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Make the Connection

Recently I had an enlightening, yet disturbing, conversation with a client who is trying to cope with a slowdown in work. One of my recommendations to him was to make a list of several people – whether current or past clients, referral sources, or prospects – to whom he hadn’t spoken in a while. I asked him to contact them, preferably by telephone. My client came up with three or four possibilities, then said: “Here’s the problem. Every time I call someone just to touch base, I sit and watch my clock tick the minutes off. Pretty soon, a half hour is gone, and that’s a half hour I can’t bill. It’s thirty minutes I have to make up somewhere else if I want to meet my billable hour requirement.”

For good or ill, most professional services firms operate on a billable hour model. The formulas become more rigid as firms grow, because there is more overhead to pay. Billable time becomes the measure of an individual’s success at a firm.

It is interesting that the most successful business developers are seemingly undaunted by this model. They consistently meet their billable requirements and bring in new work, very often without the help of colleagues, consultants, or in-house marketers. If every firm were filled with these natural business developers, I would not have any work to do.

Most firms, though, aren’t so fortunate. They typically have a very small percentage of rainmakers with a much larger percentage of technicians, and they rely heavily on the rainmakers to keep feeding the firm. To counteract the risk and woe that accompany this imbalance, more firms are offering marketing or sales training and support to all professionals. They are also making business development an important, sometimes essential, element in advancement to partnership.

Such training and support are useful, but it is also important to allow time for the mere mortals in your firm to practice the skills they are learning through training and coaching programs. Managing partners (who usually are good business developers) often say that no one will be penalized for taking the time to build relationships, especially when they show continuous improvement in business development. However, that benign sentiment is not clearly communicated to or consistently reinforced with the professionals who are still learning how to develop business. The result is often stagnation in individual and firm growth.

If you want your professionals to build business development skills, start by including marketing time into the firm’s overall strategies and plans. Let them know that the leadership supports them in their marketing efforts. Be explicit and specific in helping them understand how to fit business development into their daily lives. When finding, creating, and sustaining relationships becomes a clear, consistent part of your firm’s culture, you will see the benefit in the bottom line.

© Melinda Guillemette 2009