A client of mine recently described a scene at his office. I am going to illustrate it by putting it in the context of a play where the characters are as follows:
- Managing Partner (MP)
- A group of fee-earners (FE)
Act 1, Scene 1 (a meeting at the office)
MP The recession is really hurting us – our clients are spending less and the competition is stealing some of our work by offering ridiculously low fees. We need to get out there more – we need to be talking to our clients to make sure we do as much as possible to stop them going to other providers AND we need to find some new clients.
FE Yes, you’re absolutely right, we need more work, our utilisation figures are down.
MP Good, off you go then, let’s re-convene in a couple of weeks to see how we’re getting on.
At this point the fee-earners head back to their desks and get stuck in to the projects they are working on.
Two weeks later (another BD meeting)
MP Ok, so how are we doing?
FE Good, we’ve been pretty busy.
MP Great, so have we got any new business?
FE Unfortunately not, we’ve been busy working on existing projects.
MP But I thought we’d agreed that it was important to get out there and start talking to clients and prospective clients?
FE But we haven’t got enough time / we’re not salespeople / it’s not my job / it’s simply about doing a really good job…
At this point the Managing Partner begins to worry. He knows that his people are good at what they do – technically they can’t be faulted. However, when he reflects on the business development skills of the team he realises they fit into five categories – those who:
- Do it well
- Do it badly
- Won’t do it
- Can’t do it
- Think they can’t do it
Further analysis shows the ratios of these types of individuals he believes he has:
So what does the Managing Partner deduce from all this? He needs a different approach with different people, he needs to think about the individual – what needs to change, how is that change most likely to happen?
He arranged one to one meetings with all of his people to try to find out how he might help them. During the meetings he learned some interesting things:
…won’t do it believe that business development (selling!) is tacky and that the reason clients invite them to do more work is purely and simply down to the quality of that work. Selling is something done by people wearing shiny suits – the used car or photocopier salesperson. This group also felt that the way some of their colleagues go about selling was unethical and, frankly, not how they themselves would go about it!
…can’t do it feel that they are technicians – the reason they came to this firm was to do the work. They are not confident talking to people they don’t know about subjects outside of their very narrow area of knowledge. This group feel very strongly about this – so strongly in fact that they might be forced to work elsewhere if forced outside of these comfort zones.
…think they can’t do it see the way some people (the do it badly’s) approach business development and think, “if that’s selling then I can’t do it”.
…do it badly were a small group of fee-earners who approached things in the way their gut instincts and experience told them. They would ensure that they respond to every invitation to tender, they made sure that if they got a ‘selling meeting’ that the prospective client knew how good they were and exactly what they had done in similar areas.
…do it well feel that it is something that they do naturally. They know that clients buy from those people that they trust so they spend time and effort on building relationships. Whilst they have the same responsibilities and targets when it comes to utilisation they know that business development is part of the job.
Having gone through this exercise the Managing Partner felt he was in a much stronger position to tackle the key issue of getting more people out speaking to clients and prospective clients. He realised two important things. The first was that his people were all at different levels of confidence, skill and understanding when it came to all things business development and client relationship management and that each group he identified would require a different approach. The second realisation was that there was a lack of clarity around the business as to what ‘doing it well’ actually looked like.
The first thing he tackled was this question of what ‘good’ looks like at their firm and after much thought came up with the following guiding principles:
1. Put effort into becoming positioned as a ‘trusted adviser’. This means they must know us for our technical excellence, our ability to manage their experience of working with us in a positive way and our understanding of them and their world.
2. Eagerness to develop new business with the client can, if we’re not careful, translate into – “Every time I meet that guy he’s trying to sell me something”. Our philosophy around consultative selling is to ‘build the client’s motivation to buy and re-buy from us’.
3. Keep regular contact with key people within the client organisation in order to be able to pick up on ‘horizon’ issues that the client will have to deal with at some point in the future. Also, keep a close eye on the client’s sector in order to recognise areas where you can be proactive in bringing opportunities to them as well as warning them of potential threats.
4. Invest time now in order to shape the client’s perception of horizon issues and how their organisation can deal with them at some point in the future. Position yourself beside the client as they start to get to grips with these issues. Begin to shape and share their thinking regarding solutions. The aim is to put yourself in a ‘field of one’ when the competitive tender process begins – if the client even bothers to go down this route. On many occasions you will be the automatic default selection.
5. In every contact with the client try to add some form of value to the person / people that you have interacted with. Become associated in the client’s mind as an individual who gives value – not one who takes. This makes it easy for the client to appoint you to carry out paid assignments. They will assume that you will deliver value – as you have in every other encounter.
The development approach of each type of business developer
…won’t do it needed to be shown that it is ethical, professional and not, in any way, ‘grubby’. Once they were convinced of this they might still fall into the ‘can’t’, or ‘think they can’t’ category.
…can’t do it and really can’t should be allowed to contribute to the business development of the team in a way in which they are comfortable. For example, desk based research, proposal writing or analysis.
…think they can’t do it need to be trained how to do it in the way described above. The training must be complemented with strong leadership, mentoring and be sewn into their appraisal.
…do it badly have to be managed! They need to understand what the standards are and there should be consequences for non-compliance.
…do it well can become the internal champions and mentors to others.
Making the most of any opportunities that exist in the marketplace now and positioning for an upturn is dependent on getting more people active in the market place and ensuring that when they are out there they are doing as good a job as possible. To achieve this the Managing Partner in question is embarking on a development programme aimed at delivering the following outcomes:
- A consistent approach to business development; something that becomes part of the firm’s DNA.
- An increase in skill and, therefore confidence of everyone with a client facing remit.
- Market focused new business development plans that stipulate every team member’s role.
- Client focused plans aimed at encouraging the right actions that will defend and develop the client relationship.
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