What It Takes To Build A Professional Service Practice

How do you build a professional service practice? Where do you begin? How much time do you invest? What constitutes progress?

In a previous post on the similarities between business development and planting a tree, we recounted the story of French Marshal Lyautey, who instructed his gardener to plant a tree that would take 100 years to mature. The story underscores the fact that growing something strong takes time, and requires equal parts capability and vision.

The practical challenge is that between the planting and any tangible signs of growth, it can be difficult to measure progress.

When it comes to business development progress the challenge is compounded in a professional services environment where often the issue is addressed when short term results are expected. Add the fact that a sporadic approach makes it tough to be confident in strategy and methodology, and firms are left to wonder whether the work will actually pay off.

Unable to discern signs of growth, the temptation is to survey new options. Where is there more fertile ground? What can be done to accelerate measurable return? 

By contrast, a mature and successful strategy is based on a realistic understanding of time, and has been in play long enough to incorporate a healthy blend of investments in the future, and past efforts that have grown strong relationships.

A Formula For Successful Planting

Build around quick fixes and you may be able to skate for a time. If you’re lucky (and some are), you’ll invest in the right area often enough to stay flat, or enjoy modest growth. But look around; firms that have embraced the this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it strategy are struggling with the realities of disruption and change.

On the other hand, if the goal is to design a strategy that delivers marked organic growth from the investments you make in business development, consider these three principles for effective sowing and reaping.

1. Plant wisely. Strong relationships don’t grow on trees. Throw seeds everywhere, and you’re wasting time and resources. Here are three ways to evaluate whether the ground is fertile. Look for areas of:

  • High consequence change
  • Personal affinity
  • Deep expertise (personal or organizational)

2. Nurture carefully. Want weeds (wasted resources and unproductive opportunities) consistently invading your marketing and biz dev efforts? Pay attention to them only when its convenient…or urgent. Sporadic attention to business development will not deliver appropriate return, much less grow anything that will endure. Quality relationships (and this is what business development is about) grow in the context of conversation, collaboration, and valued contributions. Invest here…and invest long enough, and questions about ROI will disappear. On the other hand, neglect or avoid the work of relationship building, and you will perpetually search for business development answers.

3. Pay attention to the season. Success follows a strategic look at the calendar. While planting takes time, effective biz dev isn’t about waiting 100 years for the tree to grow. Each effort is unique; but if you’re planting today and counting on seeing significant results in less than somewhere between 12 and 24 months, you’re not building around a realistic timetable. This doesn’t mean you won’t see results based on work done earlier; often a focus on quality nurturing activates some “planting” that has already taken place.

Target smart, focus on building relationships, and do this over time in order to maximize your investments. And while a successful approach takes nowhere near 100 years, look for easy solutions, quick fixes or silver bullets to any part of this formula, and be prepared to start over — again and again.

Thoughts On Solving The Networking Puzzle

If you wrestle with business development — where to focus, how to start, what to do next, how to make it seem natural — if you struggle with the whole idea , chances are one of the causes for the struggle is an anemic or nonexistent professional network.

If this describes you and you’re among those who follow this space (thank you!) you may be tired of hearing this diagnosis. Maybe almost as tired as you are of reading about how central target identification is to business development success.

Admittedly, this conversation would be much more attractive were there a formula that factors some data, revolves around your expertise, incorporates brand equity, and results in business thanks to your experience and reputation

But strategic business development doesn’t work that way.

Note that I didn’t say you’ll never close a deal working that kind of formula. It happens. But any time you are tempted to believe that’s what has occurred can likely be linked to the relationship equity you or someone close to you built over time. Or just pure luck. And rainmakers enjoy a measure of all of the above, to be sure.

But the strategic development of a rewarding network— ore that will build a practice, and endure — begins with the identification of a target market, and a plan that creates a professional network that connects you to that market.

The reason for the difficulty is not that you were not born a rainmaker. There’s no secret handshake. You don’t have to be naturally gifted at working a room or making small talk.

You do have to consistently, and with some rhyme and reason, invest in building and nurturing a viable network.

It has not always been this way. In the good-old-days you could hang a shingle, do quality work, take care of the needs of your client, and experience a growth in both reputation and practice. But for most professional service providers, today’s marketplace relies on networking to connect and differentiate competitors.

This is not about attending every event that comes along. It is about establishing connections — with centers of influence, referral sources, and the seats of decision.

Building a professional network is about investing in strategic relationships that introduce, inform, educate and connect.

It is not about partying, hob-knobbing or wining-and-dining. Nor is it about schmoozing your way onto a preferred provider list.

The art of networking is what it takes to establish and nurture a productive link to your market; appropriate attention to a network is what creates a pipeline of future engagements. A vibrant network minimizes those painful lulls that occur when you have no idea where the next piece of work will come from.

More often than not, a vibrant network is responsible for what otherwise appears to be a knack for being in the right place at the right time.

A killer network markets for you even when you believe you’re too busy to think about marketing.

This is not to suggest it is easy. It requires tenacity, and doesn’t happen over night. But work on your network, and anyone can develop a robust book of business.

The Hard Part

Building a community — that’s the way to think about your network — is a proactive exercise. And for many, the most difficult part is resisting distraction, and focusing time and energy in the right place. This isn’t about creating a cloud of dust with activities.

Events, speaking, writing and social media can all be tools. And they can be unproductive distractions that drive one to despise the idea of networking.

The key is to focus on actions aligned with strategic targets.

Which brings us back to that sticky issue of target identification. Who is in a position to connect you to the work that will build your practice? The closer you come to actually naming these individuals, the closer you are to being able to build a strong network.

If You’re Just Getting Started

Finally, if you’re just now beginning your practice development, here’s some of the best advice you’ll ever receive. It comes via a colleague and long time consultant to law firms — Ann Lee Gibson — and was shared during a Legal Marketers discussion on Facebook.

Maintaining the relationships you already have is key to lifelong networking. {The} biggest, best thing {you} can do is come up with an actual plan to stay in touch with friends who have gone on to work for companies that {you / your firm} may work for one day. It means scheduling on a calendar…”

If you struggle with business development, and — for whatever reason — can only get one thing accomplished in that area this week, make it strategic work on a network. You’ll reap the rewards as long as you practice.

Typesetters, Kodachrome and Taxi Cabs: Perspectives On Changing Direction

Long ago, before digital became the state of the art, the print industry hadn’t seen significant change for decades. Actually it wasn’t all that long ago in the scheme of things. Less than twenty-five years.

Then someone figured out ones and zeroes. And norms for an entire industry began to shift.

Seemingly overnight, what had once been the purview of trained typesetters, and skilled printers was suddenly open to alternatives that streamlined the process and had impact on the bottom-line. Upstarts with nothing more than a desktop computer and laser printer began nibbling away at market share.

Everything Looks Worse in Black & White

The invasion wasn’t limited to print. Digital solutions were changing every facet of advertising, marketing and the related production.

Even film was losing ground. (If you’re of a certain age, you recognize the above line from a Paul Simon song, and you remember Kodachrome and Ektachrom.) I had friends at Kodak who went from scoffing at the idea that anything could replace film, to arguing that when and where there was demand for the highest quality, film would always be the choice — the quality could never be matched.

Alternatives and Opportunities

Scarcely ten years ago taxis owned what is now defined as the ride-share market. In cities worldwide hundreds of cabs would line up at airports, hotels, convention centers and popular social spots just waiting for the next patron to call for transportation service.

With the vehicles, personnel and infrastructure essential to the service area, few saw the approaching tidal wave.

And then there was UBER — presenting a software solution to a transportation opportunity.

The change that served to disrupt publishing, imaging and ride sharing is not unusual. It is normal. While disconcerting to some, professional service providers and those possessing solutions to today’s business challenges should take heart; anyone able to navigate the changing landscape is poised to become a trusted voice.

What are the keys to occupying this coveted space? Here are three for your consideration.

1. Build Communication and Development Strategies On A Listening Platform

There are at least two big reasons change is unsettling: it is often a corridor to the unknown; and it tests existing processes and values. Intentional Listening changes everything. It accelerates learning, nurtures legitimate insight, and results in improved perspective.

2. Cultivate An Opportunistic Perspective

Perspective born of intentional listening is uniquely positioned to understand market place realities. While keenly aware of problems, pitfalls and risks, change management — not to mention, leadership — derives from a perspective that discerns opportunity.

3. Focus On Solutions

In the midst of high-consequence change the market covets solutions — to the fear of unknowns, the pitfalls, and the risks — to the new realities that precipitate sleepless nights. Focus here (versus preoccupation with historic models, offerings and capabilities), and the market will pay attention.

Listen, cultivate opportunistic perspective, and deliver viable solutions; follow this roadmap, and you’ll likely avoid the fate of the typesetter, Kodachrome and your friendly taxi driver — even in the midst of the volatile new normal.

They Don’t Pass Out Awards For Listening

From the sublime (Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural for example) to the ridiculous (see the latest viral video of parent taunting child or furry cat being a furry cat) — we celebrate the art of messaging.

In a few weeks we’ll actually perk up during commercial breaks of the Super Bowl to spot this year’s benchmark for advertising’s capacity to entertain.

We reward performances that move us — from theater to big screen. We’ll stand in line and then stand and applaud those whose art transcends the moment.

But no one hands out an award for listening. We barely notice the act.

Yet, listening is where it all begins. Without the attention of an audience, the commercial, YouTube video, even the most eloquent orator are no more effective when it comes to prompting a response than the tree that falls in a desolate forest.

If communication is the objective, the best messaging we can muster is of no consequence unless the right audience decides to listen.

(While we’re on the topic it should be noted that simply creating awareness isn’t the same as prompting action; but that is for another post.)

Extraordinary communication begins with intentional and practiced listening. The act of listening before attempting to create or deliver a message is at the heart of what makes it extraordinary.

Perhaps there is a handful of gifted communicators for whom the art of listening is organic — the product of empathy. And, to be sure, there are moments that are so universally experienced that the slightest reference establishes common ground.

But for most of us most of the time the creaction of a message that generates a desired response requires intent that is manifest in at least three things:

  • A clear understanding of specifically who a given message is intended to motivate;
  • Measurable empathy with respect to experiences of the target audience;
  • An awareness of the inevitable “noise” that will distract or compete for the attention of the audiences, and a plan to deal with it.

If you distribute a message and hope to connect with everyone, be prepared to be disappointed. Discount the value of identifying shared experiences at the risk of completely missing your mark. Underestimate the noise of the marketplace and gain first hand understanding of the fate of countless better mousetraps.

Intentional listening is proactive. It may well require more creativity than award winning messaging. And here are just a few platforms through which the art can be accomplished:

  • Market research
  • Focus groups
  • Client feedback initiatives
  • Collaborative events

No matter the platform, effective communication does not begin with a focus on the message. Those who consistently hit the mark, and inspire a target audience to take action begin with attention keenly fixed on the target market.

And though plaques and statues aren’t passed out, the reward for intentional listening is communication that consistently inspires consequential action.

Working On Resolutions? Begin With A Clean Slate

There is still time to give a gift that can change everything in the coming days, weeks and throughout the new year.

The gift? A fresh start. A new beginning.

Give it to everyone with whom you interact — family, colleagues, team members, clients and customers. Extend it even to those from whom you expect to receive little or nothing in return.

And give it to yourself.

Forget the past — successes and failures, hits and misses, promises broken and opportunities missed. The preconceived notions and expectations that come with past experience inevitably inhibit our ability to take full advantage of a clean slate.

A fresh start cones with clearer vision. A new beginning fosters the capacity to dream.

This is, at least in part, why we celebrate the turn of the calendar and the promise of a new year.

The best beginnings come with renewed emotional energy and uncluttered perspective. There is no quicker way to adjust the course of relationship or enterprise.

Want the benefits of a clean slate to last longer than your average resolution? Try this:

  • Forget about making a case for or justifying decisions, actions and plans of the past.
  • Begin with your most noble aspirations.
  • Define success by the degree to which actions align with these aspirations.

Resolved to make the new year more productive on every front? Work with these basics and the slate will stay relatively uncluttered.

What would you add to this list?

How To Build A Marketing Strategy That Will Deliver

Ask a dozen professionals to define marketing and you might receive a dozen different responses. From retailer to B-to-B enterprise, from service provider to widget producer, from Fortune-listed to start-up — we tend to define marketing based on what we’re selling, and who we need to motivate.

But all of us, unique perspectives notwithstanding, count on our marketing investments to change our business reality — in terms of awareness, behavior, and loyalty.

Marketing, at its best, is a dynamic agent of change.

It may be about transforming a target into a client, expanding a customer’s use of a product/service line, creating initial awareness, or deepening demotion to a brand.

If marketing is not making a difference it is not doing its job.

At The Heart Of It All

Many things can instigate the process of difference-making. Timing, an event, an emotion, even peer pressure or an affiliation are some biggies. But the life-blood of enduring change — in marketing terms, the thing that makes measurable difference, what turns targets into clients and clients into raving fans — is an appropriate dose of relationship.

An incentive, a compelling message, even marketing slight-of-hand can precipitate one-off decisions. But when it comes to making a difference that lasts — the kind of change that lies at the heart of valued experiences and return engagements (cliners for life) — an effective plan builds around market feedback and the dialogue attendant to shared experiences…even collaboration.

Invest in the creation and nurture of honest-to-goodness relationships, and questions about return on investments in marketing tend to move away from how do we get by with less to how do we do more.

So when you wonder about what your marketing strategy should look like — when you set out to determine whether a particular tactic or a “new opportunity” are aligned with a defined approach — remember what gives rise to enduring change in a market is the instigation of an awareness that differentiates, the creation of valued experiences, and the facilitation of on-going dialogue.

The catch? It takes time. Relationships are rarely built by the end of next quarter. But this is the DNA of a marketing strategy that will deliver on its promise…and change everything.

The Illusion of a Business Development or Marketing Silver Bullet

No one should be surprised. It is, after all, human nature. On the other hand, it is a distraction, a resource drain and a mistake we insist on making over and over.

“It” is our seemingly relentless search for a business development Silver Bullet.

From the siren call of a social platform to the promises that the newest technology tool is the answer; from quick fixes to motivate practicioners to freshly edited insights that will flip a magic switch, the (embarrassingly secret) hope that there is something — anything — that will instantly make it rain is one of the great impediments to game-changing business development and marketing success.

Most of us must confess — the pull is so powerful that strategic focus is replaced by fits and starts with every new “opportunity” — real, or imagined.

(Yes, even the real opportunities can dramatically impede progress when a strategic plan is interrupted. The fact that a departure from the charted course might result in measured success only reinforces a behavior; when characterized as an asset — flexible, opportunistic – even (mistakenly) entrepreneurial — we may simply have given in to the shiny silver bullet. It is a heck of a lot easier than committing to a strategy.)

Sure…in the absence of a real game plan, being athletic enough to turn on a dime may well be the best option. But don’t mistake it for a Strategy (with a capital S).

And when we wonder at the advances made by competitors, or are mystified by an inability to leverage investments in business development, consider these two simple tenets:

  • Focus wins.
  • A measure of real strategy is whether it facilitates focus, empowering an organization to say “No” to the endless stream of “opportunities.”

Absent unlimited resources, few organizations are really flexible enough to react to every great opportunity that comes along. Before we alter strategy in order to take advantage of something too good to pass up, consider the implication; while we might call it opportunistic, we may have a business development strategy (with a very small “s”) that is little more than waiting (and hoping) for the next opportunity.

A successful business development strategy speaks (in a definitive but not necessarily sexy way) to three questions:

  • Who is the target, and why? — which implies you have taken stock of market realities and your organization’s capabilities;
  • What “business drivers” are top of mind, impacting critical decisions, and how do you connect to these drivers?;
  • What must we do to connect with the decision maker (that is, how complete is our decision-maker relationship map)?

Silver bullets are rare. Those that address this three-point strategy…rarer still.

Why Listening Should Be Your #1 Business Development Action Item

All listening is not the same.

Consider the differences in the way you listen to talk radio as you sit in traffic; to the argument of an adversary; and, for the slightest whimper from the new born down the hall.

The soundtrack of a day is complex. Most of us are adept at juggling multiple channels vying for our attention. We learn what to listen for, what resonates, how to zero-in on key words, phrases or even subtle intonation. And when to tune out.

But as we become skilled at this brand of reactive listening we are (inadvertently) contributing to the demise of something that is central to effective communication. As it turns out, it’s one of the ingredients we need most if we hope to build relationships that lead to long-term business development.

Intentional, Proactive Listening

Perhaps it is a byproduct of attempting to pack as much into an hour — even a brief conversation — as possible. Whatever the cause, we rarely think of listening as the centerpiece of business communication, marketing, client development or sales.

Rather, it is tempting to view opportunities to connect as demands for messaging —  of the new idea, the latest services and capabilities, or our most recent award. And this is where we invest virtually all the time and resources earmarked for business development.

Listening is seldom the priority when presented with a chance to present a message.

It is so easy to become so focused on delivering our message that in those (usually all-too-brief) moments when a client or prospect is questioning or commenting — providing insight into what is most important to her — we can’t do much better than half listen. Primary attention is being given to the content of our next message — our response.

The unfortunate fact is that the ability to multitask and master-mix the noise of our marketplace notwithstanding, listening is often the most productive tool at our fingertips. The poetry and/or profundity of a message has little impact when disconnected from the concerns and drivers of the target.

If you’re wondering how to differentiate your business development efforts, the question is — how much more effective might our attempts at communication be if our intent was first to listen?

This is why client interview and feedback programs are so valuable.

This is why there is measurable value in having conversations apart from the context of a project, presentation or specific matter.

Intentional listening highlights the voice of those with whom we want to connect. And by voice, I mean the cares, aspirations and concerns of your target audience. It is the key to the most basic principle of effective communication — that connection takes place in the context of shared experience and understanding.

Put another way — intentional listening will identify, outline and define the language of the closest you will ever come to a can’t-miss-message.

Translation: the shortest distance between where we are today and a relationship that results in business development that will change your practice is less about the construction of a long list of capabilities, and more about one or two questions that instigate dialogue. Less about what we know, and more about what we can learn if we’ll listen first.

Game-changing business development — not to mention, the road to becoming a trusted advisor — is much less about beginning with a compelling message, and much more about intentional listening.

This Is Why It Feels Good To Give Thanks

Thankfulness is a decision — one that, when made, changes everyone touched by the decision.

It is borne of a perspective that transcends experience, and resists seeing life through a lens.

Thankfulness has no agenda. It is comfortable in any room…at ease in any position or station…predisposed to give, with no expectation.

Thankfully, it is not confined to a day. Or a season. It cannot be measured, and it does not keep score.

It is a gift. And to give thanks is a choice.

A thankful perspective is inclined to reject views rooted in fear.

Thankfulness makes our hearts bigger. It opens our eyes wider and fine-tunes the way everything is seen.

It inspires the highest order of creativity and innovation.

People driven by a thankful spirit are inconspicuous. They speak softly; yet, what they say resonates. They change every room they enter.

We are all a little better when we are consciously thankful. This is why our world is a happier place when we pause for a moment, hour or day of thanksgiving.