Serve up a specialty

How do surveyors believe they compare with their professional rivals in winning and keeping new business?

In 2001 and again in November 2003, The PACE Partnership conducted a healthcheck survey into creating new clients.  Supported by the Professional Services Marketing Group, this comparative study explores the ways professional service firms win new business.  The results have provided insights into the marketplace as a whole and within and between five key sectors property, accountancy, law, consulting engineering and IT and management consulting.

So what can be learned from the results to improve their new client generation in 2004? 

First the bad news on average, across all aspects of new client generation, property firms rated their overall performance fourth out of the five sectors, above the legal sector.  Twenty-four percent of respondents were from the property advisory sector and all were representatives of the UKs top 25 firms in this market.

So, what were propertys strengths in new client creation?  The sector felt that it performed particularly well in the area designated Winning Work.  Overall, property firms perceived themselves to be good at presenting targeted ideas to prospective clients and did not bombard them with irrelevant or inappropriate sales messages.  Firms also felt they gained the appropriate level of commitment from clients before moving to the next stage of the decision-making process.  This enabled them to have confidence in the fees being proposed and to handle any resistance to paying the full fee – something the engineering and accountancy firms said they could learn from.

Self promotion

Property firms also felt they were proficient in promoting themselves to potential clients.  They believe they build and maintain a strong reputation in chosen sectors and generate opportunities for dialogue with the best target clients.  This is perhaps a result of the increased marketing expertise and skills in the sector.  Promotional events, in particular, appear to be well run and firms ensure relationships are developed early on by allocating specific individuals to build up relationships with key prospective clients.  The property professionals were therefore able to position themselves as trusted advisers before trying to win work, providing greater value above and beyond their technical expertise.

Historically, a key feature of professional services firms is that fee-earners personally have to win clients and then co-ordinate delivery of the firms services, but there is then a risk that advisers become mere channels for punting their firms services.  It appears from this study that the property sector has recognised this risk and is resisting the temptation. 

Property firms do appear to be using the knowledge, skills, confidence and motivation of their staff to build strong, profitable relationships at all levels within their target prospects.  As with accountancy, IT consulting and engineering firms, property firms also rated themselves as being sound at training people in the area of business development.  However there are several areas in which accountancy, IT consulting and engineering firms outperformed property professionals.  A number of these comparative weaknesses are closely linked to property firms strengths.

The first weakness that property firms recognised was the way in which they converted targets to actual clients.  Managing the process means managing the activities necessary to generate a flow of continuous, profitable new work.  If they could do this well, property firms could avoid cycles of feast and famine and achieve the right balance of time and effort invested in carrying out fee-earning work and developing future business.

The firms that are best at consistently winning new clients record the level, focus and quality of activity devoted to new business development as accurately as they record property transactions and profitability.  They review procedures to ensure the balance and continuity of the new business development efforts.  This in turn helps them to achieve the most efficient and effective use of their limited (and expensive) resources employed in marketing and business development.

Although property firms believed that they performed well in promoting themselves and running good events, many recognised that their abilities to measure and follow up these activities were weak.  This does make us question whether the time and financial investment going into this area of marketing is generating the best results. 

Another feature of best practice is having an information or client relationship management system in place.  The firms that performed well here provided their management, at all times, with details of the organisations progress in all aspects of new client creation activity.  They tried and tested ways of objectively measuring new client opportunities in the pipeline and of accurately forecasting outcome of these opportunities.

Intellectually, most property professionals understand the need for an effective framework to help them make the best use of their limited time.  However, a significant number who have tried to create a framework are deterred by their highly independent and very busy fee-earners who fight the processes and disciplines inherent in managing the process effectively.  The successful ones have built a management process that fits around all the other fee-earners commitments.

Winning major pieces of business was another problem area.  The best firms assemble and use a well-thought-through plan that identifies the key decision-makers and influencers and puts in place meetings and other tactics to win people over.

Firms that performed well here also constructed teams made up of individuals selected by personality and skills as much as by their particular technical expertise.  Progress of the bid was tracked and remedial actions taken where necessary to ensure a high degree of success.  As part of the process, all necessary resource allocation and training was provided to those involved.

Looking ahead

On the positive side, property is adopting a consultative approach to winning new business – one where the sales process focuses on solving clients needs rather than flogging them a particular service.  Property professionals are also positioning themselves as trusted business advisers rather than just technical experts.

There are, however, a number of issues from the research that property firms could address to make 2004 a very successful year.  First, the results reflect an individualistic rather than firm-wide approach to new client generation.  This may be appropriate in some less-significant new-business situations.  In others, however, a team approach is much more likely to win more profitable and more long-term clients.

Listen and learn

Second, as there are few systems or processes in place, there is no way of forecasting business levels or measuring the results of current activity.  New business opportunities could be lost.  Better systems and follow up are needed to ensure that all the effort and investment expended in marketing and business development activity actually brings in new business.  Finally, training appears to be good but is lacking in developing the skill of listening.  This could affect the amount of new business you are winning.

Don’t speak too soon

The research found that there was a perception that business development training was handled well in property firms.  However, there was one key skill which needed improving and that was listening ability.  This is essential to consultative new business development and to the way development of any relationship.

Those professionals who have developed the skill know how and when to stay silent.  They use positive body language and encouraging words, phrases and noises (Uh huh.  Interesting!)  Many also take notes, a practice that demonstrates to the client that they want to retain what they are being told.

They summarise regularly, double-checking with the client that they have the correct understanding of what has just been relayed. 

Above all, they also know how to reflect and demonstrate their empathy with the clients situation.  They are obviously genuinely interested in the client and his / her situation.


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