Developing a Consistent Business Development Language and Process

It can be challenging creating a consistent business development “language” and process throughout a firm.  This can be for all sorts of reasons: existing culture is not BD focused or is, but only in pockets; mergers which mean you are integrating two or more different approaches to BD; professionals who prefer to work on their own, or teams who work in a silo apart from others; professionals who just get on with BD and don’t ask for much support.  For firms that do achieve consistency, however, the benefits are very clear.

Why is this consistency needed?

Consistent inputs = consistent outputs

Whilst it might take anything from a month to several years for new business to be won, what is certainly true is that consistent activity is much more likely to result in consistent outputs (i.e. income).  Many clients we have worked with in the past have experienced ‘peaks and troughs’ in their work, which in most cases is because their BD activity has followed the same up and down pattern.  When people become busy with fee-earning work, there is then little time to invest in developing existing clients or in winning new ones.  The problem is that if BD activity tails off, when that busy work period comes to an end the lack of BD input over the last few weeks and months means that there is no work coming up to replace the stuff you have just finished.  And so the results (or outputs) tail off too.

Investing resources wisely

The one thing most professionals are short of is time.  Robust and effective processes are needed to help to ensure that the right amount of time (and other resources) is invested by enough of the right people at the right time and focused in the right way. Without strong processes – or ‘frameworks’, ‘approaches’ or ‘tools’ – there is no way of ensuring that enough people are investing their precious time wisely.

More likely to stay ahead

What is usually agreed in firms is that key clients need to be defended from hungry competitors.  Those clients need to be developed to make sure that both sides gain the greatest value from the relationship and, even more starkly than before the recession, high quality new clients need to be won to ensure success or even survival. Expertise, skill, quality of staff and many other factors will contribute to success in BD and, crucially, those firms that are able to marshal their resources most effectively to keep, develop and win clients and profitable work will be the ones that are most likely to move, or stay, ahead.

Driving BD activities

Having a process, in our experience, is a positive way to frame and drive business development activities and effort.  The language used in that process, then becomes the language used by people within the firm.  The best processes reinforce all the individual behaviours that lead to success, focus the energies of the best people in the areas where they will have the greatest impact, engender the team-working that allows everyone to focus on what they do best and, finally, ensure all of this happens in a continuous way that helps to avoid the inherent dangers of feast and famine.

What are the benefits?

Some of the benefits of having a consistent process and language within the firm – or even within one team – are:

  • Improved financial results, which stems from greater focus, a clear idea of what the desired future is, and regular (rather than sporadic) business development;
  • Improvement in the factors that contribute to those results, e.g. improved reputation, client satisfaction and focus of business development efforts;
  • Benefits to the people responsible for business development – including motivation, confidence, awareness and a willingness to invest in business development;
  • Benefits to the whole firm, including greater unity and the ability to save time and avoid duplication of effort; and
  • Benefits to the business development team, in improved relationships and greater credibility.

These are definitely worth having, but this short list – some of which is probably not surprising! – belies the difficulties there sometimes are in realising such benefits.

What are the main hurdles to overcome?

In some research we conducted a couple of years ago, we found that the main difficulties firms had in implementing a consistent BD process and language in their firm were:

  • The individuality of fee earners, their desire to do things their own way and, sometimes, an antipathy towards ‘process’;
  • An unwillingness to change alongside a lack of understanding of the benefits of change. Sometimes it can feel too onerous to do things differently, since it requires time, commitment, motivation and energy;
  • The complexity and/or size of an organisation that is made up of disparate parts;
  • Lack of time – both for fee earners and in the team implementing the processes;
  • Lack of management and leadership, including lack of commitment from the top and existing ‘systems’ that get in the way of new ways of working; and
  • Lack of particular skills in the fee earners and/or the BD team.

There is nothing in that list that can’t be overcome, but some hurdles will take some time to remove.

How can we overcome these hurdles?

There are three key ways in which firms can overcome these hurdles.  Where they overlap is the sweet spot where real success lies and where a consistent BD language and process, and culture, can exist.

Leadership  

This includes two aspects.  Firstly, strong and visible leadership from senior management, where it is encouraged to spend time on BD, successes are widely shared and leaders participate themselves.  The second aspect is leadership and management of the process.  This might be done within a team, for instance by the head of the department, or it might be a role fulfilled by a senior member of the BD team.  Whoever the best person is, things which will help with them here are:

  • Incentivising behaviour change and/or making BD a part of an appraisal process
  • Active mentoring, coaching, monitoring and measurement of activities
  • Persistence and pragmatism
  • Support from them and others in maintaining momentum and commitment
  • Continuous reinforcement
  • Effective and frequent communication of objectives, successes
  • Gaining support from particular individuals to help champion BD and encourage others

Process

Sharing a best practice process, and working in teams to do this, will in the majority of cases, help to convert anyone who would rather do things their own way or those who feel it’s too much effort to change.  Adapting that process for different circumstances and individuals is also possible, and there will be several processes in the firm all working together to achieve the firm’s objectives.  For instance, one BD ‘pipeline’ can be for developing relationships with referrers; one can be for someone working in a new area; another can be for a practice area team.  As long as communication is good, and people know what others are doing so there is no overlap, having multiple strands works well.

Sometimes, it is worth considering working with one team first to gain traction (choose the one which is keen), and then roll out to the rest of the firm gradually.  This overcomes the problem faced when the firm is large, disparate or complex and it would be impossible to implement change firm-wide at the same time.

Be pragmatic about time fee-earners spend on BD (it really can be difficult if you’re working hard on a deal) by setting realistic objectives and assigning a few activities for each person, preferably ones that they are motivated to do and play to their strengths.  This is also the advantage of working in a team – if a couple of people are busy, others in the team can pick things up and make sure the BD effort remains continuous.

Skills and behaviours

Sometimes the ‘lack of time’ argument actually hides a fear of engaging in some business development activities or lack of knowledge about what to do.  Training in new skills and behaviours, using tools that are common throughout the firm, will help to develop fee-earners’ confidence and best practice within the firm.  What makes this training work best is on-going coaching and support, regular reviews or meetings and sharing of what works and what doesn’t.  Changing skills and behaviours can only be done over time.

Conclusion

Developing a consistent business development language and process is undoubtedly challenging in many firms, but the benefits of doing so are manifold.  It will help change your culture, improve the firm’s financial results and the number of people who are actively involved in helping the firm to grow.  It will provide a platform for greater unity and commonality of purpose within a team or firm, and help to increase people’s motivation, willingness and skills in BD.

The keys to making sure this happens are: Process + Skill + Leadership.  Success in one doesn’t automatically ensure success in the other areas.  To truly achieve your aim of having a consistent, holistic approach to business development, each of these areas needs to be shaped, improved and honed for best results.