How important is business development to you?

Years ago I was being interviewed for the senior business development and marketing position in a law firm, and was on a video conference with a handful of firm leaders. Two things about the experience impressed me…and I don’t mean in a good way.

  • At various times during the (exhaustive) 30-minute conversation every one of the interviewers had to divert attention in order to deal with a presumably time sensitive issue on their smartphone; and,
  • At one point I realized the managing partner (who was in a location by himself) was snoring. No kidding. Sawing logs.

I left the video conference in awe over how compelling I must have been.

There could have been any number of good reasons for the divided attention and general lack of interest. To be fair, I simply may have failed to earn their attention. Or, perhaps there were urgent emails from clients, a family emergency. An all-nighter prepping for a trial.

In any case the experience suggested that the ideas and issues related to the firm’s business development and marketing direction were not a priority for those five leaders…even for that 30-minute time frame.

As many shake off the effects of diving head-first into a new year, it seems appropriate to break from our series of posts on building an effective plan in order to discuss the one thing that will have more to do with business development success or failure than all the planning advice of every consultant on the planet.

(Side bar: the fact that I went back-and-forth on the use of the word “failure” in the above paragraph is indicative of the problematic way many professional firms tend to address business development and sales; but that is fodder for another conversation.)

The critical success factor? The degree to which business development is a top priority.

Not one more item on a “to-do” list. Not something you do when you can find the time or get around to it. Not that thing you turn to in desperation when the absence of work forces it.

Not your only priority, certainly. But a discipline and focus that warrants and receives your highest level of attention.

Site all the obstacles if you must. Not enough hours in a day…the hours are non-billable…it’s not in your personality…selling is distasteful or unprofessional…and so on.

Those who ultimately win more pitches, close more deals than the competition, develop broader and deeper working relationships with the clients we all covet, and yes, those who make it rain when others fear drought, do so because they prioritize business development.

(Another side bar: the line of thinking that equates “non-billable” with “non-productive” is twisted and destructive, and one of the reasons the rank-and-file in many firms find it difficult to prioritize business development activities.) 

Is business development in a professional service firm without challenges? Certainly not. Is prioritizing biz dev and sales easy? Often far from it. But the individuals and firms who repeatedly find themselves without a clue as to where the next client will come from, or searching for what can be cut in order to reach budget likely have one thing in common: business development does not occupy priority status.

Forget for a moment that we’re talking about the pursuit of new business. What does a top priority look like?

  • It bares the unmistakable imprint of our most valued investments. Though this certainly implies the allocation of adequate budget, it is far more than simply throwing money at something. A priority is known by the degree to which it receives the time and attention of leadership.
  • It captures the imagination. A top priority defies relegation to afterthought. Rather, it is the target of relentless pursuit, undivided attention, and creative innovation.
  • It factors into the framework of foundational moments. When, where and how to go-to-market…expansion…contraction…innovation…succession — our top priorities are part-and-parcel to consequential conversations.

By the same token, the things about which we care the least are easy to spot.

  • Low priorities might occupy a spot on the agenda; but we give them serious time and consideration only when external circumstances force the issue.
  • Lower priorities rarely factor into strategic considerations. They are fungible.

Where Does Business Development Rank For You?

Back to where this conversation began. I have both benefited from and seen coaching change the game for professionals seeking to improve business development and sales skills.

I’ve seen immeasurable value derived from a team of marketing and business development professionals. Given appropriate support, tools and resources such a team can facilitate and lead initiatives that consistently deliver double-digit revenue growth.

But with one or two exceptions where simply being in the right place at the right time masks a multitude of deficiencies, I have not seen an individual or a firm achieve consistent measurable business development success — never mind really making it rain — apart from raising business development and sales to levels of the highest priority

Our series on Building a Business Development Plan grows out of decades of experience, and is offered because we’ve seen the strategy work. (We’ll pick up where we left off with our next post.) But anyone who grudgingly turns to business development once a month in hopes of filling a pipeline, is going to be sorely disappointed, no matter how seasoned advice.

Anyone still looking for the silver bullet that minimizes the need for your time, attention, and energy while delivering  revenue growth is engaged in a quest without end.

But for a few, the tools, tactical direction and creative energy brought to the challenge by experienced marketing, business development and sales professionals provides unique leverage — delivering the kind of return only realized when priorities and investments are intentionally aligned.