COVID-19 has not only interrupted the business environment and deadlines, but also the approach most firms have successfully utilized to gain new business. Throughout all the changes we have all experienced, leadership’s role in the business development process has also changed. Below are some insights we have gathered from partners of firms across the U.S.
Q: What role(s) should leadership play in business development?
A: “MENTORSHIP! Bring less experienced, less comfortable colleagues into meetings, calls, and video conferences. They can learn from the various leaders and develop a style by “stealing” from their mentors. Also, if business develops from the interaction, assign them to the client!” –David Perry, Partner, Friedman + Huey
A: “Leadership needs to encourage and give people in the firm who will be the best coaches the responsibility and authority to push a business development environment. It takes a dedicated effort to move a firm in the right direction for appropriate business development.” –Alan Long, Managing Member, Baldwin CPAs
A: “Leaders need to make it a priority that everyone gets involved in business development, from the first-year associate learning what an elevator speech is to the partners bringing in the actual clients. We, as leaders, need to make it less scary and more accessible. They do not teach a lot about business development in college, but it is the number one way to progress faster through the ranks and make more money. Providing training, giving opportunities to staff to go on sales calls or help with proposals, and taking someone to lunch with a referral source are all important things that we can do to promote a business development culture. It is also important to remember that not everyone is comfortable with the process. Firms must decide how to best teach their CPAs the skills needed to be comfortable with the process.” –Jennifer A. Barliant, CPA, CGMA, Managing Partner, MichaelSilver
Q: What advice would you give to leaders of firms struggling with shifting the culture of business development from being siloed to a few key rainmakers to being ingrained across the entire firm?
A: “In my experience, too many firms/leaders set minimum sales targets across the board. There will often be a few strong sales-oriented partners (the rainmakers) who exceed the sales targets and receive larger bonuses, while most miss the target and bonus and simply live with it. It is important for leaders to incentivize the right behavior, not the results. This enables younger partners and team members to focus on building a lasting network and lasting relationships instead of just looking for quick sales to boost numbers. Encouraging training, mentoring, and giving credit for meetings and opportunities (not just closing deals) are critical elements of success.” –Fran Brown, Managing Partner, CapinCrouse
A: “In firms with more experienced partners where inertia has become the norm and a shift is necessary, do not forget to start with the youngest colleagues. It is just as imperative for a seasoned partner to bring in business as it is to nurture younger colleagues so they ‘grow up’ thinking about business development as a natural part of their culture.” –David Perry, Partner, Friedman + Huey
A: “Take the mindset that business development is a process and is not a ‘flip-a-switch’ situation. There is no instant solution to switching to a business development mindset within your firm and getting everyone to adopt it. It is a process of change for the upper leadership, especially the more experienced leaders who may have to be a bit more patient as teachers. It has to be a strategic focus with the appropriate tactics to implement. Business development must be as important as serving clients and providing technical training for your team. Training is key to help shift perspectives and enable all team members to be more business development focused.” –Pete McCleskey, Tax Partner, KHA Accountants
Q: Whose responsibility is business development?
A: “To some degree, business development is everyone’s job. You do need to have champions, and those need to be the best at this endeavor. Not everyone is going to be a good business developer, just like not everyone is good at tax or audit. Play to the strengths of the individuals in the firm. That being said, everyone should have some training on how to recognize an opportunity for business development and what to do when they see the opportunity. In larger firms, you will find folks whose entire job is business development and who assemble the teams as needed when they have a lead and opportunity. Even in smaller firms, you need people that can quarterback the team to get the win.” –Alan Long, Managing Member, Baldwin CPAs
Q: How has business development changed within accounting firms? How will business development change in the future?
A: “When I started in public accounting over 40 years ago, business development was never discussed at the staff level. Typically, 90% of the business came in from the senior partners and through client referrals. It just seemed to appear. There was no BD training, and no one talked about COIs, although clearly they were out there. Bankers and lawyers were always a big source of business. Approximately 10-15 years ago, as the business environment changed, new clients were no longer dropping onto our laps. Firms realized that in order to grow, we needed contributions from many more people in the firm. We began hiring marketing directors who were involved in more than just drumming up leads. We started encouraging younger staff to get involved by getting out and meeting people. Now, more formal marketing and business development training has become a part of our regular CPE offerings. Today, it is still the partners bringing in most of the business, but it is almost all of the partners contributing, and business is being brought in by staff at all levels.” –Larry Isaacson, CPA, Managing Partner, MichaelSilver
Q: What do you wish you had learned earlier in your career about business development (approach, process, skills)?
A: “Early in my career, it was all about what you, an individual, could do. I wish I had learned the concept of the team pursuit rather than individual pursuit. I also wish I had learned the concept of deep qualification of opportunities rather than reacting only to questions or requests from the potential client. Learning about the potential client and elevating the conversation to an advisor rather than just a provider of services is an art in and of itself.” –Myron Fisher, Member, Baldwin CPAs
A: “I wish I had started even earlier! I always heard it was important, but nobody ever pushed me to get involved. I would encourage younger staff to not be afraid to ask. Ask to go to prospect meetings, to be part of marketing initiatives, or to represent the firm at an event. Take the initiative upon yourself to hone your skills and learn from those who are experienced at business development. I was fortunate to have great mentors who were excellent business developers. I latched on to those guys, and they took me under their wing. I learned a lot about different styles of business development and leadership from them – more than I could have ever learned in a class. Now, as a leader, I must remember there are many different ways to approach business development, but one thing that is imperative is modeling it for others.” –Jacob Nethery, Lead Assurance Partner, KHA Accountants
Q: What do you do as a leader to foster an environment of business development within your firm?
A: “I give younger partners and managers opportunities to write articles and present webinars. I also take them to board meetings and ask them to make portions of the presentation. I feed them leads and suggest how they may break the ice with a new prospect. This instills confidence, helps them create their own style, and teaches valuable lessons.” –Dan Campbell, Partner, Higher Education Services Director, CapinCrouse
A: “I strive to involve multiple individuals in opportunity pursuits by encouraging the use of each of our strengths and teaching how the importance of those strengths can enhance the overall pursuit. I encourage and promote team pursuits of opportunities, not individual pursuits. When we work as a team and value all contributions, we are more successful in our pursuits and as a firm. Promoting teamwork carries over into stronger client service as well.” –Myron Fisher, Member, Baldwin CPAs
There is no doubt that leadership sets the tone for business development efforts in firms across the country. It is no longer a topic relegated to a few rainmakers. Business development is something that successful firms discuss openly, involve staff at all levels, and integrate into their culture.
About Christine Hollinden
Christine M. Hollinden, CPSM, founder and principal of Hollinden | marketers + strategists, is passionate about helping professional services firms distinguish themselves from the pack. Her forward-thinking approach has earned her industry recognition as evidenced by the firm’s nationwide client base. Her competitive spirit has helped hundreds of firms build brands, create niche practices, and expand their practices. In her spare time, you will find Christine playing golf, cooking a gourmet dinner for friends, or leading the Houston Chapter of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the oldest wine and food society in the world.