We are often asked to support firms with their business development programmes. Often that is by training professionals to be better at delivering on a firm's business development strategy. This is something that we believe in: after all, we found that having professionals engaged in business development is the most important factor when it comes to driving growth in professional services firms.
Our approach is often to go “back to basics” and the reason for that is because all too often it is the basics that trip firms up. That is true regardless of the sector and regardless of the size of the firm.
What are the most common errors that we see and/or hear about from weary business development directors?
Professionals not making the most of networking opportunities.
Networking is the life-blood of professional services firms. Whether you label it “relationship marketing” or whether you turn to the truism that “people buy from people” it is undisputed that building strong relationships is key to winning work in professional services firms.
Often the budget for relationship building forms a large part of a firm’s marketing budget. Events, dinners, and corporate hospitality….all come with a hefty price tag and are usually carefully thought out. It is therefore a constant source of frustration for business development professionals to see those opportunities missed. This applies to both virtual networking and in-person events.
In-person example A number of partners from a City firm attend an event with clients and other professionals in the room. The event had a friendly tone and its prime aim was to get people together to network, post-pandemic the appetite for this was high and the room was full and spirits were high.
The basics: Where an event has been set up to generate opportunities, leaving things to chance can – but rarely – works.
Trip-up: In attendance was a senior general counsel, who spent the evening talking to people that they knew, who were not at the firm. They were widely ignored by the partners of the firm (who didn’t know the GC and who instead had made a bee-line for familiar faces). As it turned out, this particular general counsel had some work that needed to be passed to a firm in the coming weeks. The lack of opportunity to talk things through at the event, or even meet someone she could follow up with, meant an opportunity was missed. Now, they might well have instructed the firm anyway, but a bit of forethought could have stopped this from happening.
How to avoid: Produce a list of key people in the room and make sure that they are assigned a host for the evening. Let the “home team” know who they need to seek out and speak to. More junior members of the team can act to identify individuals and set-up encounters with their hosts. Yes, there is an element of luck with networking, but there are ways that you can make your own luck.
Virtual example We get it, virtual networking just doesn’t seem like real networking, but over the last few years platforms such as LinkedIn have provided many firms with a platform that has catapulted many and generated work. It has cemented pre-existing relationships and helped develop new ones.
The basics: When thinking about LinkedIn, the first thing to note is that firm pages and individual pages don’t operate in the same way. The second thing to remember is that, as in “real-life”, nobody wants to be sold to. Equally, nobody likes a showoff!
Trip-up: There are two trip-ups that we see again and again. The first is for professionals to rely solely on their corporate page for traction on social media and thenwonder why the platform isn’t doing anything for them. They might share or like firm content, but they do little else. Networking (even virtual networking) depends on people connecting with other people. People connect on a personal level, not at an organisational level.
The second trip-up is related. Social media is often viewed as a means to broadcast all that is good in the world of the professional. It is all about them and seldom about a conversation with clients (or potential clients). “I was humbled to receive an award for….”, “I am delighted to have assisted xxx…..”. If you wouldn't go up to someone in a room and brag about your latest award, don't assume the reception will be different if you do it online.
What to do: To make the most of networking online, professionals need to switch their mindset. It really is very similar to networking in the real world. The difference? You can reach out to specific people more easily, be more targeted, and you can engage in conversation around things that your audience find interesting (because you can gather insight into what that is). It's okay to be proud and talk about your achievements, but don't make that the only thing you do.
Jumping to conclusions
Most professionals are in their comfort zone when they are advising. This comfort, combined with the need to be right, can often mean that solutions are offered before the issue is explored. This is true in a business meeting, in a client listening session, or informally.
The basics: When speaking to clients, and others, we should follow Steve Covey’s mantra: seek first to understand and then to be understood.
Trip-up: The trip up here, particularly in the context of business development, is that professionals don’t listen enough and so miss opportunities. We assume we know what the person we are talking to wants, so we jump to providing a solution. Sometimes we will be right, but we miss out on so much learning AND we lose the opportunity to really build trust in our relationships.
What to do: Active listening is a skill. Reflecting on the difference between active listening and advising really can unlock a wealth of potential in our business relationships.
3. We forget that we are all human
People buy from people. When we think about who those people are in the context of professional services firms: some are in our team; some are in positions of power; others are supporters; a few might be detractors. They are, however, all people and therefore all individuals.
The basics: Everyone is different. Sometimes we can see how people differ from us, sometimes the difference is hidden. Not everyone thinks in the same way. Not everyone is influenced in the same way.
Trip-up: There are a number of ways this trips up professionals in their business development efforts. From not giving things a go because of concern over what others think; to not involving the team because we find them difficult to work with. Preventing client listening because we take things personally and don’t want to be exposed. More generally, by assuming people are like us we can trip ourselves up again and again.
What to do: Self-awareness is the foundation of so much. It is the bedrock of Emotional Intelligence. This has huge benefits for teams, but it also has benefits for our client relationships. Remember the trust equation? The biggest factor in whether or not someone trusts us is self-orientation. Self-awareness can highlight how we might be dealing with others in the way we would like to be treated, rather than the way that they would like to be treated.
Why is it the basics that trip us up?
Why is it that we get tripped up by the basics? The basics are perhaps better thought of as the foundation for much of the relationship-building we do. Basics are sometimes thought of as “easy” but because so much that is relational comes back to mindset, emotional intelligence, and psychology, they are sometimes far from it.
The partners who didn’t say hello to the GC? Maybe they are worried about approaching someone they didn’t know. Maybe they thought they wouldn’t be interested in talking to them. Maybe they didn't want to be seen as doing a hard sell.
The partner who doesn’t stand up and present? Maybe they fear that the audience will ask a question they don’t know the answer to. Maybe they have imposter syndrome and fear being "found out".
All too often these foundational skills aren’t taught. We move in to train when bad habits have already been formed and when professionals are senior and expected to do a lot of this just by virtue of their role. As with all things, we should build from the start to create solid foundations. To enable professionals to build for success.