you have any of those, because they just want “satisfied.” They just want a commodity, really. They’re not looking for anything more.
But the clients that you look at when you get into business development, that really value someone that’s a unifier, that can bring mutual benefit and bring other players to the table. The clients that value these factors are the clients we want. So how do we use this inventory not only to evaluate ourselves as business developers, but how can we use that in the pursuit of A and B level clients?
Great question. So well, we’ll unpack that here for a few moments. So if I bring this back to our earlier conversation, which—the difference between marketing and business development. So let’s say that you’re speaking at a conference, and you have five people that come up to you afterwards, virtually or in person, say, “You know, I think that you may have the expertise to solve a problem that I have in my organization.” Okay, great. That’s going to kick off the business development process. And this is where you can start to use those attributes that you just mentioned, to begin vetting that client—that prospective client.
I think one of the things, and this is something I always have to remind myself of too—we have the right, and should be, vetting a prospective client as much as a prospective client is going to vet us, and whether or not they’re going to work with us. So never forget that, in the pursuit of those A and B level clients, always remind yourself that you have the opportunity to vet them too. And do they appreciate those attributes that you just shared?
So let’s maybe take that “unifier” attribute as an example. And maybe let’s just, we’ll just pick on that one. So you’ve identified a couple of problems that you might be able to help these prospective clients to solve. Who from your firm can you potentially bring in to be a part of those initial discovery conversations? How soon can you start to connect the dots between their problems they’re looking to solve, and what you and your firm can bring to the table? And how willing are they to be a part of that conversation? How willing are they to share information? This is about earning commitments all along the way. How willing are they to get into those conversations with you?
Those can start to either show you some green lights, or some red flags. Your thought leadership and individual thought leadership as part of this. They’ve come up to you to have to start that conversation. You’re the leader in all of this. We have to remember part of being an advisor is helping a client or prospective client navigate the waters. And sometimes that can be uncomfortable, especially if we’re maybe a little younger in our career, maybe you’re working with, maybe you’re working with a partner or managing partner, but there’s still a leadership role that you have to play no matter what.
So those are a couple of ideas, just to put some application to it, on how you might start to use some of those attributes to assess yourself, but also assess that client, or that prospective client, on where you think this opportunity is going to head. Because I know one thing that I’ve been guilty of, and I have to always look at my pipeline—is how qualified are the opportunities that I’m working? Am I spending too much time on an opportunity or potential engagement that isn’t going to go somewhere? So we have to be a little ruthless in our assessment of where something’s going to go.
The fact that you have the right to vet your clients is so important to remember, because we’ve all probably been guilty of that at some point in time.
Oh, I know I have!
As you’re, yeah, you’re spending too much time—I can think back to one project in my career, it was one of those clients, it was your dream client, or you thought it was I guess. I thought it was a dream client. It was, you know, a name that would be great to have, you know, in the portfolio of clients you’ve worked with, and it took two years to get a contract on a project that took two weeks. And you sit there and think, “Was it really worth it in the end?” No, it really probably wasn’t somebody who you think’s going to be an A level client that actually ends up being a D level client, and you wish, you know, looking back that you had all that time back to do something different.
So being intentional at the outset is so important. And recognizing that there may be a point in the process of business development that you have to step away. Is that fair? That you can, as you’re doing this, you think, “Yeah, they’re a great client,” and you get four weeks into trying to win over this great client, and you realize, “I could be wrong. I could cut my losses and develop business elsewhere. Because this isn’t the right client now that I get further in.”
Yes, and that is I think that’s probably one of the biggest friction points in professional services.
When I work with organizations that have what I would consider to be traditional sales teams, if you will—B2B sales teams—their job is to uncover new business and close business. They aren’t necessarily responsible for delivering the engagement once it’s done. That’s the difference between that scenario and professional services, where many times, if you’re listening to this, you might be saying, “Yes, I not only have to develop the business, I actually have to deliver the engagement.”
So back to your point about that intentionality: there’s a finite amount of time that you likely have, on a given day or in a given week, to do business development. And so that’s where being willing to take a good, hard look to say, “Is this an opportunity that’s going to go forward? Or is this something that’s going to stall, and I’m going to spend many hours, days, weeks on something that’s either never going to come to fruition, or to your point, it might take two years?” And then you’re second guessing yourself on whether or not it was a solid opportunity.
And one question that I will ask myself as I’m trying to make those decisions, is where do I see this relationship a year down the road, two years down the road? Is this going to be a one and done type of engagement?—which isn’t always necessarily bad, but just thinking about it—and making a decision on it. Or is there an opportunity here to really extend the relationship? Because earning that first engagement is not the end of the business development process, it’s the beginning or the continuation of a relationship. Do you see this being a relationship that will go two, three, five years down the road, and can really turn into more than just that individual engagement?
Again, it is a bit of a long explanation to your question. But that intentionality in thinking through it in that way can help you better manage your time and take control of the business development process. Really lead it for yourself and for your clients.
Great insight. And as you said it, it solves quite a few different challenges that young leaders may be facing. So Amy, do you have time for a few quick questions before we end?
Absolutely. Let’s do it.
So what is the one book you believe every leader should read?
I know you’re an avid reader, so that makes the question harder, I feel.
I know! I am running through my mental Rolodex of books here. Okay, so there’s one that’s recent. I have so many that I could recommend, but I will recommend one that is fairly recent. And it’s from the author Dan Pink, and the title of the book is When. It is all about the secrets of perfect timing. If you’ve read any of Dan Pink’s books, he takes, again, a very data-driven, research-oriented approach. And it has some very interesting insights into different types of timing in personal life and in business life, and it’s a very intriguing read. So I would recommend that one.
I like that. I can attest Dan Pink’s books are great. Actually, I have When on my shelf behind me, it is definitely a good book. So I appreciate that recommendation. And final question for the leaders that are looking to improve in the area of business development and being an ambassador, what do you recommend as their best next step?
The best next step, whether you have a managing partner behind your title—behind your name—or you are someone who is brand new to your firm, day one, you’re new to the profession: Look at your top three to five clients—either ones that you’ve worked with for a long time, or if you’re new to the profession, maybe you’ve just started. Do you truly understand the top three things that are the most valuable to that client? Do you know them off the top of your head? Can you articulate them so that anytime you’re coming back to a conversation with them, you know what’s really top of mind for them as an organization, and for the people that you’re working with—those decision makers individually? That’s a great exercise to go through. Because then you can amplify that exercise and then you start having different conversations. So that’s an immediate next step and an exercise you could take yourself through or take your firm through.
Amy, thank you so much. I appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation with me here today. And I look forward to talking again in the future. Thank you.
Thank you, Jeremy.