Three tips to make your sector plans work better

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Most professional firms have a marketing and BD approach focused on business sectors – but are they getting the best out of them? Here are three things that could help.

Business sectors are ‘de rigueur’ with firms proclaiming their expertise in and focus on clients or prospects who inhabit them. Plans are written, budgets committed, time allocated and money expended in furthering the collective ambition to serve and grow. If this is not done well, much can be (and is) wasted. From experience of being asked to take a long hard look at whether value is being delivered, these are the ‘basics’ to get right.

Define properly  If your firm has a proliferation of sector groups to serve, this is probably not happening. With a dozen or more such groups it is extremely unlikely that real benefit will be delivered. For example, having ‘groups’ that comprise only a few organisations is daft from so many viewpoints – not least the time wasted in bringing so many (expensive) people together to meet regularly. Control sector proliferation so that effort and budgets focus and concentrate for maximum impact.

Analyse rigorously: inside and out  The right sector strategy stands or falls on the quality of data and interpretation of what is happening in each market vs. the firm’s true competitive position. Both insights are achieved via thorough research and intelligent analysis. In truth, most professionals (and some marketeers) are not highly experienced in doing this. So you can end up with sector plans that are either free of any real examination (resulting in a schedule of unjustified and wasteful activity). Or they are so stuffed with reams of unfiltered, uncritiqued data that they provide an equal lack of perception and direction……but do make good door-stops.

Organise sensibly  Choose sound, properly representative sector teams and leaders so that the right people make their contributions. If you don’t, the groups end up being inefficiently run, sometimes as mouthpieces for a few “influential” individuals or stuffed with representatives of one department or practice area.

James Newberry runs People Scope, a consultancy, training and coaching firm working with lawyers, accountants and other technical specialists to help them operate successfully outside of their comfort zones. http://www.peoplescope.com.

 

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Three “becauses” that stifle selling

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“We’ve got all these services…why can’t we sell more of them?”

This continues to be the ‘cri de coeur’ of many senior partners or directors in professional firms (and indeed much more widely).  Instead of being a revenue and profit multiplier, the inability of their professionals to spot and capitalise on opportunities to gain more work for colleagues – even from satisfied existing clients – has ruined the reasonable pretensions of many a good business plan.

Why?  Well, it comes down to some fundamental ‘becauses’ that can win the day if not addressed.  Here are three of the big ones and some food for thought and action if they are to be overcome successfully.

Because they don’t ask  This is a classic manifestation at networking events.  Professionals talk to (or rather at) prospects or contacts, seemingly unable to move outside their own narrow specialism – because they don’t feel confident or equipped to ask the right questions.

To get them client-curious usually requires a three-pillared approach: “upknowledging” so that they understand enough about what other departments do; “upskilling” to give them the selling tools to engage contacts without boring or being a put-off; and “upmotivating” to provide the encouragement and stimulus that helps overcome reticence: which leads us directly to…

Because they aren’t rewarded  “It was my contact, I had done all the ground work, but the partner just muscled in at the end, took it over…..and claimed it!”

Yes, this sort of thing should not happen….but it does and is corrosive because it stifles exploitation of the huge contact base and pool of work available to firms from the managers, associates and others who operate below senior level.

Fundamentally, it’s a leadership issue for partners and directors who have to accept that their job is to facilitate the growth of their business through others as much as themselves: no egos or personal fiefdoms.  That means encouraging and publicly praising the selling efforts and achievements of the people they manage.  It is also a firm-wide issue to ensure that the reward systems for cross selling at all levels are in place, work effectively for everyone, and are not exploited detrimentally: which leads us in turn to……

Because it’s not on the agenda ….systemic issues.  Cross selling success (or the lack of it) is one of the best measures of how open your firm’s culture really is.  It requires trust in colleagues and more leadership at all levels of seniority – both to support best practice and be uncompromising when it comes to addressing negative or self-seeking behaviours.

Without such bravery, the “becauses” will be victorious.  Do they succeed in your firm?

Negotiating to the power of AND

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True negotiations are an awful lot about managing the balance of power between you and the other party to positive effect.  But how often do professionals take full stock of the resources at their disposal?  In our experience, this can be rare.  At best, this means they don’t get as much from their bargaining activities as they should.  At worst, they can lose out big time – to the firm’s business detriment if we are talking about discounts or write-offs.

Here are three of the most relevant sources of influence to assess for use in any negotiation situation: Affinity, Nominal and Deferral: a power of three.

Only connect….you have a really good relationship with a client….(s)he gives you the inside track on what’s happening in their organisation…you may even socialise in and outside of work.

With clients like this, some professionals seriously underestimate the power of Affinity when it comes to negotiation.  Why?  Sometimes because they don’t realise how much affinity they actually have.  Often, it’s also that they don’t know how to, or feel they can’t or shouldn’t use this influence in a bargaining situation.  They most definitely should: here, “I need a favour from you” isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s the sound of affinity being used smartly and profitably.

Become an acknowledged expert  Being an authority on something does confer status when negotiating: but gaining wider acknowledgement as one is most definitely a few notches up.  We have observed situations where the nominal status afforded to being so widely known is sufficient, in itself, to gain respect and greater sway – without actually having to prove it!

This is why some professionals focus on directory entries or other forms of professional recognition as a route to such influence.  That’s OK but can be limited because it is ALL they concentrate on.  So they miss out on so many other, more high profile ways to garner Nominal power.  A few get it by putting consistent time and effort into authoring books, articles, blogs, doing TED talks, conference presentations, seminars and all that jazz.  And making sure everyone knows, sees them, or has a copy!

Try tactical deferral  This is the power…..of not being empowered!  It is very handy to use if you are in a fix, or need time to think or consider, because deferral means both “yielding to another’s opinion” and “holding back to a later time”.  We have seen smart, mid-ranking professionals use Deferral – “of course, I can’t make any promises because I’ll need to talk to my partner” – not just to get them out of a tricky situation but also to help broaden out the discussion and potential options to reach agreement in a more risk-free way.

It is a tactic open to all.

Making sales meetings matter

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Professional firms spend a lot of time, money and effort to deliver sales opportunities for their fee earners…and then what?

Well, whilst not exactly a horror show, sending doughty directors, partners or others, unprepared, into the board rooms of the potential client world can be a risky business.

“They didn’t have much to say, so I just told them about us and what we do” 

“They didn’t need my type of advice, so I cut my losses and got out quick”

Being a ‘walking talking brochure’ for the firm, or just focusing on your own specific area of expertise isn’t what these meetings should be about.  Here are three ways to make the whole experience more productive for everyone involved.

Do your homework  We know that business-knowledgeable professionals are much prized by existing clients, don’t we?  Just so with prospective ones too.  It takes only a few clicks of the mouse (or a call to the Marketing Department) to access a lot of detailed and useful information on organisations and their activities.  As well as  searching any trading or pre-trading history we have had.  This information can be VERY useful in spotting opportunities to discuss, and impress prospects that you have done your “homework”.  Invest this time: it will pay dividends.

Do an agenda  We know a lot of so-called professional sales people in the world outside the professions who would not dream of doing this.  Often, they are the unsuccessful ones who conduct unfocused meetings that get nowhere (usually very slowly!).  A well-produced agenda will organise your own thoughts, information needs, objectives, and ideas.  Shared with the prospect beforehand, it will involve him/her in the process of making the meeting truly productive.

Let’s talk about YOU  The main aim of new business meetings is to uncover potential needs from the prospect for any of the services we might offer, not to impress them with your detailed knowledge of the contents of the firm’s brochure.  It’s first about questions, not statements or claims.

Billing psychology and the better meeting of minds

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One of the things that used to annoy a lot of clients was sloppy billing practice from their advisers – it still does.

To your average professional, billing is often the humdrum (and, in some branches, embarrassing) bit that follows the interesting bit – doing the work.  To the client, it is the ever-important bit, by which a significant part of their job performance is evaluated (i.e. the efficient management of budgets).

Such perceptual disjoin is at the heart of much of the problem.  Allowed to build up over time, annoyance can turn to something much more damaging to the relationship, so here are three quick, practical things for you or your professionals to keep the client bill-happy.

Don’t delegate!  We spend quite a lot of time encouraging senior perofessionals to delegate more of their work appropriately – for good leverage’s sake.  However, one of the rule-breaking exceptions can be when preparing and issuing bills.  Why?

Because getting a bill from someone you don’t know (and who therefore looks like they might not know your transaction) can be interpreted as rude and uncaring by the recipient.  Staying with a matter from start to finish and devoting a sensible amount of time to the bill yourself will mean fewer problems and a smoother client relationship.

Be a flexible friend  Do you always present bills in the firm’s ‘house style’?  If you do, you may be creating a source of additional effort and trouble for some clients as they have to unpick the firm’s data and re-present it internally in ways that their organisations can better understand.

The smart relationship managers recognise this issue and ask clients up-front how they would like their bills to be presented.  Even if it requires a bit more effort on our part, it’s well worth it for the goodwill that is generated….. as is ensuring that other parts of the firm do likewise if they also work for the client.

Avoid the ‘sausage factory’ look  There is an interesting aspect of billing psychology that is well worth remembering.  Bills that look like they have come off a production line can tend to invite more scrutiny – and thus the greater risk of write-offs or delayed payment – because some clients say that they mistrust such systematic treatment.

To overcome this, find simple ways to personalise the invoice – e.g. by adding manuscript amendments or a signed personal note – so that they know you are still involved and in control.

Getting the professional leadership “thing”

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most professionals are employed and achieve success primarily for their technical expertise.  This can make leadership and other skills “nice to have” rather than essential.  If it occurs at all, leadership development can happen only by accident.  As a result, sadly, some firms get the leaders they deserve.

“The process of influencing others to achieve their and the firm’s goals successfully” 

If this is an accurate definition of leadership, then it is a skill required not just at partner or director level, but for anyone in an influencing position or role throughout your firm – including you? Here are three tips that focus on simple, practical issues that leaders at all levels must address to be a more positive influence.  Of course, we all know that leadership is about many other things…

Do what made Alexander great  Now we are not suggesting that warfare is an exact model for business or professional services!  The point is though that Alexander the Great inspired the fiercest devotion in his soldiers (and achieved the unachievable as a result) by sharing some of the burden and privations of his armies personally, especially when things got tight. We contrast this with numerous war stories we have listened to of senior personnel in firms regularly leaving the long hour, tough deadline assignments entirely to junior staff – all of whom were suitably inspired as a result.  Not.

You are in a goldfish in a bowl.. Interviewing staff at all levels in a major firm a few years ago, we were struck by how many negative myths were created and perpetuated by the day-to-day (mis)behaviours of certain leadership figures; sometimes for only trivial (to them) but important things (to others).  These leaders seemed blissfully unaware of what they were doing and its impact on the people that they were supposed to be influencing positively.  Remember that as a leader in any context, you are being watched all the time.  You are a bit like a goldfish.  Except that some people observing you closely will take their lead directly from how you (mis)behave.

Adapt or stay frozen with CJ  It is a common myth (perhaps attachable to stories about historical figures like Alexander the Great) that there is one right way to lead.  There isn’t.  Good leaders adapt their way of influencing others according to the relative ability and willingness or motivation of those they seek to influence.  Less effective ones stick rigidly with their preferred style, the style “that got them where they are today”. We call this the ‘CJ Syndrome’, after the less-than-inspirational boss in David Nobbs’ very funny satire of business and working life: “The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin”.

Don’t be CJ.

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