Stand up for Business Development

“Hordes of business development executives in the line of fire” “BD munchkins” “Over-egging the firm’s capabilities”
Business Development in the professions has “arrived”…but in what shape?

Firms are employing many more specialists to advise on and implement their sales process. For external (and not a few internal) observers, this has been long overdue. Such expertise saves having to see knowledgeable, worthy, but pressurised professionals trying to cover yet another specialist role sub-optimally (in addition to project management, finance, marketing etc.).

However, to read recent comments like those quoted above*, the image created in some minds (including those of clients) needs work. Of course this may be down to traditionally stereotypical views of sales and selling that are common to a lot of businesses and industries. Some of it may also actually apply – after all, not all professionals of whatever ilk are perfect.

But there are certain things that the best Business Development architects and operators get right; this includes senior professionals and their HR advisers as well as actual BD practitioners at all levels. If implemented, these principles allow practitioners and their teams to stand up for their profession, make a positive difference, and influence the perceptions of all their important stakeholders in the right ways.

* “Panel Review: Partners on Parade” and “In-house counsel slam firm performance in panel reviews..”, The Lawyer, 9 September 2013

Create business partnering relationships
Business partnering…a process in which Business Development professionals work closely with business leaders and/or partners and their teams to achieve shared organisational objectives, in particular designing and implementing systems and processes that support strategic business aims. The process may involve the designation of BD business partners – professionals who are embedded within the operational unit, influencing and steering strategy and implementation..

In this manifestation, we are a long way from ‘munchkindom’. It transforms the sort of ‘master and servant’ or ‘ivory tower’ relationships of the first wave of marketing specialists within the professions into something much more equal, close-knit, and business/client-focused. This is still a big pill for many professionals to swallow. It’s also a model that requires much more in terms of the quality of Business Development talent that is recruited. For well-resourced firms in say ‘Big Law’ or ‘Big Accountancy’, organisational charts seem to demonstrate such business partnering in place. But these are almost certainly some of the same organisations who had the munchkin accusation levelled at them, so there is still work to do on getting the formula right in practice. For smaller firms, the big challenge is more to justify the investment in additional personnel.

Connect properly (and take your own medicine)
For business partner embedding to work requires BD talent that does more than just push capability (one of the accusations levelled). They have to earn the right to be listened to by their professionals and clients/prospects, which means mastering the 3Ms. Markets, Mind-set, and Metrics.

The medicine of “understanding the client’s business” that is asked often of professionals has to be applied by good BD business partners to their own situation. Know more that is salient about the sectors, markets and clients than the professionals you work with so that you add value. Really understand the professional way of seeing the world (it’s different!) and use that knowledge. Being closer to the action, get a real grip on the metrics that drive firm and individual performance and client needs.

Be able to deliver at a higher level
With proper connections, we earn the right to influence. Then it’s about delivering. The ability to influence successfully (sometimes covertly or ‘behind the scenes’) is one that does not necessarily come easily to your average BD person, especially if your career so far has focused on the ‘doing’. In the complexity of business partnering, it is vital. If you do not possess the knowledge and skills of how to influence, coach, or mentor others, then acquire them. It can be done. Firms recruiting in this new model need to focus closely and thoroughly on whether candidates have these requisite abilities.

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Staying alert when things pick up

The holidays are over and for some it’s back to a slightly rosier picture than in the last few years. The economy is on the (slow) up, financial results seem to indicate modest growth in many sectors…and the sun has even shone.

However, whilst not wishing to party poop, it is time to stay alert to help avoid the distractions of an improving (but hardly booming) position that can stalk professional service firms – particularly when it comes to Business Development. So here are three things to consider as you seek to motivate yourself or others to do the right thing in the coming months – and beyond.

Mind the “satisficing” gap
First, if workloads and utilisation are on the increase, some professionals will fall into “satisficing” – satisfying some criteria (i.e. client work) and sacrificing others (i.e. business development activity).

Paraphrasing the combined observations of more than one Head of Business Development we know: “The moment fee earning levels pick up, you can see the change almost immediately as they charge into the comfort zone of the ‘here and now’ that they know and love. Meanwhile, I and my team are looking at the emptiness of the medium and longer term pipeline that has vanished from their sight and wondering how the hell it is going to be filled. It’s scary”.

Partly, it is up to the firm’s BD teams to pick this up and keep professionals’ eyes on the prize: a good test of their closeness, credibility and influencing skills. Partly, it is also about more effective “operations management”, the efficient management and delegation of work streams, and strong leadership influence to ensure that business development time does not magically disappear for those senior people tasked with its implementation.

Increase don’t slacken
In fact, I’ll go further than Tip 1. Now is the time not to cut back or take foot-off-pedal on marketing and business development investment (“things have picked up so we don’t need to do so much….it’ll boost PEP/profits too”). It is the moment to really boost the initiatives, time allocation and spend dedicated to profile raising and market-driven investment that will help deliver that medium/long term.

Focus on initiatives that will generate real, measurable Return On Investment to help win the argument….and then the day.

Accept that things won’t revert
Finally, the past is a foreign country – they (and we) really do things differently there.

The increases in buyer power witnessed in most branches of the professions over the past five years will not be reversed. Flexibility in pricing, the desire for greater predictability, and improved efficiency in how professionals firms provide their service will stay. Any firm hoping for a reversion to the old ways is going to struggle.

Those who succeed will be the ones that embrace the challenges of greater competitive pressure by growing and leading professionals who are more “production efficient”, and Business Development teams that will more closely resemble the specialisation, broader client interface responsibility, and expertise evidenced in almost every other branch of commerce.

These will be the ‘New Model’ firms of the future: some will already have their road mapped out for this. Does yours?