Has business development got harder for professional services firms?
As we enter the eighth month since lockdown in the UK, there seems to be a consensus among those that we talk to that business development has got harder. Most firms seem to have followed a path. From panic stations, frantically putting on webinars and sending Coronavirus briefings, to virtual proficiency, some even virtual mastery. Webinars run more smoothly, podcasts are a revelation and even some of the previously resistant professionals are finally popping up on social media.
Throughout there has been a sense from many that firms have had the conversations that they needed to have with their clients. Some perhaps with a greater degree of success than others.
Since September, there has been a sense that business is returning to normal and attention is now turning from servicing existing clients to winning new ones.
A recent online poll of professional services firms showed that over 70% of those surveyed thought that working from home would have a material or significant impact on business development. The numbers were no where near as fearful for client service delivery or profitability. We decided to explore what it is about working from home that makes business development seem so difficult.
In part two, we will be offering our views on how we can rethink business development, drawing from the conclusions of our panel discussion in November (click here to watch).
Working from home looks set to stay; so how do we manage business development in the future?
If we think about traditional sales funnels, or even sales flywheels, we focus on the different stages of a customer journey with us. At the awareness or attract level we think about marketing. Reflecting on some of the tactics that professional services firms use here, we can see that many of the virtual means of communicating with our target markets were around pre-Covid. All that has happened since March is that they have taken on greater importance and prominence.
Websites (SEO/PPC), social media, webinars, podcasts. None of this is new. It is perhaps then, no surprise that this activity has been quick to turn on (or rather up) and has now reached levels where firms are starting to see traction from their efforts.
As we move down the sales funnel, or around the flywheel, we start to encounter activity that would traditionally sit with business developers and it is here that problems arise. These stages of desire and action (or engage and delight) are concerned with building and cementing relationships. It is about creating a rapport with someone on an individual level. It is about people.
How have traditional business development techniques been affected by Covid-19?
Business development is all about talking to people and more importantly listening. It is about creating opportunities to have conversations with people who matter. Yes, clients, but also potential clients or referrers, or sector experts who provide insight to you.
Good business developers will be experts at stakeholder mapping and at identifying opportunities. Matching people. Joining dots. A lot of effort goes in to work out who should be speaking to whom and about what. Notwithstanding that business developers are still able to be strategic; it is important to remember that strategy and planning cannot operate in a vacuum. The end goal is relationships.
Let’s start with coffee. A tried and tested tactic is to invite a contact to coffee. Now, sometimes you might be passing their office and reach out. It might be that you only pass their office because you want to reach out to them. Either way, it is an opportunity to get onto neutral ground and to have a conversation in an informal setting to deepen a relationship.
Coffee shops, whilst for the most part open, now have a significant drawback. Where are your contacts? Whereas before March 2020, you could safely assume that if you passed by your client’s office they would be there, with people working from home it becomes very unlikely that you will be “just passing through”. Indeed, rather than meeting on neutral ground all of a sudden you are encroaching on their home turf. That is before you start to include potential fears around meeting in public places, that some people might feel, and company policies preventing such meetings.
Okay, but virtual coffee is a thing now. Isn’t it? Well, yes, but……
What was once a “just passing through” now becomes a “I want to talk to you”. It doesn’t have to be on Monday, it could be on any day and at any time. So, the response from contacts is no longer: “Unfortunately, I am busy on Monday”. If it is a no, it becomes: “I am afraid I don’t want to talk to you.”
Doors that were left ajar suddenly become shut. Something light-hearted becomes a meeting: something more formal that requires more preparation. Suddenly coffee feels much more like a sales meeting than a relationship building exercise.
Another sure-fire way of networking used to be through an event. Either one you host yourself, or one you attend.
Now, face to face events are clearly not an option for the foreseeable option, not large-scale ones anyway. We have already mentioned virtual events. Whilst these benefit from ease of arranging and being easily accessible to all budgets, there are barriers to conversations taking place.
You can get people talking online. However, where groups are formed there tends to be one person who dominates. There can be times where you feel like you are an outsider in someone else’s conversation. You cannot peel people away as you might in real life. You cannot spot someone else and wave. It is all a bit…..clunky.
Corporate hospitality was clearly the first to suffer from Covid-19. Now, corporate hospitality had perhaps had its day anyway. However, making people feel special and putting on events which are more exclusive in nature, if done strategically, is a powerful tool in every business developer’s toolkit.
Just how do you replicate that now? Yes, you can put on smaller virtual cook-offs or comedy evenings. But the logistics are hard, and you suffer from some of the clunky networking that we mentioned above. Rather than feel special there is the risk that all you are doing is inviting contacts to spend even more time in front of their computer.
Maybe client listening is not the first thing that people think of as a business development tactic, but arguably it should be. Finding reasons to talk to stakeholders is business development.
Reaching out to have formal conversations, perhaps to gather feedback, but maybe instead to horizon scan, or to produce thought leadership pieces, is something that is still accessible, and it doesn’t have to be confined to existing clients. Yes, we can’t have those conversations face-to-face, but this is one area where video conferencing is a real enabler.
Client listening perhaps could be a window into how we do things differently. How we start to have different conversations. Conversations with a purpose do not suffer from the same downsides as virtual coffee. People have to say yes or no, but if it is framed as a specific exercise that's not sales (horizon scanning/thought leadership), it provides an excuse to talk. If the stakeholder says no, they are doing so to a specific type of conversation, not any conversation ever. That door is left ajar.
Time to get creative.
Rather than change where we do certain aspects of business development, moving online what was previously offline, perhaps what we must do now is change how we do business development.