It's easy to let business development activities fall by the wayside when times are good. Firms must keep motivating staff to make time.
Unsurprisingly, with the challenges of the current economic climate, many firms are taking a long look at business development activities. A drop in new business opportunities for many has focused firms on the importance of their business development. For some there is a keenness to ramp up their output in this area, for others there is a dawning realisation that a structured approach is painfully overdue.
Lifeblood of the business
Many firms recognise that business development is vital for their long-term health. But it is easy to forget it when times are good and the phone is ringing. But many phones are ringing less or have stopped. So how should firms influence their fee-earners to build business development time in to their day? How can they secure business growth? An important first step is to consider how business development is viewed in your firm. Is it viewed with equal importance to fee-earning work? Does your firm describe development as productive or unproductive time? Is it a daily feature of your colleagues' work schedules and targets? Many firms have a problem with 'piles' – piles of fee-earning, administrative and business development work. While the fee-earning work is seen as important and urgent, too often business development is pushed to the bottom of the list. Over time this can create serious problems. Business development only becomes important when it's too late – when there are grave business health problems for the firm.
Beware time lag
A period of time after implementing business development activity, firms start to experience new business gains, as the benefits begin to kick in. Things progress well and more work comes in. The volume of new business can prompt people to undertake less business development activity. Over time, this has a corresponding effect on the volume of new business.
Unfortunately the time lag between activity and results can create a false impression of a firm's performance.
A professional services firm may not experience a drop in business for a while after their business development efforts have dropped. By the time business levels start to fall, there isn't an instant remedy.
Any activity introduced at this point will have a similar time lag in coming to fruition. Firms that follow this approach tend to experience prolonged periods of feast and famine rather than steady organic business growth. The trick to achieving such growth is to keep a close eye on those curves and manage them more strategically with a structured approach to business development.
The firm that continues to reinvigorate its business development efforts manages to avoid the drop in new business levels. A key message is to make business development a rock in people's diaries and not something that is frequently put off or moved. To work out how to achieve this, we need to consider first what stops fee-earners doing business development.
Barriers to business development
Having worked with professional services firms for many years, there are four attitudes that we regularly see obstructing good business development practices (and long-term business growth).
"I'm too busy"
Business development can often lie at the bottom of the fee-earner's 'to do' list. It's like a poorly performing football team – always in the relegation zone and rarely moving up the league. While the fee-earner recognises they need to do business development, they don't view it as important as other work.
This attitude is often echoed by the firm as a whole and business development is expected to take a back seat to other priorities. Emphasis is placed on today's fee-earning work rather than activities that will generate future business.
Here the adviser is genuinely uncomfortable at the thought of trying to win new or repeat business. Some regard business development as 'selling' and fear it will undermine their professionalism.
There are different types of selling and unfortunately in some industries, these approaches have given the activity a bad name. Fortunately there are best practice approaches to selling professional services which will avoid these trappings and which fit more appropriately with your fee-earner's ethics and professional standing.
"I don't know what 'good' looks like"
In this situation an adviser is unsure how to win business and fear of the unknown puts them off undertaking any activities that might secure new or repeat work. They do not have a consistent structured approach, which means that any time dedicated to business development will not be as productive as it should be. This lack of knowledge and process, if left ignored, can result in bad habits being developed or missed opportunities.
"I'm not motivated"
You may be told to 'get on and do some business development', but if you are not motivated to, the firm's reward systems do not support that activity, you are not measured in terms of that activity or haven't been involved in the target setting process for that business development, then you are unlikely to undertake it.
Make it happen
In order to overcome these barriers, a practice needs to make business development an integral part of its daily activities. In doing so, it should define best practice to its fee-earners and help them achieve it. This requires an investment in training, it also requires ongoing support to help individuals embed that learning back in the work. Different firms have different ways of managing business development. Each has varying degrees of success. Here are three of the most common approaches:
- Managing in hope. Here the firm's senior management simply issues business development targets. Individual fee-earners are not consulted on the targets set, nor are they given any help to achieve them. The success rate of this approach to business development is very low.
- Managing in fear. This sees a fee-earner given a target plus guidance on the activities that should achieve it. While the fee-earner may realise the outputs needed to bring in the business, they often lack the skills and knowledge to achieve the task. They can be set up to fail.
- Supportive management. This is the most effective way of making business development happen. It involves working with individuals to formulate the right business target for them and the firm; guiding them on the activities that will achieve that target; giving them training, help, support, time and resources to undertake those activities; and measuring their performance along the way to correct or help avoid deviations to the plan.
What is rewarding gets done
When it comes to business development, firms need to build the related activities into their performance review and appraisal systems. The key here is not simply to consider the volume of those activities but also their quality and focus. Is the defined best practice being adhered to? And, when there are examples of greatness or success, they should communicate them internally to reinforce the firm's message.
Training and support
For those who lack the confidence or knowledge of how to win new and repeat business, an ongoing training programme will help them formulate good habits. Great business development comes from having a robust and well-proven process for stimulating a steady flow of business opportunities. It also needs the right knowledge and skillset to make each stage of that process work. And finally the fee-earner needs to be confident and motivated to convert the opportunities facing them (and the firm) into fee income.
These three facets are inextricably linked – you can't have confidence without having knowledge and skills. Knowledge can be imparted through a best practice approach and business development skills can be developed.
In short, all can be learnt. A key to successful development comes from allowing fee earners the time to perfect and build their expertise. A one-off business development programme, given without long-term support to help the individual embed their thinking and practice it back in the office, rarely brings about the behavioural and financial results a firm aspires to.
Business development can become a feature of a fee-earner's day and bring long-term growth for a firm when fee-earners are:
- involved in the business development targets they are set
- guided on the most effective activities to achieve those targets
- given training, development, assistance, resources and time to build the best process, skills and confidence to win new and repeat business
- measured and rewarded on their successes and development in this field.