Professional Development Small Business

Prospect vs. Suspect

When looking at potential clients, it helps to make a distinction between a suspects and prospects.  Having this distinction helps maximize your bottom line. 

When it comes to practice or business development within your firm everyone knows what a client is, right?  That’s easy.  But what’s the difference between a suspect and a prospect?  And, are some prospects better than others?  When looking at potential clients, it helps to make a distinction between a suspect and a prospect.  Having this distinction helps focus your efforts to maximize your results.

Knowing the Difference

Suspects are potential clients you know nothing or next to nothing about. They need further research because you don’t know if you would like to have them as a client. Prospects are potential clients that you do know something about or have had interactions with in the past. For example, a suspect might be the manufacturing firm on the outskirts of town that no one in your firm has contacted nor do they know anyone there. A prospect could be a similar manufacturing firm that you have proposed on before or where someone in the firm knows the CFO or controller.

Many firms make the mistake of chasing after suspects rather than prospects in their practice development efforts. This can lead to wasted time, effort, and dollars. In order to do it properly you need to separate your potential clients into three categories; A’s, B’s (Prospects) and C’s (Suspects)

ABC’s of Prospecting

“A” prospects are the type of potential clients your firm would really love to work with, ones that fit your sweet spot with respect to size, revenue, geography, or industry. Additionally, they are the warmest leads, ones that have a need for your service. Meaning you have some sort of relationship with them; either you know a lot of their management staff, you’ve proposed on them before with positive feedback, they’ve asked to be on your mailing list or attended a seminar, etc.

“B” prospects are the type of potential clients you think you would like to have but you just don’t know enough about them. They probably fit the profile of your ideal client; right industry, geography, etc. Maybe they’re in the right target industry but you don’t know if they’re the right size. Maybe there is just not a strong enough relationship built between the two of you yet, you just don’t know enough about them or have only interacted with them on isolated occasions. Additionally, “B’s” may also be those “A’s” you proposed on and lost so you wouldn’t actively pursue for a period of time, or they may be those that say “no but keep in contact with us for the future.”

“C” prospects (Suspects) are the type of potential clients that you, or anyone in your firm, knows absolutely nothing about. They may or may not fit the profile of an ideal client based on size, revenues, or industry. You haven’t done enough research to know. Maybe they’re in an emerging industry niche for the firm. Maybe they’re a company that you just learned about. These are the hardest type of potential client to turn into actual clients. Make sure you do the research before you jump in and go after these.

Focus on A Prospects

When it comes down to practice development efforts focus on the “A” prospects the most, then the “B’s” and finally the suspects. A good rule of thumb is 60/30/10. Figure out who in the firm knows whom at these “A” targets and then craft a strategy to get in the door. If they’re “B” prospects, you need to do your research to learn more and make the introductions necessary to warm up the relationship. Learn who is their attorney or banker. Invite them to seminars, webinars, open houses, etc. Ask them if they would like to be on your mailing list and receive your newsletter. If they’re suspects, you need to learn as much as you can about them as a target before you can move them up the food chain to a “B” or even an “A” prospect.

The goal is to move the “C’s” to “B’s”, the “B’s” to “A’s” and the “A’s” to clients. As mentioned before, there may be times, based on circumstances, that potential clients move down instead of up. That’s okay, it happens. The key is to make sure you move as many upward as possible.


In the past, business development traditionally has been left to a few key partners or senior managers in the firm. Firm leadership needs to make it become part of the entire firm’s culture. When it comes to business or practice development, it has to be all members of the firm thinking in a strategic manner and working together. Everyone, from the receptionist to the managing partner, needs to be involved at some level.

Those firms that manage to instill a business development culture are usually the ones that end up winning clients more often than losing clients. And, at the end of the day, isn’t it about growing and moving forward?

Tim Allen is an experienced professional services marketing professional with broad experience in strategy creation, branding and business development. Mr. Allen has held top marketing positions in both large, national CPA firms as well as smaller, regional firms where he has been instrumental in creating and implementing a firm-wide marketing culture. He has written and presented extensively on the intricacies of services marketing and is currently writing his first book on the transition from college to career and creating your personal brand for the millennial generation.

1 comment on “Prospect vs. Suspect

  1. David Smigel

    There is a fine line between sales, Marketing & Biz Dev. When this article references Diz Dev can you tell me what the roles would be in this department/function?

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