It’s a challenge we hear increasingly from marketing and business development specialists in professional services firms. Whilst the majority of firms generally agree that organic growth is essential to long-term profitability, the physical journey to turn this ambition into reality often proves to be more turbulent than originally anticipated.
At accountancy firm, Shipleys LLP, Stuart Dey their Business Development Director recalls:
We weren’t really working cohesively as a firm in determining where future business would come from and how we were going to get it. Yes our Principals and fee-earners were busy doing a number of business development activities, but in reality everyone was going off in different directions. What we needed was to bring everything together. We needed to decide where we were going and get everyone on the same bus. If we could achieve this, not only could we ensure a better return on our marketing and business development investment, we could also exert more control over our future and play to our strengths.’
Shipleys acknowledged that it had to grow to continue to meet client demand for increasingly specialised services. To help them achieve this they sought help in finding the best strategic direction, one that would also preserve a strong profitability track-record.
Shipleys felt that additional capabilities, such as corporate recovery, now needed to be offered. Equally important was a desire to focus more on clients’ needs and specific sectors rather than trying to offer everything to everybody. Through our discussions and work with Shipleys, it became clear that two key components were vital to fuel the growth they required.
Firstly, the firm’s business development efforts had to stem from a very practical approach, one which individuals could grasp, naturally support and then be able to implement. Individual fee-earners had to feel comfortable with the approach and happy to accept the additional support Shipleys was offering to improve their business development capabilities.
As Stuart says, ‘We had to find a business development method which could easily fit around everything else fee-earners have to do. For me the key to this was not “more”, but “cohesive”. We couldn’t reasonably ask busy people to do more. We needed to use what time they were currently investing in business development and change the focus of it so, as a firm, we worked more cohesively and more strategically. It was also fundamental that everybody knew what we were trying to achieve and was clear about how they could contribute. Elements of PACE’s thinking and their Pipeline approach helped us to guide people in this direction.’
He adds, ‘The PACE belief that a firm needs to build motivation in its clients and prospective clients to want to talk with them, means they don’t advocate cold-calling or some of the other techniques which are features of commercial selling. This philosophy suits us. Whilst our fee-earners are keen to win new and repeat business, they are uncomfortable about coming across as ‘salesy’ or ‘pushy’.’
The second essential component to fuel Shipleys’ journey was the recognition that all fee-earners are different and their adoption of business development practices would be different. The implementation of the firm’s new strategic direction couldn’t be left to chance. It had to be driven. Stuart recognised his active part to play in helping to drive the implementation of the firm’s plan. In doing so, he understood that all the Principals could not be treated as a homogeneous group, a different approach was needed to get each of them ‘on-board’.
With managing principal John McCuin’s support, he spent time individually with Principals to overcome their concerns and give them help in the areas they most needed it. Stuart tailored his methods of communication and support to the preferences and interests of each individual fee-earner.
As he recalls, ‘I applied a different approach for each fee-earner. For example, SMART action plans and clear research were important in influencing some, whereas some others felt more comfortable going with a “common sense” approach worked out over a few drinks!’
He adds, ‘In spending time with each fee-earner, I found they often needed reassurance to both logical and emotional concerns. I had to build their trust in the direction Shipleys was heading and could only really do this by investing time to truly understand their individual points of view. The benefits of our journey and its goals then had to be communicated back to them in terms they personally found attractive. Without insight of where they were coming from I wouldn’t have been able to get their attention, let alone their buy-in.’
Shipleys LLP’s senior management was also key in driving the firm’s strategic direction and were very supportive. They invested time and energy to communicate it and document it internally. They also supported activities to educate and encourage staff in the business development principles being adopted. Incentive schemes were adapted and the firm’s appraisal process and promotion systems were reviewed.
Driving a business development initiative to a successful conclusion sometimes over-focuses on managing the process, performance and measurement of the programme. Yes, management is fundamental to administering a successful initiative and professional services firms are getting better at this. They utilise tangibles such as schedules, logistics, checklists, budgets, forecasts and reports. They make sure that systems support the firm’s aims. They set goals and monitor performance of systems and people to identify what needs to be done to achieve the given objective.
But equally important is securing people’s buy-in. This comes from engaging and inspiring the firm’s individuals. By their very nature, professional services firms are staffed by bright, highly independent individuals who usually chose to enter the profession to provide technical expertise – not win business. They are very talented and usually highly motivated to be successful in their chosen area of expertise. Very few perform well in an environment, which tries to command or coerce them. Instead, they perform best when they understand and ‘buy into’ what is being asked of them. They tend to be suspicious of management motives and, if they do not trust managers, they will not support them.
What Shipleys has started and continues to do, is understand the different motivations of each of their fee-earners and work on building their buy-in. They do this by addressing individuals’ concerns in the way they communicate and manage the implementation of their plans. Over time Principals and staff are giving their support as they can see ‘what’s in it for me’? The time invested in understanding the different motivations and concerns in the firm, has been well spent.
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