The most common complaint we hear from the heads of professional services firms (lawyers, accountants, engineers, marketing or PR agencies) is that their people are technically brilliant, but have a serious aversion to business development.
Totally understandable considering the training the majority of professionals receive relates directly to delivering services they provide (e.g. how to conduct a better audit or how to create a crisis communications plan).
Also, most professionals believe that business development is based on “building great relationships” or “doing great work so we get referrals,” ignoring data that shows relationship-based selling isn’t very effective – it works, just slowly and not that well – and other data that shows only about 20% of clients will ever offer a referral without being asked.
To paraphrase, David Sandler, “you don’t have to like business development, you just have to do it.”
For professionals that want to control their own destiny, the following six suggestions will make you a better business developer without making you sound or feel like a salesperson.
- Set weekly business development goals and create a plan to achieve them – Sandler also said, “do a little bit (of business development) all of the time instead of a lot of it some of the time.” Doing business development weekly might seem like a lot if you’re doing little or none now and you might feel like giving up when you don’t have success right away. Don’t. Follow your business development plan for at least 90 days and adjust as needed. As one of my mentors said, “no one ever said ‘thank God you showed up.’” Your first business development activities will make you feel wildly uncomfortable, but as you do more business development your skills will improve and you will be more confident in developing business.
- Always keep your potential clients OK – Potential clients are more likely to do business with people they like and trust. As you move a potential client down the business development path towards becoming a client, you may need to challenge their thinking. By watching a potential client’s body language and tonality, you will get early clues that they are feeling not-OK. By nurturing your potential client’s OK-ness, you will make them more comfortable with you and more likely to become a client.
- Maintain Equal Business Stature with your potential clients – While you are providing a professional service, you are not a professional servant. Even in traditional sales, potential clients will try to put you in a “one down” position by asking for references, your experience on similar projects and ideas to help solve their problems before you even know if it makes sense to work with them. When faced with a potential client who tries to bully you, stiffen your backbone and suggest that you might not be the right fit. Your potential client is more likely to do business with someone who will stand up for themselves without making the potential client feel uncomfortable.
- Never do anything unless you know why you are doing it – This Sandler rule is especially relevant to professional services. Potential clients will often say, “come up with some ideas on how you think you can help us and maybe we’ll work together.” That’s an okay request if you know what will happen after your potential client sees your ideas. Otherwise you’re just doing free consulting.
- Make sure you and your potential client are on the same page – Carrying on the example above, it’s great to think you know what will happen when you bring back your great ideas, but it’s better to know what will happen. Think of being on the same page with your potential client like agreeing to go on a road trip in separate vehicles. The ultimate destination is them becoming a client, but if both of you don’t have the same map and agree to where you’ll stop for breaks and what to do if one of you gets lost then your road trip might reach its ultimate destination, but you’ll waste a lot of time and feel a lot of stress before arriving.
- Remember that potential clients buy for their reasons not yours – Your potential clients don’t care about how technically brilliant you are, how many awards you won or the big name clients you worked with. They care about finding someone to relieve their specific, painful business problem. Unfortunately, potential clients have been trained to ask all of the questions mentioned in suggestion number 3 and ask for proposals and presentations too, which amount to hours more free consulting. When a potential client approaches, turn the conversation back to them and the issues they’re trying to solve. Your questions will demonstrate your technical brilliance and your potential client will discover on their own that you are the best person to help them.
Becoming a better business developer in a professional services setting means you will feel less stress, be more successful and potentially advance your career faster.
Hamish Knox is a Sandler Trainer in Calgary, Alberta.