Business development for professional firms

Professionals will generate new business through sales – just not all of them

Oliver Connolly
Guest Columnist
New business is the lifeblood of any company. As one company president said to me recently, “You’re either growing or you’re stagnating. There’s no middle ground!”

Most professional firms recognize the need to bring in new clients. Very few do anything about it consistently. Certainly they don’t seek out new business with the same focus as traditional sales organizations. For the purposes of this article, I’d define a traditional sales organization as a company with a full time sales staff and a sales manager – their only function to deliver the sales and profits that the company needs.

That is not the case with professional firms. When’s the last time you saw an ad for a CPA that said, “prior success in sales,” or a want-ad for an attorney or architect or engineer that said, “must be comfortable cold calling for new clients”? The average professional did not spend years studying, becoming qualified in their field and passing all the required exams so that they could become salespeople. Instead, they pray that new clients will just walk through the door, plunk down a big fat retainer check and ask for help. They’ll get calls from the yellow pages, from the article they wrote for the Business Journal, existing clients will give them tons of referrals and soon they’ll have to hire more associates to handle all the new business. Yeah – and pigs will fly.

So what does a professional firm really have to do to attract a steady stream of desirable new clients? To their credit, firms have long recognized the need to focus more of their time and resources on business development. Many professionals have taken sporadic shots at advertising, they attend all sorts of networking functions, they join Rotary for the wrong reasons, they plaster their faces on the side of C-Tran buses and they invest in trade newsletters and client mailings. Some of it works, some of it does not. Professionals tend to make the same mistakes seeking new business that traditional firms make. They try a collection of half-baked approaches – they hope that by throwing enough mud on the wall, some of it will stick, and then they sit back and hope for results.

How does a progressive professional firm increase clients, revenue and profits?

Use the people you have.

But begin by recognizing that not everyone will sell. The minority will sell and actually enjoy the process. Others, regardless of what kind of direction or pressure put on them, simply will not sell. Sending them to a networking function in the hopes that they’ll pick up a new client or two is counterproductive. They’re not comfortable with the process and eventually will find a company where they don’t have to do it.

The first step is to evaluate all the professionals in the firm and determine who will generate business and who won’t. This lets you know who will not bring in new business. These people will continue to play very important roles in the firm. For want of a better word, they’re your technicians. They’ll use their specialized knowledge and expertise to do the audits, prepare the business plans, design the development, manage the projects, do the consulting or prepare the briefs. In short, they’ll do the job that your clients hired you to do. Once you realize that they will not be successful at business development, you can allow them to concentrate on the job they joined the firm to do in the first place.

Secondly, when you evaluate your people, you’ll not only identify those who will become your rainmakers, but you’ll also have an in-depth understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, vis-à-vis business development. At this stage you’ll be way ahead of most traditional sales organizations that are still struggling to get salespeople to perform who simply won’t sell.

The bottom line – loosely quoting from Jim Collins in his book Good to Great: If you want to make a good company great, you must put the right people on the bus, take the wrong people off the bus and put the right people in the right seats. Then you can drive the bus anywhere. Don’t waste your valuable professionals’ time hoping that they’ll perform sales tasks that they won’t. Do invest time and training on the ones who will bring in new business.

Oliver Connolly works with CEOs and owners of small to mid-sized companies who are not satisfied with their sales and profits. He can be reached at 360-835-7555 or His Web site is