Why Business development in professional services is different

By August 22, 2017Blog
Business development in professional services is different

Professional services firms across a range of disciplines are looking for significant, sustainable, profitable organic growth. Delivering this profitable growth has never been easy and today is even more demanding. Here’s why;

Partner-led not sales-managed

Most experienced partners see their role in client acquisition and development as leading from the front and being the prime point of contact for the client rather than being the sales coach and sales leader.  They tend to add to rather than multiply the firm’s effectiveness in winning and growing client income.

Sales management is rarely seen as a core activity for a partner and is frequently seen as a disruption to professional priorities.  Comparatively few leaders have been developed in these skills.  Yet the impact of active sales management is significant and measurable.  A recent Selling Power survey of 400 organisations found that whereas only 40% of BD leaders in low performing BD teams spend 20% of their time coaching, 65% of those with high performing BD teams coach for at least 20% of their time.

Knowing it is not doing it

The intellectual strength of intelligent professionals can easily become a weakness. Ideas are assimilated quickly but often understanding is equated with the ability to do.  Any development needs to recognise the speed of thought (and often short attention span) of individuals while refusing to compromise on converting ideas into action.

Billable Hours

Every hour spent in personal or business development is potentially an hour stolen from fee earning. Opportunity costs need to be recognised and accounted for.  The business case needs to be made, but the billable hours argument cannot be allowed to become a barrier to to spending time in Business Development – both directly with prospects and clients and in developing Business Development capabilities.

Feast and famine

“When we’re busy we don’t have time for business development and when we’re not busy it’s often too late to go out looking for it – we need the hours nowconfesses one senior partner.  Continuous client development is not easy but it is essential.  ‘Feast and famine’ is not a sustainable or healthy model.


It is often hard for clients and prospects to differentiate between competing professional service firms.  The offering, the style and the people can often look the same.  When I sat on the audit committee of a not-for-profit, we had to review our auditors.  We found it hard to see the difference between the capabilities of our shortlisted firms.  It was the Business Development approach that allowed us to differentiate – specifically the winning firm’s pitch was partner-led but not partner-dominated and we were impressed by the team; and they were the only firm who when asked “What makes you different from the others?”, had a really compelling answer.

If those are the questions, what are the answers?

These challenges and opportunities are real, significant and difficult to address but the prizes from addressing them successfully are great.

Based on what we see firms working on effectively and based on strong but transferable approaches used in other sectors we highlight the following areas to concentrate on;

  • Build a business case
    • Identify the likely return on investment in Business Development and the cost of doing nothing.
  • Be clear where you are
    • Understand existing strengths and weaknesses and the implications.
  • Use what you’ve got
    • Build on existing strengths and capabilities.  Don’t try and change everything.
  • Innovative delivery
    • Emerging approaches to Business Development learning increase effectiveness and minimise time away from client work.
  • Build implementation in from the start
    • Plan how you are going to ensure any learning will be embedded in daily work.  This is what underpins payback.  Don’t ‘retrofit’ implementation – it costs more and doesn’t work as well.  Learning should be more continuous than episodic, applied more than theoretical.
  • Consolidate and measure
    • Plan ways to ensure any changes become part of the life of the firm.
    • Measure the change and wherever possible document impact and Return on Investment.
  • Focus on the three levers of BD success
    • Activity – Are our people in front of prospects and clients enough?
    • Concentration of focus – Are they talking to the right people about the right things?
    • Effectiveness – Are they doing it in the right way?

To understand how Chartered Development’s Business Development Training could give you increased and sustainable payback from your business development contact us.