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Pro Tips for Managing Professional Services Opportunity Pipelines

By The Ackert Team on October, 5 2021

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The Ackert Team

Professional services leaders are first and foremost concerned with keeping their existing client base happy, but they’re also responsible for growing their firms. Busy seller-doers typically view business development as a necessary evil, as they’re much more comfortable and adept at applying the skills they learned in school than selling their services.

For the webinar, “How Professional Services Manage Opportunity Pipelines,” Ackert, Inc. assembled a panel of business development leaders from across professional services industries, including legal, accounting, financial advisory, and architecture/engineering/ construction. To understand what business development looks like at their firms, Ackert CEO David Ackert posed three key questions.

 

What is your approach to sourcing, nurturing, and closing new business opportunities?

 

Joe Seetoo is a senior vice president and wealth advisor at Morton Capital, one of the largest independent financial advisories in Southern California. When he joined the firm in 2007, there were 15 employees, and the advisors were wearing multiple hats - doing the work and trying to source new opportunities.

Since then, the firm has grown to 55 employees and over two-and-a-half billion dollars in assets, necessitating a trajectory in business development. “We’re at a point now,” he said, “where we’re moving into specialized teams, segmenting responsibilities between those doing and those out there nurturing relationships.”

Joe shared that his firm thinks of business development as four different buckets: existing clients; professional networks; other professional service providers who service the clients and can cross-refer business; other professional platforms within his industry, who are referral partners; and community outreach. He noted that his firm has a unique approach to developing business with existing clients. “We do some specific, actionable items with existing clients,” he said. “We have an accountability group with our advisors who are responsible for generating revenue. And we started to do what we call ‘tracking wows,’ which is about taking relationships to the next level.”

 He continued, “We know when clients engage with us, there’s a certain level of expertise they expect. It’s almost table stakes. But with 'wows,' we’re taking relationships to a new level.”

Joe cited an example. He recently noticed on Facebook that a client got a new dog and asked an associate to send the client an assortment of dog toys and treats, along with a card welcoming the new addition to the family. He commented, “The response we got for the extra effort in noticing what was going on in their lives went above and beyond. It’s those things that can often generate referrals for us.” Team members at Joe’s firm track their wows and report them back to the accountability group every week.

Christopher Passmore is a managing partner at Martini Partners, CPAs, one of the largest independent CPA firms in the San Fernando Valley. Like financial advisories, he observed that business development in the accounting industry is relationship-driven and highly dependent on word-of-mouth referrals. He added that there is a heavy focus on networking organizations and making connections with other professionals. The cycle between when a CPA gets introduced to a prospective client and when they assign them can be two, three, or even five years.

He explained that’s why it’s critical for a firm and its CPAs to maintain visibility with prospective clients. He continued, “There’s a tremendous opportunity to stay in front of prospects using platforms like social media and making sure we’re staying connected after an initial introduction, so we’re top-of-mind when an opportunity comes.

“When you’re introduced to a prospective client and have a great conversation, it might not be the right time for them to do business with you. And you can only follow up with so many calls or emails before you start feeling like a pest - like you’ve reached out nine times with no results, so maybe it’s just not going to happen.”

He added, “Social media gets results more often than I ever expected. We’ll share content about a stimulus package or a tax break, and a prospective client will get back and say, ‘I saw your article, and by the way, I know we talked six months ago, now I think it may be time to talk further.'’” Although leveraging social media can’t be the only tactic a firm uses, Christopher suggested that pairing it with face-to-face interactions can make a powerful impact.

Even larger professional services firms need marketing efforts to warm up the leads at the top of the funnel and seller-doers to close business. Some have also begun to add dedicated salespeople to their business development initiatives. A sophisticated, knowledgeable person dedicated solely to sales can bring pitchers to the table. Although they might not be able to pitch and close on behalf of the firm, they can connect the dots between the marketing and the pitch, sometimes called pre-positioning the sale.

Diane Lee is the executive director of business development at Kitchell, an engineering and construction firm with over a thousand employees and several offices nationwide. Her role is frequently client-facing, unlike that of marketing and business development leaders in smaller firms.

Like many AEC firms, Kitchell’s portfolio includes a significant amount of public agency work, so much of what Diane’s team does is respond to RFPs and RFQs. “Still, a lot of my firm’s business development is relationship-based,” she asserted. “It’s about who you know and making sure we’re serving the needs of existing clients that result in new business.”

She added, “I live, play, and breathe in the world of relationship development. In an industry saturated with competition, there are certain protocols for qualifying for new business, so much of what I do is pre-positioning my firm. It’s the upfront investment - the really getting to know the client part of business development. What makes them tick? What concerns them? What keeps them up at night? Then it’s my job and the job of my team to find ways to mitigate those challenges.”

Vicki Spang is the chief marketing officer of Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, a firm with over a thousand lawyers in 15 locations nationwide. Much like Diane’s AEC firm, her law firm gets a fair share of RFPs, but in general, they’re not “high probability affairs” unless the prospect already knows and wants the firm but needs to go through the motion.

Vicki’s role isn’t client-facing like Diane’s. However, her firm recently hired a dedicated salesperson. She noted, “Having a dedicated salesperson is new for us, and it’s working well. We’re even in talks about expanding his team. The salesperson can do the things my team doesn’t have time to do, like follow-up with non-clients who attend one of our webinars or seminars.”

In addition to developing webinars or seminars, Vicki’s team is responsible for many other business development strategies, including managing 35 blogs. She shared that her team uses a service that pushes the blog content out to LinkedIn and allows each attorney to pick and choose what they’d like to share. In addition, her team continually monitors if losses have been filed against clients. They send emails when a client is being sued so attorneys can reach out and offer to help.

 

What systems do you use to oversee and manage sales pipelines?

 

This is often a very tricky part of business development for professional service firms. Their seller-doers manage the billing, timekeeping, project management, and other software they need to ensure they meet their clients’ needs. Then business development introduces other systems they’re expected to utilize to make sure they’re managing their funnel, too.

Even before facing the challenge of getting seller-doers engaged and prioritizing using a new tool to manage their pipelines, a firm must select the right platform. The panelists agreed this process can present obstacles, too.

Christopher shared that his accounting firm has gone through an evolution when it comes to CRMs. Several years ago, it began using a system he described as “the Cadillac of CRMs.” But, he quipped, “When I saw I had to add blood type for my prospective clients, I knew it might be more than we needed. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t embraced or effective, so from that point, we went the xl route.”

But, he noted, seller-doers have things pulling them in a million different directions, and if they don’t open their spreadsheets, they’re not effective. Recently Christopher’s firm rolled out a new CRM he referred to as a “CRM-lite.” Its simplicity and a key feature were the driving factors behind the firm selecting it. He explained, “It’s really just a simple, high-level tracker of opportunities and contact information. The significant thing that drew us to it, though, was its reminder feature. When you put in a new prospective client, you can say remind me to follow up in two months, and you’ll receive a notice in your email.” Christopher shared that, unlike the first CRM, the second system performs very well for his firm.

Joe acknowledged that a software system is only as good as the people using it, and fortunately, his advisory firm’s CRM is widely adopted. In addition to leveraging the reminder feature it, too, has, he said, “To the extent our CRM system allows, we’re tagging contacts with different categories like wine aficionado and avid traveler, and we apply them to prospects and existing clients. Being able to group contacts by their passions and hobbies allows us to focus on particular groups of prospects and clients to host relevant events and send out relevant messaging.”

Echoing Christopher and Joe, Diane said, “I represent a team of architects, engineers, and construction managers and business development is not something they exactly like to do. That’s why I have the position I have. I’ve used many platforms, and at the end of the day, simplicity is the key to any system you use. The more user-friendly it is, the more your doers are inclined to use it.”

She added that utilizing software requires a process and, the process dictates the firm’s success with it. “For us, reporting is the most important thing. We’ve developed a very customizable platform that speaks to what we need and quickly and efficiently delivers the kind of reporting we want. We need specific reporting we can share with the whole team so everyone understands what the next step should be, so we can drive business development forward.”

Vicki was candid in describing her law firm’s experience with CRM. She shared, “We’re thinking of giving a shot in the arm to our CRM system because we feel it’s underutilized. My department uses it a lot, and we do a good job of keeping it up to date in terms of things we can control, like attendance at events. But the attorneys don’t focus on it as much as we’d like.”

She continued, “We think the key might be leveraging the secretaries. We’re thinking of giving them some renewed training on our CRM system because we need them as our allies. The system works well. We just need people to use it.”

Joe shared some additional tips based on how his firm manages sales pipelines. The first is time blocking. He commented, “We all have a thousand things we need to do and maintaining our existing clients and immediate revenue tends to be top-of-mind.

“But if you’re looking to build for the future,” he continued, “you have to dedicate strategic planning time for those initiatives that ensure future revenue, whether that’s building your marketing or reaching out to prospects. Time-blocking a set period each week to make sure, no matter what, you do those forward-looking activities and let some of those short-term things wait is something I highly advocate.”

Joe’s accountability group plays a role in active pipeline management, as well. He commented, “Peer-to-peer pressure and having a level of accountability can be good. For example, at the end of every meeting, we each commit to the team what we’re doing over the next week, which really helps keep things moving along.”

Having a unique onboarding procedure for new clients also helps Joe’s financial advisory firm to keep business development on track. He said, “We follow a workflow process that came out of the manufacturing industry. It lets us track where things are in the process, which saves time. We also assign specific months to meet with clients so that it’s systematized. I don’t have to think today, okay, we onboarded Mr. Smith, and then three months from today, remember, oh my gosh, I’m supposed to meet with him now."

 

How do you empower your business developers to be productive, both as service providers and new business generators?

 

According to Diane, in the AEC industry, it all comes back to the basics. She said, “For me, one of the best ways to learn business development is to show up at a networking event as your best, authentic self. Our clients are smart, and they can read right through someone who’s just there for a sales pitch versus someone who’s there to really help them out on an issue.”

She continued, “I’ve taught a lot of younger business developers, and one of the key things I tell them is to tag onto your firm’s principal or find a mentor within your company. Volunteer to attend a conference. Say, I want to be part of that and help man a booth. You’d be amazed how much you learn by just standing there watching your senior executives greet people and start conversations. How do they answer questions? How do they speak about the firm’s portfolio?” Diane noted that learning these critical aspects of business development will set young business developers apart and help them hone their skills.

Diane added that business development leaders can serve as role models, too. “I always tell my younger mentees to watch me in action and then have a conversation with me afterward. What did you like about how I spoke? What are you comfortable doing? And at the end of the day, I always tell them never to underestimate the value of commonality because commonality will get you an opportunity to show your value-add. It all starts with a conversation about a dog or golf. But once you have that personal connection, you have your entre into business development, your opportunity to share why your company is better than everyone else.”

 Vicki, too, uses advice that inspires and gives confidence to her firm’s seller-doers. “There are three things I tell the lawyers that I think really help them because obviously business development is not their comfort zone. First, I tell them you can give a speech, but you have to keep nurturing relationships after that. You must have at least five to seven touches afterward; it’s not going to happen overnight. I think they often think I gave a great speech, and they were listening, so they’ll hire me.

“I also emphasize that they have to be authentic, be themselves. They don’t have to adopt some phony persona. And that’s a source of relief to them. Lastly, I tell them to show their human side and connect on a human level, not just a professional level, because at the end of the day, if there are two equally qualified lawyers to hire, the client will hire the one they like.”

Vicki’s firm also uses coaching to supplement her advice and the business development support her team gives attorneys. She said, “We work with external coaches, which I think helps a lot because it’s almost like the attorney has a therapist. He or she can let their hair down with this person because it’s confidential. They’re probably not going to feel that at ease with someone like me or someone internal.”

Vicki also noted the firm’s coaching is not one-size-fits-all. She explained, “For attorneys who are approaching partnership, we offer coaching to help them jump over that fence. Then, once they make partner, we continue to offer coaching because, again, that’s a whole new world for them. Attorneys work one-on-one with coaches who can work with them uniquely in their current situations.”

Vicki’s firm recently decided to start coaching some mid-level associates, as well, to get them sensitized to business development. “We use a tool that’s often video-based, and that speaks to their generation. We assign them short, clever videos that speak to a point, and then one of my marketers and I meet with them once a month to discuss them. Sometimes we bring in one of our rainmakers who embodies the skills the video was addressing, and the associates can ask them questions.”

For Christopher, success in business development begins at his accounting firm by maintaining a sales culture. “When we introduce someone to the idea of business development, we try to focus on two main points. The first is the huge misconception that many young people have that you’re born with business development abilities, or you’re not. Either you can do it, or you can’t, but you can’t learn it. I try to tell every one of them that’s absolutely false in my opinion.”

He continued, “I believe that business development and nurturing relationships are skills, and the sooner you start practicing and developing them, the more successful you’ll be in time. I still remember my very first networking event, where my hand was shaking so much I couldn’t even bring my coffee cup to my face. That’s why I try to set the stage that you have to learn how to do this and can’t expect to just go into a room and knock everyone’s socks off.

“The second thing I focus on is that you can’t start measuring business development success by new sales or new clients. Those are the wrong KPIs. I tell them to focus instead on new relationships, new groups they’re participating in, and to measure success by who they met this month that they didn’t know before - maybe an attorney, financial advisor, or CEO. In the first few years, you focus on the relationships, not on the dollars. It’s just a change of perspective you have to give them at the very start.”

Like Vicki, Joe shared that his firm doesn’t approach business development as a one-size-fits-all initiative. He said, “One of the things we look at is personality types. Are you naturally more extroverted or introverted? Or maybe you are introverted, but you’re really good at connecting people. We encourage advisors to play to their strengths in terms of who they are naturally. That goes a long way in establishing authenticity, and people actually sense that.”

He continued. “Also, from a firm level, we’ve done something that’s a pretty dramatic shift, especially for financial services. As we’ve moved away from silo advisors, our bonus structure is now entirely team-based. That incentivizes the operations, research, administrative, and client services teams to be thoughtful of revenue, too. It may make them more willing to put in extra hours when we want to get accounts opened or go above and beyond with the service we’re providing, just as the doers and financial advisors on the frontlines do.

“It can be challenging for back-office people to really understand what’s going on in relationships. So, to incentivize them, every Monday, we share stories with the entire team about clients they’ve had a direct impact on. That has made a huge difference in getting everyone in the firm rowing in the same direction. Suddenly, the business development team and the rest of the team feel incentivized, and open to shifting work to other teams, when necessary to free up space for those who are out there building relationships.”


Explore our website for more insights and news about the latest in business development innovation and technology.

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