Growing a professional services firm – from the heart

by Jim Durham /

The people leading professional services firms face a unique challenge:  finding ways to get the people who do the work, to be more willing and able to bring in the work.  These practitioners – often referred to as “seller-doers” – typically prefer the doing to the selling.  That is often because they have been on the receiving end of a lifetime of bad selling. That leads them to believe it is undignified to sell.

Ask an accountant, engineer or lawyer what they think of sales and you hear words like “pushy” or “hustler.”  Unskilled sales people tend to push and hustle; for skilled practitioners, it is as natural as being a friend. 

Why should we address this issue in professional service firms?

The availability of information about service providers makes it easy for potential clients to do preliminary vetting on price and expertise. Differentiation must be based on the attitudes and relationships that clients experience in the delivery of the services. Moreover, increasing the sales and business development skills of practitioners across an organization, even if each only achieves modest increases in revenue generation, can collectively have a profound positive impact on the organization – and not just on the revenue line.

The professionals who understand the holistic component of business development, and use a “relational sales” approach with clients and prospects, don’t just make more money; they have a higher client retention rate, experience greater job satisfaction, and get more referrals as a result of having deeper connections with the people they serve.

To get these “seller-doers” to become comfortable with – maybe even enthusiastic about – business development requires some basic “reframing” of what selling is.  Not reframing based on some sleight-of-hand consulting jargon like “to care is to close” or “make the calls and make friends.”  Those might be effective concepts, but just telling your lawyers, accountants, brokers, or consultants to put these quotes on their desks will not change behavior.  The reframing needs to take place in the heart.

Practitioners need to be comfortable with the concept that it is OK to ACTUALLY care about the people they do business with.  Many professionals believe their success flows from how smart they are, rather than how helpful to or invested they are in the people they serve.

Reframing the mind

I guess there is also a need for some reframing in the mind – practitioners must learn and understand that for most of the work done in the professional services world, clients do not hire based principally on price or expertise; those factors set the playing field.  The deciding factor in who gets hired comes down to “with whom do I want to work?” Which brings us back to the heart.

When you start teaching professional service providers how to demonstrate that they care about a client or prospect, and how being authentic will make them more desirable to work with (as opposed to a slick salesperson), you get an “aha” moment.  Why?  Because they realize that they already have all of the skills and tools they need to attract business. Yes, they have been wearing the ruby slippers of human kindness all along; but somewhere along the line they mistook them for combat boots!  Practitioners are thrilled to learn that selling, done right, is intended to make the buyer more successful, not just to make money for the firm.  A practitioner with heart enjoys the fact that investing in relationships benefits the people around them as much as themselves.

Almost every recent law firm study in which law firm managers and marketers were asked to list their biggest challenges, the need for lawyers to have better sales skills is near the top.  In my experience, the legal profession is not alone in this regard.

Leaders of professional service firms need to ask themselves:

  • How would it positively impact the firm if the majority of the practitioners increased revenue generation by even 10% to 20%?
  • In what way would it positively impact the culture and morale of the organization if a substantially greater percentage of the professionals were contributing to revenue growth?
  • Have we invested meaningfully in transformative sales and coaching programs that can lead to measurable results? If not, why not?
  • Have we provided training to everyone in the organization to ensure that each touch point with clients (and prospects) is extraordinary? (Service, too, is part of a sales strategy).
  • As competition increases, how will we fare relative to other firms who unleash more skilled sales practitioners?

If getting more of your practitioners to be more capable of bringing in business (and happier) is not a part of your strategy, then what is?  If not now, when?  If it is time to take your firm to the next level, I would urge you to make it a priority to help the doers be better sellers.