And Drive Any Professional Services Firm Into the Ground
It is well known that about 80% of restaurants fail within just a few years of opening. If they paid more attention to the suggestions of their sophisticated customers, they might survive a lot longer.
And yet success in business development is even more rare than in the restaurant world. At most professional services firms there are only a handful of true “rainmakers” who bring in the vast majority of the new business into the firm. In building MarcumBP’s practice in Asia, I regularly work with our rising team members to coach them on how to be successful in business development. And over the years I have learned that while a large number of experienced professionals aspire to bring in business, the majority have difficulty translating that desire into a tangible plan and habits that will make them successful.
So here are my top suggestions of how anyone can fail in business development (or, if you prefer, reverse them, and you just might succeed.)
- Tell people you are incredible. One of the best ways to turn off a prospective client is to spend your meeting telling them how wonderful you and your firm are. Guess what a prospective client’s number one concern is? Their company and their issues. You need to be credible before you are incredible. Credibility is earned by showing that you understand precisely the challenges they are facing and can provide a custom tailored solution. If you want to be viewed as an expert, then go ahead and publish articles and produce studies that show you have unique insight into issues of concern to your clients. Notice, show them, not tell them, that you have earned expert status.
- Hide bad news. Bad news happens all the time in the world of business. Schedules go awry. Problems are uncovered. Plans need to be modified. It is a natural human tendency to want to sit on unpleasant information. It is also one of the worst things you can do with a client. Because bad news compounds like a disease. It needs to be delivered immediately, in person if possible, and otherwise with a personal phone call. Sharing bad news fast will win you trust and credibility, and it encourages the client to divulge important information in return.
- Attend networking events. Many professionals are told that to win business they need to get out there and “network” more. So they attend conferences and events that combine socializing, fine dining, information sessions, and maybe some golf. Attending a conference without a well defined strategy is a near total waste of time. Business development pros will qualify the number of defined opportunities at an event, have a precise plan to get in front of them, and have a carefully tailored pitch for each qualified prospect. Attending events without a plan means that you are planning to fail.
- Don’t return phone calls. In the age of messaging, social media, and flooded email boxes it’s easy to think that phone calls can safely be ignored. Many professionals take a week before they check accumulated voicemails and get back to unfamiliar callers. This is a sure fire, guaranteed way to fail in business development. If someone is calling you, there is a good chance that the matter is of some urgency. If they don’t hear back within 24 hours they will assume you are unprofessional and someone who cares will win the business.
- Take full credit and go it alone. You want to make sure you get the full commission, right? So why bring along the firm subject matter expert to a client meeting when you might be able to close it yourself? Credit hogging is a proven formula for failure. Big clients require specialization and expect seamless teamwork. Playing in the big league requires big thinking, and it is very rare that a single person has all the answers to a complex business problem. But if you want to console yourself with how big that commission might have been, go ahead and fly solo.
- Let your work speak for itself. As a highly intelligent, highly diligent professional you have put together a first-rate, polished proposal that addresses exactly what you think the client needs. You present it to the client, get some non-committal reaction, and decide that this client is just not bright enough to understand what you can do for him or her. So you move on to drafting your next magnum opus for your next prospect. Guess what? You are on the treadmill of business development disaster. If a client doesn’t react in the way you expect to the ideas that you propose, it is your job to find out what is on the client’s mind and then adjust course. If they are not ready to make a decision, you need to follow up until they are ready to be more forthcoming. Remember, you need to earn the privilege of learning what is really on the client’s mind.
- Be all business all the time. Rookie business developers immediately hop from one opportunity to the next like a speed dating contest. They are proud of being “professional” at all times in their client interactions. But real rainmakers always set aside time to check in with business contacts in a less structured way, remembering a birthday or a child’s graduation. Staying in touch with clients you lost, clients you won, and people who brought you business in the past is essential to keep the clouds heavy and gray with rain. And the personal relationship is what will save you when that day comes (and it always come eventually) when you or your firm makes a mistake. The relationship is what earns you the privilege to make things right to a client.
- Ignore criticism. If you want to ensure long term failure in business development and drive your firm right into the ground, then ignoring criticism is a wonderful strategy. After all, being successful in business requires a thick skin, right? The client doesn’t have your fancy degrees and professional training. What could they possibly know? In reality, clients who are willing to complain are your very best clients. First, they care enough about you and the service you provide to make their dissatisfaction known. Clients who won’t share are usually clients who are about to leave you. And clients who don’t care about the quality of the work are dangerous. Second, clients who complain are one of your best resources to learn how to improve your business. Every complaint is telling you something useful about your service quality, how you select your clients, or how you train your team. That’s why it is important to thank clients for the opportunity to improve and then show that you rapidly address the issues that they have raised. By being responsive and giving them value, you may find these complainers become some of your most important sources of new client referrals.
- Bad mouth the other guy. Talking down your competitors is another great way to make sure no one wants to work with you. If possible, make your statements very broad and cite “rumors in the marketplace” that they are on the verge of failure. Trash talking your competitors will immediately set the client thinking about what you may say about them after you leave the meeting and ensure that they never share any sensitive information with you. If other firms are still in business, it logically suggests that they must be filling a need in the market. Instead, focus on educating the client on the strengths of your firm and why they are relevant to the situation at hand. Prospective clients will appreciate it if you can help them understand ways in which you differentiate from other providers so they can make an informed decision. In fact, if it is evident that your capabilities are not a real fit for a clients’ needs you will earn enormous respect by helping them to choose someone who can deliver exactly what they require. Don’t be surprised if they turn around and refer you other business in the future.
- The glass is always half full. It is proven that having an optimistic attitude will contribute to a longer life. Business development failures translate that as thinking that acquiring new clients will somehow take care of itself. Then when the practice runs down and it comes time for layoffs and restructuring, well that is because “management had the wrong strategy.” To be a real rainmaker requires the urgency that an empty glass is just unacceptable. It requires a plan and process to make sure that the glass is always replenished and, in the best case, overflowing. This doesn’t mean being a pessimist, but it does require a healthy degree of awareness that business development doesn’t take care of itself. Acquiring and retaining clients is the price of admission to becoming an accomplished professional with a rewarding career.
I hope that these suggestions will benefit everyone who wants to flail away at business development fruitlessly and see their careers go sideways. On the other hand, if you want to be truly successful as a rainmaker and have the discipline to form the habits it takes for business development success, well… we should get lunch some time.