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  • Jessica Chen

Client Acquisitions: What You Need to Know

Written by Sophie Allen

How does a non-profit consulting firm find its clients? How does it decide which projects to choose? And when the dust settles, how does one go about maintaining these relationships?

I recently followed a 180DC project from start to finish, to learn what non-profit consulting entails. This experience led me to wonder how client relationships come about in the first place. To answer my questions, Jeffrey Xia, President of 180DC, sat down with me to talk about all things client-facing.

Finding Clients

The first stage of the process is finding clients to work with. Jeff explained that most are repeat clients. Having worked with 180DC in the past, and being happy with the deliverables, they return to complete a second or third stage of the project. Jeff explained that with the Big Four accounting firms - Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers - you might expect to be referred onto the implementation team, who would enact the proposals formulated by the strategy team. However, 180DC focuses mainly on strategy, so this new phase entails building on previous proposals. Why not also focus on implementation? “Strategy is more interesting and more in line with the skill set of our consultants,” Jeff told me.

The second method of client acquisition is a referral from a previous client. Jeff described the NFP landscape as well-connected. While it’s common in the corporate space to treat direct competitors as a negative thing, he described the NFP space as more collaborative and close-knit. Thus, word of mouth goes a long way in helping attract new clients.

Finally, reaching out to personal networks also brings 180DC into contact with new organisations. Members of the Executive Committee, like Jeff, have sometimes been involved in social enterprise communities and start-up incubators. Knowing the founders personally can offer 180DC a foot in the door with these prospective clients.

When I asked about networking, Jeff admitted there was no formal strategy for attending social impact conferences or networking events. “It’s something we could perhaps look to in the future,” Jeff says. But as of now, 180DC have found that personal contacts and word-of-mouth referrals suffice.

Choosing Projects

Saying ‘yes’

Once a list of interested parties is collated, the decision-making process begins. The President, Jeff, and Vice President, Will Henderson, consider a range of selection criteria when deciding which projects to move forward with. They try to gauge which projects would be most valuable to 180DC, considering factors like the size of the client, the potential impact of the project, whether a project matches the skillset of this year’s consulting team, and ultimately, whether a project is in alignment with 180DC’s mission.

Jeff explains that since 180DC recruits from a diverse background of students, it’s important that projects are accessible to a wide range of knowledge areas. “For example,” Jeff assures me, “We wouldn’t choose a project that involves, say, complex programming.”

Saying ‘no’

I was interested to hear which projects don’t make the cut. Unbeknownst to some, the organisation receives a number of lucrative offers from for-profit firms. As 180DC is an internationally-recognised brand name, companies are taking notice. Whilst flattering, Jeff explains that 180DC usually turns these firms down, as our mission is clearly focussed on helping NFPs. On rare occasions, 180DC has brought on for-profits to help with their pro-bono or non-profit ventures. But according to Jeff, it’s important not to dilute the brand and social impact experience promised to our consultants, despite the financial incentives that may be offered to do so.

Client Relationship: During the Project

Once a partnership is agreed upon, the initial scoping of the project can begin. Jeff and Will join the client in going over an initial proposal, ensuring that both are happy with the scope of the project. Jeff notes the most important thing with client relationships is ensuring no mismatch in expectations. The client should be aware of what is or isn’t covered by the project so that consultants and clients are both on the same page.

That being said, the option is left open for a client to adjust the scope early on. Given those client relationships begin months before the consulting teams are introduced, 180DC is aware that priorities might have changed. So, early-term flexibility is possible.

Throughout the project, Calum McConville as Consulting Director oversees all project-related issues. A project team is also partnered with a buddy from the Executive Committee. They come on in Week 1 to support the team and facilitate the client relationship where necessary.

Client Relationship: After the Project

Community Involvement

This year, Jeff and Will made it a priority to make client relationships more inclusive. They wanted to emphasise that partnering with 180DC is a collaborative process and thought how clients could be involved with the organisation beyond their consulting team. They came up with the idea to offer clients access to community events. And so, Impact Night was born.

In the final week of their project, teams come together (over Zoom, for now) to present the conclusory version of their work. This allows both teams and clients to witness the breadth of projects 180DC undertakes.

Ongoing Communication

In the next couple of months after the project is finished, Jeff and Will would check in with the client to see how they’re going. He says it’s important to maintain this personal relationship, alongside formal feedback processes.

So, when does all this begin?

When it comes to client relationships, you need to start as soon as possible. Jeff describes it as a constant process since it takes time to build trust and rapport. The difficulty comes as the President of 180DC only holds the role for a 1-year term. Compared to a partner in a consulting firm who might foster these personal relationships for years, Jeff says it’s hard to muster close relationships with all your clients in a short amount of time. Hence, the need to start conversations early, and make the transition from one Executive Team to the next as seamless as possible.

What makes a partnership with 180DC different?

Our values

180DC’s mentality is to be as open and transparent as possible. When approaching clients, Jeff says we are honest about being a student-run organisation. Whilst we conduct quality assurance training with BCG and Nous, we don’t claim to be the most professional or the best firm in the field. But what we can promise is that our consultants have a genuine drive to create social impact. As Jeff describes, being authentic and human are core components of 180DC’s brand. Perhaps that’s why we appeal to NFPs: in our pitch, we’re honest about our goals and what we can deliver. On the other hand, we don’t want to dehumanise social impact into numbers.

Client Experience

Clients have often commented to Jeff how they enjoyed the experience of a project with 180DC more than they expected. Consultants often get a bad rap for instigating negative change, for instance, being held responsible for downsizing. That clients feel 180DC has added value to their organisation, and that it’s been a positive encounter, is high praise.

Commenting on what the experience with clients is like, Jeff smiles and says “It’s fun! Talking to inspirational people - listening to their stories and hearing why they founded a non-profit in the first place… there’s nothing like it.”


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