When your clients ask for advice that borders on legal counsel, you steer them toward a competent attorney, right?Similarly, when you are in the market for a new house, you look for a realtor, not an investment banker. The same holds true when your firm is pursuing large pieces of business - your best bet is turning to proven professionals skilled with large opportunity development. While a limited number of rainmaker partners can handle the associated challenges, senior business developers spend their entire professional lives honing this skill set.

What the market wants

I recently read a report titled Selling and Satisfying the Fortune 1000 in a Post-Enron World. The report, by consulting firm Ross McManus, surveyed hundreds of large buyers to assess their favored purchasing criteria. I was interested to see how closely the conclusions matched my own long-held beliefs about the need for CPA firms to professionalize selling.

According to the Ross McManus survey, large buyers base their decisions on the following ranked criteria:

1. Business understanding - knowledge of an organization's structure, culture and operations;
2. Communications expertise;
3. Perceived value;
4. Responsiveness; and,
5. Technical expertise.

Take a look at the first two criteria - understanding a business and its culture, and communication skills. In my experience, these are among the top attributes that business developers bring to the table. They can quickly and efficiently determine which leads have the highest opportunity for strategic significance and which will be the easiest to close.

Despite their technical and (occasional) rainmaking prowess, often-overworked partners may make three or four calls on a prospect, or perhaps even complete the sales cycle, before concluding that there's no there there.

Business development types are specialists - able to use skills beyond basic relationship development. Effective business developers are also persuasive communicators. They are able to delve deep beneath the surface with prospects, identifying not only professional objectives, but personal agendas. They can build unique value propositions based upon the linkage of personal and professional objectives, and develop a compelling and competitive strategy to win.

Leveraging business developer skills and combining them with your technical expertise delivers a distinct advantage in the marketplace. That's because in every business development transaction, two things are happening: Technical credentials are established and a relationship is developed. Acknowledging that some partners may be expert in one but not both of these can free them for what they do best, and leave relationship management to the experts.

Top rainmaker partners, aging with the rest of us, are often not plentiful enough to sustain future growth in many firms. Business developers are a solid alternative solution to developing future revenue streams - insuring realistic retirement scenarios, attracting and retaining high-quality staff, and all the other benefits of a rosy future.

Other reasons, and benefits

You may find yourself on the verge of agreement, yet still wondering why such a step is necessary today, when opportunity seems to be falling from the sky. The answer is simple - things won't always be this way. And when a normal business climate resumes, you need to be ready. Introducing professional business development when things are hot creates more methodical management of a hyperactive pipeline while preparing you for leaner times.

Business developers can help yours become a more "grown up" organization. A key to their success is enabling them to become part of a firm's infrastructure and leadership, potentially bringing more sophistication to your operation.

Increasingly, I am seeing super-regionals competing with Big Four firms, regionals competing with super-regionals, and locals going up against regionals. In an environment where your technical resources may not be as deep as your competitor's, savvy business developers know how to develop value propositions, overcome typical objections, and close business from the "underdog" position. This is part of their DNA and training!

Finally, there's the bottom-line rationale.

If a partner who bills out at $200 an hour spends two hours each week on business development, that's a $20,000 investment. Multiply that by your number of partners and that's how much you may be spending on business development, relying on many partners who may be only marginally effective at the task.

Re-allocate a percentage of that to hire a professional and you've made a wise investment - especially when a good business developer is likely to pay for him or herself in 12 to 18 months, and return ever-increasing annuity revenues.

A business developer is an expert at relationships, a persuasive communicator who can develop a creative and unique value proposition for each client. Sound like someone you'd like to have on board? If I were managing a firm today, hiring business developers would be one of my priorities.Gale Crosley, CPA, is founder and principal of Crosley + Co., a firm providing revenue growth consulting and coaching to CPA firms. Reach her at gcrosley@crosleycompany.

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