Smarter business development?

16 08 2010

One of my former commercial colleagues from corporate life was telling me the other day about an analysis they did of their business development spend. A huge proportion of their annual budget went into the team that responded to RFPs (requests for proposals) and yet their win rate for these opportunities was actually very low. The big deals came from existing clients, or through a network of trusted contacts and third parties that would allow the company to get visibility of the opportunity way before it went out to tender. Often, if the company could then show they could help the prospective client and had a strong value proposition for doing so, the buyer would see no need to go out to the market. If a tender was required, the company had often helped write the RFP or at the very least shaped the client’s thinking so the company was well positioned to win.

The chances of winning the work didn't look good

This then made me think about how much time lawyers spend being corralled into business development activity that is sub-optimal in terms of cost/benefit. In my experience, this plagues all stages of a lawyer’s career. From the trainee or newly qualified lawyer, forced to help compile a newsletter that goes out to a huge database of clients and prospects, but that very few people ever read (and let alone instruct the firm directly as a result)  to the specialist senior associate wheeled out in a pitch meeting to show expertise in an area that is really only on the periphery of the client’s needs, through to the partner spending  hours frantically pulling together a pitch document for a tender the firm has little realistic chance of winning. Surely there must be a better way?

What are the activities that really drive results when it comes to business development? Sadly law firms often lack the management information that help them make informed decisions in this area, and it may be necessary for individuals lawyers to think about this at an individual level.

While I don’t think there is a one-size fits all model, there are certainly lessons I can share from my own career, both as a buyer or seller of legal services. Written communications can have benefit depending on not just who they reach and how interesting they are to the audience, but what type of communication they are and how they are followed up. For example, while at a national firm I spent many hours writing a series of white papers on information security law topics. Making these freely available for download on the firm’s website would have limited value in my opinion, but working with our strategic partners to make hard copy versions a valuable “take away” from joint events, and using requests for electronic copies as a way of starting a sales dialogue to uncover prospect needs seemed to work well. Seminars were always great for increasing visibility in the markets, positioning my practice and making contacts, but it wasn’t until one of my business development mentors showed me how to take the contacts and add them to a sales pipeline that I really began to see tangible results from the activity.

Speaking as both buyer and seller, I’ve had some of my best business development results through investments in relationships. Whether it was strategic partnerships, solid account management, or the development of a personal relationship with a prospective client or intermediary, all have delivered in the end.  My personal learning from these situations is that the results have usually spun out of a genuine desire to learn about, and help, the other party in the relationship. It might sound idealistic or too altruistic, but it has certainly been true for me. By contrast many of the time-vacuums I mentioned early (newsletter editing, being dragged into pitches) often lack that personal connection and the ability to really understand the potential client’s needs.

Look at your diary over the next month: what are your business development commitments? Will that be time well spent? What are the items that are not in your diary but that are likely to appear at the last minute? What’s missing from your diary? Which key client or influencer should you be re-connecting with? Give them a call, and get some good karma by helping them solve a problem….








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