Business Development in Professional Businesses
post # 298 — February 1, 2007 — a Client Relations post
Here’s another email question I received. (By the way, I LOVE receiving them — it ensures that I blog about real-world topics of interest to at least ONE person!!):
Things seemed to have shifted since you wrote Managing the Professional Service Firm.
In that book, you described a world where it was the partner who was tasked with developing business. Today, in many professional firms, including the Big-4 accounting firms, it is dedicated Business Development Managers(BDM) who work hand-in-hand with the partners. I am curious to better understand how such a relationship works.
I currently work at a large IT manufacturer which, over the years, developed a services arm. Dedicated business development people (and even departments) are a lot more common in my industry, but over the years, a lot of people who came up through our services area have found their way into this type of positions at the Big 4 (and seem to have succeeded well.)
My current role at the IT firm services group involves developing and maintaining key relationships with six major accounts and setting the strategy or direction in how we work with them. While there are various sales representatives and specialists across the country working with various contacts, it my responsibility to see we all march in one direction and that we are providing solutions to these customers in a uniform or consistent fashion. The interesting, and sometimes challenging, aspect is that none of these folks report to me, but instead to the local company operations.
Are things now similar in Big-4 accounting firms?
In most professions, things have changed significantly since I wrote my 1993 book. Many professions (not just large accounting firms) have made significant transitions in getting organized for marketing, selling and business development, with marketing departments being established with significant roles, responsibilities and budgets. The teaming you describe is now a lot more common than it was in 1993.
However, I must report that it really is firm-specific, and can easily wax and wane. When the Big-4 accounting firms had large consulting practices, they successfully made a big transition to hiring dedicated salespeople who worked, as you say, hand-in-hand with the partners. In addition to people hired for sales activities, there was a sensible investment in marketing support, so that the firm could efficiently keep the partners informed (in real time) on industry trends affecting their clients. This teaming made it easier for partners to research their clients, prepare sensible proposals when needed, keep up to date, and allowed for wise allocation of tasks between specialists.
This teaming could and did work in some firms. However, when the regulatory environment changed (post Enron) and many firms sold off their consulting businesses, their commitment to marketing and sales teaming between the remaining audit and tax professionals and the marketing professionals sometimes was weakened. Some firms cut back their commitment to marketing and the use of marketing professionals.
The situation has also been “muddied” in the current climate. Many large accounting firms in the post-Sarbanes-Oxley environment have more demand for their services than they can handle. Marketing is now less about looking for new clients than it is about ensuring that key major clients are happy. This is EXACTLY the role you say you are now performing in your IT firm: co-ordinating activities for major accounts without having “formal” powers.
By the way, the same should be true in other professions like law firms, although there is still the common mistake that marketing professionals are more often used to hunt for new clients, rather than help in nurturing existing relationships. What you say you do in your current It firm is very sensible and important, but it is less common in some other professions.
You will obviously know that the role you currently play can be either very fulfilling or a nightmare: it depends on whether the firm you join is serious about (a) cross boundary coordination; (b) investing in client relationships and (c) teaming between partners and marketing professionals. As always, culture and seriousness of intent is crucial.
My advice is to tread cautiously. Some firms are serious about all three of these things (cross-boundary coordination, investing in relationships and teaming with marketing professionals.) When they are serious, it’s working very well. However, some other firms are only pretending. And guess who wins when the firm is only pretending? It isn’t the marketing professional.