Brilliance in business development

An A plus is given to a student for great work being achieved.
Over the last year we’ve discussed the six attributes of really great firms.  So far we’ve examined how they decide who (and where) they want to be and we’ve explored the nuances of their leadership and their people.   We’ve also revealed the factors behind their ability to differentiate and focus on service streams that attract great clients.  Now it is time to look at their philosophy and approach to business development. Without this these firms would not be able to:
  • Achieve their significant sustainable profitable growth.
  • Build the right type of client base that provides them with the right type of work at the right fees.
  • Attract and retain their great people.
So what does great business development look like?

The Culture

Great firms sell themselves, and sell themselves better than the competition.  Or put another way, the greatest firms make it ‘easy for clients to buy’ from them, rather than from the competition.  Their ability to do this lies in their culture, which often embraces business development (BD) rather than viewing it as a ‘necessary evil’.  In the really great firms the process for both developing existing client relationships and winning new clients is fully understood and actively practised.  Their people seem to view BD work as just as important as fee-earning work.  They know that to reap the benefits of a steady flow of profitable work, you have to invest time and energy in activities that will attract it.  Stop the BD and (possibly sooner than you think) the work will dry up. This may sound obvious but to many firms it is an ethos that is difficult to realise in practice, especially when fee-earners are extremely busy with client work.  These firms find it difficult to build in BD time during busy business periods to protect their fortunes dipping when tougher times follow.  In contrast, the great firms ensure that their BD approach is never sporadic; it is integral to the fabric of their day-to-day operations.  To them BD isn’t a desire, an objective or an ambition, it is something that they actively plan, manage, support and measure to make a reality. It is found in evidence in the BD approach they adopt, train and support their people in.  It is also clear from the consultative selling and relationship building skills they favour and the training, development and coaching that they give their people.  These are not firms that operate a blanket ‘sheepdip’ approach to BD training.  Instead they consider the different strengths and weaknesses they have across their fee-earners and group different training and coaching accordingly. This enables them to both define what good BD skills look like, and also help individuals get to that level more quickly by building on their individual skill-sets and experiences. Training in BD is not a one-off activity.  In the truly great firms, people are supported to quickly embed their learning in the workplace through further coaching, mentoring and ‘surgeries’.  There are periodic ‘refresher’ sessions to remind and reinforce best practice and the firm’s communication channels regularly articulate best practice in their messages of how new clients were won, key clients further protected, cross-selling initiatives achieved etc. The firm’s leadership and management are very evident in the BD approach.  They measure and manage the overall BD philosophy carefully.  The return on investment from BD activities is scrutinised and performance appraisals, reward and remuneration systems all assess business development contributions.  Consequences are in place for poor performance and lack of effort in BD.  To prevent underperformance, the firms also help fee-earners free up time so business development activities can be built into hectic days.  The firms employ great business development professionals to ensure the BD time that fee-earners do invest is put to greatest use.  

BD professionals

As a result these firms appear to have more high quality professional BD people than their peers.  These individuals are not treated as ‘less worthy’ support people: they are considered to be equals and an integral part of the firm’s success.  They take a very active part in supporting fee-earners, both in helping them to plan the business they need to win and in helping them win it.  Their involvement is brought in much earlier on in the client acquisition/retention process and it is rare for them to be called in ‘at the last hour’ to help with a proposal or pitch submission. The insight they gain as a result helps them to have the firm’s current and future portfolio at the heart of any activities they formulate.  This in turn leads to a much more targeted approach to marketing and business development, one based on a strong understanding of the needs of the firm’s clients and those it hopes to attract.  You also see a much more ‘joined up’ approach to business development with BD professionals working alongside fee-earners in client and prospective client teams.  As a result the fee-earners find it easier to reap the benefits of their BD professionals’ targeting/segmentation, research, creativity, client empathy, commercial and sales skills.  The BD professionals then gain a greater degree of respect and trust from their fee-earning colleagues who realise that the BD team are more ‘hands on’ in helping them to keep their business pipeline flowing.

Keeping the pipeline flowing

Great firms do not view BD as an occasional initiative when fee income is looking a little low.  They see it as something that happens every week, every month, ever quarter, forever. This type of approach provides a sustainable flow of opportunities. The opportunities are more likely to turn into fee income reality if the selling is handled by fee-earners who understand the skills and behaviours of consultative selling.   And, as we’ve mentioned, to achieve this fee-earners are given training, mentoring, time and support on the areas where they most need it. Selling is seen not just in terms of acquiring new clients, but also essential in developing existing client relationships into new service streams.  To make this a reality, the great firms spend time to really understand their clients.  They do not assume that their name, their brand, their position in the marketplace, their existing relationships gives them an automatic right to win new work. Instead they realise that the deeper you can understand a client, the more tangible benefits you will be able to identify.  These benefits will give you the edge over a competitor, they can cement a relationship even further so the client stays loyal, they can even help a new service stream being offered to an existing client. The more the firm understands, the stronger its foundation to build trust with the client and trust has been identified as a key contributor to winning new and retaining business in the professional services arena. So when you look at the really great firms, you see them being more active in researching their clients.  They consider both the current time and also look to the future.  They look at the issues impacting on their client contacts, the client business as a whole and even the industry in which it operates.  They also assess how their contacts view and want to interact with them and they plot how many contacts they have and how influential these are in decisions about appointing their expertise. Such information lays the foundations for very clear client/prospective client plans, which plot:
  • What benefits the firm needs to bring to a client to help them realise certain ambitions.
  • How it will best position this help.
  • How it will expand its number of allies in the client.
  • How it will build trust to either; win the client, further protect the relationship or develop the relationship to move into new areas.
Plans are not held closely to one fee-earner’s chest.  Without incurring any conflicts, they are made accessible to as many people in the firm as possible.  This taps in to a wider ‘radar’ seeking information on the client and creates more ideas of ways in which the firm can deliver greater value to the client.   It also ensures the plans remain ‘alive’ and not gathering dust on a shelf.

Making it easy to buy

Collectively this whole BD ethos and approach makes it much more easy for clients to buy from the great firms.  The time invested in targeting clients, in understanding them, in planning the firm’s approach to them and in coaching fee-earners to build trust with them is well spent.  The great firms recognise that an hour’s work of BD is as valuable (if not more valuable) than a similar hour’s fee-earning work.  They guide and help their fee-earners to make the greatest contribution from the time they can invest and use great BD professionals to prevent duplication of effort, reinvention of the wheel and below par BD practices creeping in.  So if you are thinking about your firm’s own BD efforts, here are some thoughts to get you started: What’s your firm’s process for business development?  Could you influence better best practice across the firm, if so how?  What different skill-sets are prevalent across the firm when it comes to winning and developing client relationships?  Talk to your HR colleagues to see if current BD training and development can be better grouped to achieve a greater success rate. How involved are BD and marketing professionals in the various client and prospective client teams?  What fee-earners would welcome BD/marketing thinking in helping them formulate their plans? Consider BD and marketing’s internal reputation – what could be done to help its expertise become more trusted and more sought after?