The secrets of top salespeople at B2B companies is a thoroughly researched topic. But professional services firms – companies that sell services rather than products, such as lawyers, advertising professionals, and accountants – are not as well-researched. Unlike typical B2B companies with discrete departments for lead generation, sales, product delivery, customer success, and account management, partners at professional services firms are “doer-sellers” who own the entire sales and service life cycle. These “rainmakers” must develop and expand their skills in every aspect, from bringing in leads to delivering satisfactory work.
For a long time, business developers operated on a core belief: that clients they built strong relationships with would come back to them time and again. But client loyalty is steadily eroding. A Harvard Business Review survey revealed that just five years ago, 76% of buyers preferred to buy again from previous partners. Today, that number is more like 53% and is expected to drop to 37% over the next few years. This makes the ability to bring in new business all the more important.
HBR conducted a global study of nearly 1,800 partners from across 23 firms to identify their approach to business development. They evaluated over 100 attributes for each partner, including business-development preferences, behaviors, time allocation, and use of firm resources.
From this data, the researchers Matthew Dixon, Ted McKenna, Rory Channer, and Karen Freeman, assembled five profiles, each with different business approaches. But every profile except one, the Activator approach, was negatively correlated with performance. (Read about the other profiles in the original article.) The Activator profile was found to be the most effective in terms of performance and revenue.
Activators are known for:
Committing to business development: They understand that excellent service doesn't guarantee future work, so they create time for business development and balance efforts between existing and new clients.
Connecting with prospects, clients, and colleagues: They build extensive networks and proactively engage clients with opportunities, even if it’s outside their area of expertise. They also spend roughly equal time in both new and existing client-facing business-development.
Creating value: Activators curate information for clients, engaging them in conversations about potential issues and opportunities. They also connect clients with other partners and experts when necessary.
Want to become an Activator yourself? Here’s how:
- Dedicate Time: Allocate a specific portion of your weekly schedule to focus on business development.
- Maintain Engagement: Establish and sustain active communication with both clients and potential leads.
- Expand Your Network: Make a conscious effort to grow your professional network.
- Online Presence: Regularly update and engage with your LinkedIn profile.
- Networking Events: Attend business-related events on a regular basis.
- Set Post-Event Objectives: Define specific goals for post-event communication, such as follow-up calls or meetings.
- Facilitate Connections: Identify opportunities to connect your clients with colleagues who can offer value.
- Proactive Updates: Consistently provide clients with information and updates on regulatory, economic, and industry trends.
- Innovative Collaboration: Actively search for fresh ways to collaborate and provide value to your clients.
- Ongoing Assessment: Regularly check in with clients to understand their current needs and requirements.
- Consultative Approach: Offer advice and support to clients and prospects, even when you are not actively engaged in paid work for them.
Creating an Activator Environment
Sounds good, right? In reality, however, it’s not as simple as sending out one memo to all the partners at your firm. There are four key areas of investment for firms who want to initiate the Activator approach.
Training and coaching. Starting training programs when would-be partners are still associates lays important groundwork for them to succeed in higher positions. They can also start to develop strong relationships with the people whom they will one day manage.
Hiring and partner selection. Rather than hiring for technical expertise and client impact, focusing on a candidate’s propensity for collaboration is a better predictor of becoming an Activator.
Technology. Used wisely, technology is a huge boon to Activators. Generative AI can comb through massive amounts of data to produce relevant client information. CRMs can predict the best times of day and channels for connecting with clients. LinkedIn provides a vast, searchable network of potential clients.
Incentives and rewards. Recognize partners that demonstrate consistent commitment to business development, and you’ll see that behavior replicated. The global law firm Baker McKenzie requires that partners identify collaborations with colleagues as part of their year-end self-appraisals. These activities might include attending a pitch meeting, networking at an event, or non-billable sharing of insights or trends.
By being proactive rather than reactive, and by spending equal time with new and existing clients, Activators ensure success not only for themselves but for their whole firm.