Why do firms accept poor business results?

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There isn’t a firm in existence that doesn’t depend on constant growth to be successful and to generate enough profit to pay its staff and partners well. Yet so many firms accept the old bell-shaped curve argument that they are winning if just 20 percent of their partners are good at generating business. Imagine if every partner was contributing to growth from generating new business. It’s not impossible and not even hard if the “forces” work together with effective leadership.

The bottom line is that every partner in every firm should be held accountable for generating new business every year. New business can come from totally new clients or expansion of revenue from existing clients. Not all partners will be created equal and partners will achieve different, but growing, levels of business development success if they follow a model similar to the one described below.

Growth in too many firms is almost anecdotal in that it is by chance that growth occurs not through specific strategies, goals and expectations. Several forces need to work together to create a growth culture.

Skills: Selling is not a natural skill that somehow every partner has. We all know partners who can sell snow in the winter. Those are partners whose success in sales is a given and not even a challenge. Unfortunately, those partners are the exceptions. Too bad we can’t clone them. Far too many partners lack the sales skills to be successful in generating new business. For the most part, firms do nothing to address that skill gap. Networking, building relationships and then generating new business are part of a process and are skills that everyone can learn and be successful at achieving.

Training is the first step. Every firm should have a robust, continuous training program for partners and senior staff to teach them the skills of networking, building relationships and generating business for the firm. If you think about it, you can’t be successful at anything if you don’t have the skills. Tackle the training and get all your partners and senior staff the skills they need to be successful in developing business.

Confidence: With the lack of skill comes the lack of confidence. No partner wants to be put into a situation where they are not confident in their abilities. So many firms set goals for their partners for new business and simply expect the partners to figure it out and deliver. They never do, and firm management can’t understand why. Part of the answer is in building the skills through training, but there are other steps to consider.

• Mentoring: Pair partners who have trouble with new business development with partners who are good at it.

• Sales clubs: Establish sales groups comprising no more than five people (three partners and two senior staff) who meet as a support group to help each member get better at sales.

• Sales experience: Make sure a partner who is weak in business development goes on sales calls with a stronger partner as a team to see success in action.

• Targeting: Implement a sales-targeting program for partners who are weak in business development. Giving partners a defined list of “targets,” along with a way to successfully implement a target market program, will build confidence. If it’s done right, each partner begins to achieve success. Nothing builds confidence more than success.

Accountability: Having goals or expectations without accountability is like running a marathon without training. It just doesn’t work and it’s painful.

If there’s no accountability for results, no matter how many times partners are told at partner meetings or partner evaluations they must generate business, there is no change in behavior or results since the lack of real accountability leaves the partner thinking it’s not really that important. Accountability needs to be based on agreed upon goals, coupled with quarterly or monthly meetings with each partner to evaluate results against goals. These meetings also provide a “coaching” moment to help the partner evaluate what they are doing, where they need help, what the firm can do, etc.

Consequences: You cannot change behavior and outcomes if there are no consequences for ignoring business development in the first place.

All partners need to understand there are three things they must do to add value to the firm and therefore make themselves valuable: excellent client service, training and mentoring staff, and generating business for the firm. Each of these must be reflected in partner compensation in order to clearly establish the linkage between performance, expectations and results.

Business development goals need to be established for every partner according to their current skill level. Those goals should be “stretch goals.” Every partner must also understand how their compensation will be impacted by the results they achieve and then those consequences must become real, based on what each partner actually achieves against their goals.

Road map: To be successful, business development must be done within a well thought out road map to ensure everyone is focused on the right stuff.

As with all other aspects of a successful firm, there needs to be a clear road map, a strategic direction that defines what the focus of business development should be (the type of client, cross-selling, expansion, industry, geography, services, economics). Without a strong strategic road map for business development, every partner will go looking for what they think is needed, as opposed to defining what the firm needs right up front and focusing everyone’s business development efforts there.

Leadership: Firm leadership must promote a culture that includes successful business development from all partners to drive the firm’s growth.

“A leader takes people where they want to go,” said former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. “A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” That says it all when we are talking about getting every partner to be successful in business development. Every firm CEO must be the leader who can get the partners to move into the uncomfortable zone of selling.

Fully implementing the points above will provide the firm and CEO with a road map to begin to build a successful business development culture, great business development success and a much stronger group of partners. Firms will be able to achieve significant organic growth, year after year. The process will also create greater teamwork and a real shared responsibility for growing the top line of the firm. Once it proves successful with partners, this process should be moved down to senior staff so they become adept at business development before they become partners and create more effective future partners for the firm.

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