There’s something about the way some professionals work, and in particular how they manage their time, that makes it very difficult for them to invest the right amount of time, at the right time, in business development.
Most of us find it hard to balance the demands of (all or some of) client/technical work, management and leadership, personal development, client relationship management and new business development, especially during busy times. This can mean that our business development occurs in fits and starts, if it happens at all, and we therefore face the danger of feast and (potentially disastrous) famine in our fee income. While no one I know has found the magic answer, I do see professionals who span the whole range-from those who fail miserably in sustaining their client development efforts whenever they are busy, to ot hers (often in the same firm or business unit) who achieve continuously successful growth in their business over many years, with almost no blips. What is the difference?
There are, I think, a number of factors at play:
- People usually find the time to do the actions they enjoy, are good at and know to be important. But two out of three is not enough! So we need to build the confidence and skills of those who have a business development responsibility, maintain their motivation/enjoyment in business development, even through the frustrating times, and make absolutely sure of their priorities.
- They need a “process” or tool for project managing and focusing their business development efforts (e.g. The PACE Pipeline).
- Strong leadership and management in business development are also vital.
However, while all these are important, they are not enough if an individual continues to manage their time in a particular (and very common) way.
Time management in business development
The following observation does not apply to all professionals, but it does to many we meet. These individuals live (and manage their time) from one day to the next. Sure they have commitments such as client meetings in their diaries but outside of these they manage their daily routine with a “to do” list that they work their way through each day. At the end of the day the things that get left on their “to do” list are the less urgent, but not necessarily less important, actions-often those longer term business development tasks that would have helped to build reputation and relationships. This is time that could have been spent in, for example, researching new targets, preparing an approach campaign to meet with a high quality target, writing a thought leadership piece, gaining the client information that would help in a cross-selling plan, planning to defend existing client relationships, adding value to a past relationship etc. None of these actions will be urgent until they are too late.
Deadlines are not enough
So how do people try to overcome this problem? Recognising the need to carry out enough business development, and that relationship building carried out in spasms does not work, most people start to make a plan. They:
- set business development goals and objectives;
- identify clients and potential targets;
- decide what needs to be done to defend and develop existing clients and to select, approach, develop and win new clients; and
- put together a plan with firm deadlines, either individually or as a team;
- often become frustrated with the lack of progress and success.
Why? Because deadlines are not enough. If I am busy and I manage my time day by day (with my “to do” list), business development only becomes urgent once the deadlines are approaching. This may be too late to do the activity properly. I may do something today because I have a team meeting tomorrow and I don’t want to be embarrassed.
I will be unable to do it at all, however, if an urgent client request arrives in the morning-once again my excuse is that client work has got in the way. Even if I do find the time, I am merely doing the minimum to save face, not the optimum to make sure my business is as healthy as possible in the future. The answer is that I should have made the time to invest, and to invest really well, long before the deadline. To have a chance of doing that I need to have made this important activity extremely urgent, before it actually is. How?
What to do?
These are some steps you might take:
- Once you have the plan, schedule the time to do the actions. Set aside specific time in your diary/organiser. As someone who still uses a paper diary(!) these actions are the ones that I make a permanent note of, in pen; client commitments are usually in pencil because sometimes clients need to rearrange.
- Ring-fence this allotted time. Make sure it does not get moved, whatever the provocation. This is especially important if the activity is something you dislike or find frustrating, for example making a phone call to set up a meeting with a potential client or contact you have never met.
- Act as though each of these actions is a meeting with your top client-i.e. a commitment you would not move, whoever else wanted your time.
- Let others know what you are planning to do and, critically, when. Include people who will be tough as well as supportive.
- If you have no choice but to move a scheduled action, don’t remove it from the schedule altogether. Reschedule it as close to the original date as possible, and make sure it happens this time.
- Aim to maintain motivation as well as discipline. Factor in opportunities for reward and recognition; find a way of measuring progress that encourages you to continue; work with others in a small team; and continually focus on why you are doing this-what is the (really positive for you) result that will be accomplished by making these actions happen?
If all this seems like good advice for going on a diet or getting fit, I think that there are great similarities-which clearly means that this is tough. At least it is for me! It also explains why so many professionals struggle to do business development in a sustained way that generates continued success-especially when they are busy.
Does this mean we need to employ dedicated business developers? Some firms obviously have done. My opinion is that this strategy brings its own challenges, including how the clients feel about this arrangement. So, again, this is not a magic answer. Whether we decide to have a dedicated resource, or get many of our fee earners to contribute to business development, or a mixture of the two, what is critical is that everyone involved in business development needs to be able to invest the right amount of time, at the right time, and to be skilled in using it wisely.
I sometimes ask people if they have the time to keep up to date with all of the new regulations they need to understand to be able to carry out their fee earning work professionally. The answer is always “yes” even if it is a real struggle and they have to invest their own time to do it. Why is the answer “yes”? Because without this up-to-date knowledge the individual cannot operate. This is something that must be done. So the barrier to making time is not time itself. If it was, some people would fail to keep current in their knowledge and, in my experience, none do. It is all about motivation, commitment, priority and importance to the individual. Those professionals I have met who are really successful in sustaining business growth (in a genuinely competitive market) are those to whom business development is as important as-but obviously no more important than-maintaining professional capability or delivering excellence to clients today.
In a way I am suggesting that the professionals I know who do this best are those who manage their fee earning work around their business development efforts rather than doing their business development when they have time-usually when their fee earning work has stopped or slowed down. This means that the immovable “rocks” in their schedules are the important, often non-urgent, actions that contribute to the future. Client work is, at least to a degree, fitted around these! Put like that, the challenge becomes even clearer.
If you do at least one thing to meet that challenge after reading this article, make sure the right amount of t ime is scheduled in your diary to do the right amount of business development early enough-and then guard that time with your life. One thing is clear: deadlines are not enough!