Trade secret: Of all the phrases you’ll hear frequently uttered by business prospects, “We’ll keep you in mind” easily ranks among the most commonly-utilized – but it’s also among the most insidious and apt to undermine your productivity. As we often remind business development professionals, this isn’t a saying meant to assuage your worries… rather, it’s a polite way of assuaging other parties and providing them with a polite exit from a conversation. In effect, not only are prospects who make a statement to this effect typically being disingenuous by not saying what they really mean (“no thanks” or “we’ve already got this covered”). They’re also creating a false sense of hope that can lead to wasted time and effort in the future. That said, if you hear this phrase being commonly-utilized, it typically means that (a) you don’t have the right product-market fit (b) your pitch or presentation could use some work or (c) most commonly, that your target audience doesn’t fully appreciate or understand the upsides and value that you’re bringing to the table. Thankfully, there are a few ways you can pivot from passively waiting around and hoping that you randomly spring to mind the next time a need pops up on a potential client’s radar to someone who routinely stays top of mind and offers clear reasons to stay in contact with.

Create a Strong Personal Brand and Industry Presence − In today’s distraction-riddled business world, audiences are becoming ever-more protective of their schedules and e-mail inboxes. Noting this, you can only make so many outreach calls, or send so many follow-up queries, newsletters, and invitations before others start to tune you out, assign your queries lower importance, or (yikes) label you as thirsty or outright desperate. Noting this, a far better approach than chasing customers is to make them come to you and earn prospects’ attention and respect by building more visibility and brand equity. Noting this, it pays to become more of a trusted industry presence and thought leader. You might do this by releasing attention-getting research, poll, or survey data; hosting happy hours featuring panels of industry speakers or noted thought leaders; putting on free classes, courses, and networking sessions; running regular breakfast meetings and supper clubs; and otherwise looking for informal ways to connect with new leads and maintain existing relationships. Alternately, you can build your industry presence by attending conferences, writing bylined articles, filming and sharing videos online, stopping by networking events, volunteering for different industry organizations, and otherwise doing as much as you can to secure face time with others and establish yourself as a go-to industry resource and/or expert. Inside tip: We especially recommend capitalizing on in-person events as outreach opportunities, as they present myriad chances for you to circumvent gatekeepers and speak one on one with potential prospects in a more casual and open setting. (Say, while standing in the buffet line or waiting to grab a quick snack or drink.) As you’ll often hear us say: “Luck is hard work.” You can quickly boost your odds of success here by creating more chances for opportunity to cross your path and having something unique and meaningful to say when it does.

Maintain a Good Reputation and Drive Positive Word of Mouth − It’s no secret that you often are who you know in business, that building strong relationships is key to ongoing organizational and career growth, and that word of mouth is today’s most effective form of advertising. Bearing this in mind, it’s critical that you maintain an active network of contacts and positive reputation… and stay in good standing with your peers. To one extent, this is a function of consistently providing solid work, respecting deadlines, and keeping your promises; to another, continually doing your part to be a good industry and community member, as well as always doing your best to help uplift your partners and peers. Note that this often goes beyond what you do on the clock as part of your actual job role of responsibilities; as a friendly reminder, for example, offering occasional pro bono work or volunteering to speak free for local nonprofits can also help build goodwill, generate awareness, and potentially let you demonstrate your talents to influential community members who might generate future business. The more you give, the more you’ll get, noting that work often travels quickly in industry circles.

Pay It Forward − Likewise, while you can’t always accept every project, meeting, or opportunity that comes your way, you can always make introductions, give referrals, and help steer those who’ve reached out to you towards other colleagues or contacts who might be able to assist. Similarly, you might also suggest helpful resources or places to turn for next steps. Whatever you do, don’t just dismiss others who’ve reached out, brush the query off, or (ick) make an offer you don’t follow through on. (Which they’ll remember for years to come − trust us.) In other words: Your goal is to always be empathetic to others, and supportive and additive to their cause. Doing this can help you build a strong network of contacts and referrals − and help you establish yourself as someone that others can count on and want to be in contact with. In any event, your goal is to leave others better off than before they reached out to you and to create win-win opportunities for all parties involved. Trade secret: In nearly 25 years of consulting, speaking, and working as senior executives for myriad firms worldwide, we can literally count on zero fingers the number of direct callbacks we got weeks or months later in response to a pitch by a client who promised to “keep us mind.” But over the decades, we have in fact received all sorts of inquiries from folks that we worked hard to build face-to-face time and relationships with − including those attended a speech, or saw recent media mentions and remembered our earlier discussions.

It may also help to consider the following as you go about your pursuing business development efforts: As strapped for time and attention as most folks are these days, they’re unlikely to bite on your offers of assistance unless they have an immediate, burning need for your services or solutions. Moreover, odds are that the problems that your services propose to solve are likely low on their priority list unless they immediately align with an upcoming strategic goal or initiative, or there’s a current and timely need to respond to an emergency or unexpected event. This makes it hard to compete for mindshare with more pressing topics, let alone overcome the initial hesitance and paperwork that often comes with signing on a new service provider. Bearing this in mind, we equate cold calling to being like rolling the dice or playing roulette − you might come up a winner now and then, but odds are generally not in your favor. Instead, take the slow and steady approach here: Start by striving to make a solid introduction with a business prospect, then invest time in nurturing the relationship, building brand awareness, and consistently working to place subtle reminders in your prospective partner’s path. By doing so, you can connect the dots here so that when a pressing need or emergency finally does arise, the trail of breadcrumbs leads your way − and will prove irresistible and easy to follow.