Business Development: There’s a Better Way!

Business Development: There’s a Better Way!

David H. Maister

Marketing directors and managing partners are continuously trying to get their partners to get involved in business development, but I’m told it’s a constant, uphill struggle. In this article, I’ll try to offer a reason why this is so, and suggest a new, more productive approach.

In my book, True Professionalism (Free Press, 1997), I reported the results of a simple survey I have conducted among professionals around the world. Try these survey questions on your partners. First, ask them to think back on all the client work (billable hours) they have done in the last few years, and divide it all into one of three categories; (a) I love this stuff, I get a positive emotional charge every time I do work like this; (b) I can tolerate it, it’s what I do for a living; and (c) I really wish this part was not something I had to do. What do you think the average partner will say about what percentage of all his or her work he or she would put in each category?

As you pause to reflect, let me pose the second question. Having said what they think about their work, now ask them what they think about their clients. Again, divide them into three categories: (a) I really like these people and their business is one I find fascinating; (b) I can tolerate them, after all they’re clients. How much can you expect? (c) I’m sorry, but you can’t like everybody. By my tastes, these are boring people in boring businesses.

So, ready to hear the results? Around the world, the average result I hear from professionals (in firms of all sizes) is about 20% for “I love this work”, 70% for “I can tolerate it”; and 10% for “This is junk!” On the client side, I’m told people really like their clients and their client’s industry about 30% of the time, can tolerate them about 50% of the time and really don’t like them 20% of the time. (That’s what I’m told, but I suspect that, in their hearts, the numbers are actually worse.) These partners are saying they love their work about a day a week and like those they serve (maybe) a little more often. What a profession! What a life!

If these numbers are correct estimates, what does it mean for business development? It helps us understand why people aren’t all that keen to go out, get active and work passionately to bring in more stuff they can barely tolerate! If you don’t love what you do, or those you do it for, why would you want to go out and get more of it? (The traditional answer is, because they’ll pay me if I do. They’ll pay me to do stuff I have no feelings for, for people I don’t care for! There’s a word for that, isn’t there?)

On the other hand, these numbers provide the most compelling reason in the world to be active in business development. If you succeed at it, you have a shot at working on stuff you care about for people you’re interested in, and can stop leading a work life of quiet desperation. Success in business development will keep you so busy on stuff you love that you will have the power to say “no” to idiots with dull problems! (Or hand them over to some other partner who doesn’t want much from life, and still get the origination credit!)

Viewed from another angle, these numbers reveal why so many people are so poor at business development. Take a guess: do you think the clients can tell that this is how we feel about our work? (Hint: yes!) So, if you’re a client, how do you feel about someone trying to win your business who can just about tolerate what he or she does, and can tolerate you (or is prepared to fake passion if you insist on it?)

Consider your own purchases of professional services. Whether you are hiring someone to look after your legal affairs, your business, your taxes, your child or your car, the act of retaining a professional requires you to put your affairs in someone else’s hands. You are forced into an act of faith, and you can only hope that they will deal with you appropriately. You can research their background, check their technical skills, and attempt to examine their past performance. In spite of all this, when the final decision on whom to hire comes, you must ultimately decide to trust someone with your baby, which is never a comfortable thing to do.

When retaining a professional, what you (and your clients) want is someone who you can trust to do the right thing. You want someone who will care. Getting hired (and getting re-hired) is about earning and deserving that trust.

So how do you get somebody to trust you? I once had to hire a lawyer to probate a relative’s will. The first few lawyers I spoke with tried to win my business by telling me their capabilities, when their firm was founded, how many offices they had and how much they would charge. None of this inspired much confidence. In fact, the more they talked about themselves and their firms, the less interested they appeared to be in me and my problems.

Finally, I encountered a lawyer who, in the initial phone call, asked how much I knew about probating a will. My reply was “Nothing!” The lawyer then offered to fax to me a comprehensive outline of the steps involved, what I needed to rush to do, and what I should forget about for a while because it was not urgent. The fax also provided the phone numbers of all the governmental bodies I needed to notify, even though this had nothing to do with the legal work (or the lawyer’s fees).

All of this (immensely helpful) information was provided freely (and for free) before the lawyer had been retained. Naturally, he got the business. He had built confidence by demonstrating that he knew what information was most relevant to me. He had earned trust by being generous with his knowledge, and proving that he was willing to earn the potential client’s business.

Notice that, at no time did he try to “sell”. He did not send me a brochure. He told me nothing about his firm. He won me over by the simple act of helping me. Acting as if he cared. (If you’re not sure about this, put yourself in the position of being a buyer. How do you react when someone tries to sell to you and describes his firm’s qualifications? On the other hand, how do you react if the same person leaves all this out and just starts giving you thoughts, suggestions, ideas and interesting information? Who do you hire?)

The key point is that trust must be earned and deserved. You must do something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get. (See my co-authored book The Trusted Advisor for more on precisely how to do this.)

So how does a marketing director help the lawyers get trusted? The truth is, “institutional trust” is an oxymoron. We don’t trust institutions, we don’t trust processes, we trust people. We may come to believe that a given institution’s behaviors are highly predictable, i.e. that most or all of its people can be depended upon to behave in certain ways. We may thus associate trusted people with a given institution. But we are still trusting a person and not giving blanket trust to a particular institution.

It follows that if trust plays a role for professional service firms, then it will find its voice not in advertising campaigns or in citations of experience or credentials, but in the human interactions between those firms’ people and their clients. In this sense, the movie The Godfather had it wrong when it said “It ain’t personal, it’s business.” The truth is “It’s business; it is personal.”

What marketing directors need to do is not teach their partners to sell, but find out, partner by partner, what kind of work turns them on and what kind of clients they truly care for. You can’t love everyone, or everything, but if you have a passion for no one and for nothing, then you’ve got larger problems than business development! The marketing director must then ensure that the partners are equipped to start helping as soon as they meet someone. (How much of your firm’s printed materials contain immediately useful value-added content, as opposed to assertions of expertise and vague promises of excellence in future delivery if, and only if, money first changes hands?)

At its core, business development is about relationships. I will trust you (and hire you) if you convince me that you’re not just trying to maximize the short-term benefit to you in each of our interactions. Trust is about reciprocity: you help me and I’ll help you. But I need to know that I can rely on you to do your part. If I am the client, then trusting you requires that I can believe that you will do what you say that you’ll do: that your actions will match your words. I’ll only believe this if you give me some evidence on which to base that belief. And, perhaps the most critical of all, I will trust you if you exhibit some form of caring; if you provide to me some evidence that my interests are as important to you as your own interests are.

A common trait of trusted advisors is that the advisor places a higher value on maintaining and preserving the relationship itself than on the outcomes of the current transaction, financial and otherwise. They never “sell”. They help. And they care. Passionately. And they get hired! And re-hired! And referred to others!

If you want money for your firm, stop trying to get your partners to market and sell. Start helping them do the things that make clients want to give them money. Act as if they cared! And, since most of your partners will never be any good at faking it, start helping them really care!

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