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All good professional services marketers understand that there are times when theory just isn’t going to cut it.  Times when the demand for action rather than processes present sticking points.  Times when it can feel like we’ve been handed a poisoned chalice… a poisoned chalice called ‘the quest for more, bigger clients’.

This book feels rather like it might put forward a whole host of the sticking points guaranteed to grind any business development plan to a halt.  Please don’t misunderstand, its content is logical, innovative and (at times) really interesting… but it is still a detailed, rigid process.  I found myself questioning how relevant (in terms of realism) this was to any but the very largest of firms.

And here lies the biggest sticking point.  ‘Whale hunting’ is supposed to help smaller businesses that want to grow through selling to larger organizations.  The ‘whales’ under discussion are those prize organizations we’d all like to have ‘on the list’.

The approach proposed takes one through the business development process using nine phases, each linked to the ‘art’ of hunting whales. : Scouting (know, seek, harpoon); Hunt (ride, capture, sew); Harvest (beach, honour, celebrate).  It argues that each phase has recognized risks and benefits, and each must be performed carefully and thoroughly for the process to work.

Quite correctly, the book argues that ‘landing’ big clients saves you money in the long run, better validates/presents your brand and increases your firm’s influence over suppliers.  It also, correctly, reminds us that successfully doing this is 90% process and 10% magic.

It stresses the need for a team approach, with each member holding distinct roles.  The need to first understand our own strengths and weaknesses, before applying this understanding to the wider marketplace and selecting targets.

There are many phases that would present valuable learning for firms, irrespective of whether the whole process was completed.  For example, the first rule proposed is to understand what you ‘sell’ and why. Smaller organizations want to know what you sell, whales want to know why.  If the production of excellent products or services were all that was important then there would be no need for a BD department.  Understanding why firms sell what they do is where whale hunting starts.  When analyzing your firm, the book suggests that you ask the question ‘why?’ five times, after ever single assumption.  It might be rather like having a meeting with a toddler (hmmm… well, it can sometimes feel like that anyhow) but you’ll get to the crux of your business development offering.

Armed with this new understanding, there is a great target filter structure set out and available to download for free.  It is supposed to be a living document, outlining both the good and the bad, to allow you to understand the profile of prospective ‘whales’ as they apply to your firm.  In short, the waters in which they swim.  Interestingly it says firms should apply this test to existing clients as well.  Well… haven’t we been saying that for a while now?

One of the most interesting parts comes towards the end of the book when the author talks about how to ‘listen to the whale sounds’, both in terms of identifying the right time to ‘harpoon’ but also, later on, in terms of understanding what to do when things aren’t going as you’d hope.  Rather than only focusing on the ideal, this book is refreshingly honest in recognizing that we also need advice on tackling barriers to conversion, fears and delays.  It also provides a step-by-step process for closing the deal and handing over to the ‘implementation’ team.

There is much firms can learn from this book, particularly ambitious mid-tier and smaller firms.  The question that remains in my mind is how logical the whole process is for them, however, when they are already over-stretched.  Perhaps this is where the truly talented BD professional can step in.  Rather than following the process religiously, perhaps a little common sense and cherry picking is required?  Ok, so that might miss the point of the book but I think it is perhaps more important that firms are able to try at least some of these fantastic tactics, rather than feel that the detailed process is a barrier to even giving it a go.

This article was written by Helen Hammond and published in the May 2012 edition of PM Magazine, produced by PM Forum.