In today’s blog, we sat down with Colleen LaCoss, the Director of Certification & Business Development with WBEC-East, to pick her brain about the tough questions WBEs always ask about networking and getting new clients.
Here are the 7 burning questions we had…
1. So what corporate clients should I be pursuing as a new WBE?
CL- This is a great question, and one that I like to completely turn back into the WBEs’ hands.
I don’t know your business or your industry like you do. YOU are the expert at whatever your unique factor is, and you started your business because you clearly saw a need for your skills.
This is where you now need to start doing the hard work of market analysis and researching potential clients. WBENC has over 400 corporate supplier diversity members representing the largest corporations in the country, and there are even more corporations and government agencies that don’t pay dues to WBENC that have supplier diversity programs. Pick a target, and take a look at their website, their values, their needs, their service area, etc. and start to get a feel on which clients would be a good fit for your services.
What kind of clients do you want? What kind of clients can you deliver success for? If you’re a one woman show focusing on social media and branding, are you big enough to pursue a behemoth like Walt Disney World, or would a local university be more up your alley? If you are a construction contractor, are your services robust enough to be a prime, or are you better suited to be a sub? Do you understand what the bidding and contracting process looks like for different industries and clients you are pursuing?
No one can tell you which clients you should be pursuing or answer these questions for you. That’s something only you can decide for yourself with lots of research and strategic planning.
2. Can you make introductions for me?
CL- Maybe? If you have one specific client that you’ve been pursuing, but the email you found in the WBENC directory bounced back and you’ve already googled their supplier diversity site to no avail… I can try. Sometimes I do have the contact for the actual mover and shaker at a corporation. Sometimes I don’t.
What I can’t do is research and pull together a full list of contacts for dozens of procurement departments for you, and I certainly can’t promote you on your behalf. With over 1,700 WBEs in our tri-state area, and 18,000 nationwide, my team must be agnostic when it comes to promoting one WBE over another.
3. Why aren’t procurement reps responding to my emails?
CL- Please understand that there is so much going on behind the scenes in a supplier diversity executive’s job. They are working with procurement reps to gather RFP opportunities, collating supplier lists, vetting potential suppliers, maintaining relationships with certifying agencies, attending and running procurement events, educating their buyers about the importance of diversity goals, AND trying to keep ahead of the often hundreds of cold outreach emails they get a day from interested business owners like yourself.
It’s not personal, there’s just so much going on behind the curtain that you don’t see.
Please don’t be rude or pushy. They see your emails, and they know who is respectfully following up with a kind message and updated capability statement 2-3 times a year versus emailing every other day.
They also know who is writing thoughtful, personalized emails versus sending templated scripts like “to whom it may concern, please respond at your earliest convenience.”
These supplier diversity reps are often the gatekeepers to decision makers in procurement, and they geniunely care about advocating for women owned businesses, so it pays to be courteous and to do your homework. They can be an amazing ally to have on your side, but you need to give them the motivation and the ammo to fight for you.
4. So how can I really stand out among the thousands of other WBEs?
CL- I mentioned above how you should give the supplier diversity reps ammo to fight for you. What does that mean?
Listen to this example a corporate rep shared with me not long ago:
“I think about this WBE’s pitch all the time. She had read about our CEO’s committment to reducing the carbon footprint in the next 5 years, and had done her research on how many of our facility parking lots had EV charging stations. Apparently it was only one. She then laid out her past success consulting with one of our competitors, and gave me a plan, pricing, timelines, basically everything I would need to present her case to our procurement team. We didn’t even have an RFP out for EV consulting, but I know the people in this department, and they would eat this up.”
My colleague left me with this tidbit:
“I want to go to bat for our WBEs, but they need to give me tools to do so. It frustrates me when a WBE sits down and starts off by asking how they can help us meet our goals. I don’t know, you tell me!”
So really hone in on your unique star factor. What makes you shine above your competitors? What makes your service/product/pricing a game changer for your clients? What does your brand say about you? Do you have a solid brand (your colors, logo, language, slogan) that you’re reinforcing every day?
Be memorable, and you will be remembered.
5. Where can I find a list of potential opportunities for WBEs?
CL- You can’t, because there really isn’t one. Every procurement department is an island, and operates on their own RFP processes. Some corporations have a public website of open RFPs. Others send out RFPs by email and word of mouth as they are released. Others don’t even make RFPs public, and reach out to me for a curated list of suppliers based on keyword and NAICS code so that they can invite you to bid.
6. So if there’s no list, how do I find opportunities?
CL- First, I acknowledge that it can be super frustrating to know where to look. It’s important to note that so much success comes through relationship building. And this is why I go back to the first question you asked about WHO should be your corporate clients.
Once you’ve identified your target list of clients- those corporations where you know you could be successful and a good fit- then you can start focusing on building those relationships, learning how they typically release and fill new opportunities, and creating an action plan.
There’s no “one size fits all” procurement process, so you need to really be organized in how you manage client leads, track your follow up, document touch points, and catalogue your target clients’ unique procurement processes.
7. What words of encouragement can you give to a WBE who just isn’t seeing business pick up?
CL- I’m going to give some tough, but hopefully motivational love.
Ultimately, two stars have to align for you to get new business:
- The right relationship has to be nurtured
- The right opportunity needs to come along
Patience and strategic persistence are key here.
Listen, a WBE certificate isn’t a strategy, it is a piece of paper. It won’t do the work for you in marketing your business and tracking client leads.
Marketing yourself is HARD WORK. Those social butterflies you see flitting around the conference floor aren’t there just to have fun. They recognize that making a connection is just the tip of the iceberg. They’re making maps of the expo booths they want to hit, planning an email cadence to follow up, customizing their pitch and capability statement to each unique client, documenting which corporate rep just got a new puppy or a fantastic haircut to reference in their follow up…
No, business is not going to pick up overnight. Some WBEs have been certified for months or years before their work really starts to pay off. But keeping your leads organized, your research fresh, and your efforts strategic will give you some tangible progress to be proud of.
TO SUM UP
You’ve got some hard work ahead of you to:
- Narrow down your own list of ideal clients to target
- Research the unique procurement processes of each client
- Identify and stick to your unique star factor
- Curate relationships respectfully
- Develop a strategy to organize leads and track follow up
- Do your homework to give your corporate rep the ammo to go to bat for you
I have seen so many amazing success stories from WBEs who truly lean in. You can too!