We may have been through a lot over the past few years, but, really, the first 24 months post-COVID were surprisingly good times for many professional services firms.

In many ways, that period was a bit too good: there was so much demand that winning new work didn’t take too much effort. It didn’t seem that there was much need for strategic thinking or rigorous BD planning. A bigger problem often seemed to be figuring out how on earth we would get all the work done.

Now, however, the tide has turned. Clients are cutting budgets and tightening their belts. In many instances, the work has dried up.

Forget long-term planning. Many of us have become consumed by the here and now. Suddenly, the most important thing seems to be knowing where the next brief will come from.

Naturally, this will cause anxiety and consternation – especially if we’re part of a partnership structure. It’s likely to get us a bit worked up and make us question our business and ourselves. It could even cause a few sleepless nights.

But if you can relate to what I’m saying, I want you to sit back, take a deep breath and relax. Remember: we’ve been through worse before.

No matter how hard things seem right now, the tide will turn. You can get through it. Promise.

NO NEW WORRY UNDER THE SUN?

Those of us who lived and worked through the 1990s recession remember just how brutal things can be. So I figured I’d consult the guru of 1990s professional services business development, David Maister.

His book, Managing Professional Services Firms, was published in 1993 – exactly 30 years ago. But it seems just as relevant today as it was back then. 

Maister details all of the top worries that professionals seem to be facing in this pre-internet, recessionary environment. See if these sound familiar:

  1. Worrying about being dictated to by new bosses or global heads as practices merge, change or get acquired.

  2. Worrying about the profitability of practices or offices or firms and the fees you can charge to clients beginning to feel the recessionary bite. (He noted that this would drive some firms to trial new tech while others would wait to see as new service-buying policies come into play.)

  3. Worrying about the efficient use of resources and juggling the competing expectations of home and work.

  4. Worrying about living up to client expectations, especially in light of the fees being charged.

  5. Worrying about over-specialising in a service or market and being cut off from new growth opportunities.

  6. Worrying about how our careers compare to colleagues or other firms or alternatives.

You get the drift here. These are all probably the main worries I hear about today. But there are things you can do to allay your fears and anxieties. And they don’t have to be too painful. You won’t need to sell a kidney or worse – gulp – go out and sell…

FIGURE OUT WHERE YOUR WORK COMES FROM

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about an HBR study that found the key to successful and resilient professional services businesses was often that they didn’t focus on winning work but on creating high-value exchanges. In other words, the rainmaker was dead; we needed to stop trying to sell and instead shift our focus from pipeline to platform.

(BTW – the two links above were my two most popular articles ever.)

As part of this mindset shift, though, you really need to sit down and really analyse where you get your work from. If you haven’t done that already, this is the time to do it. Go through the past three years’ work and try to figure out exactly how it originated. In particular, look at those that are low maintenance and offer high value from both ends.

This will let you cultivate those referral relationships and channels that yield the most fruit.

INVEST IN THOSE RELATIONSHIPS , NOT TRANSACTIONS

You’re not the only one in the anxiety boat, so reach out to all of those high-quality but low-maintenance connections you’ve identified above.

Share your concerns, as well as your ideas and information, with these people. Ask them what they’re seeing and doing and whether there’s anyone you can put them in touch with. Tell them what your plans are without any expectations.

You may be surprised by what comes with just letting people know what you’re doing and where you want to be – especially as these are the people who’ve helped you in the past.

CATCH UP WITH WAVERING CLIENTS

Don’t focus only on these people. If you’re worried about particular clients leaving, be proactive. Meet with them to sound them out and potentially steady the ship.

Ask them what they’re doing and what their worries are, too. Use a framework for asking questions so that your conversations are purposeful and useful. 

For this, I like the ‘Step-up/Step-down’ approach. This involves finding out their perspective or what’s worrying them and then either ‘stepping up’ the conversation to the bigger picture of their environment or stepping down the conversation to focus on a particular instance important to them.

WALK WHILE YOU TALK

Fitting networking and BD into a busy professional schedule becomes even harder when you’re also focused on ensuring you just meet your bottom line. So, why not use your breaks to double-task? Combine your exercise with BD by meeting your clients or colleagues during lunch and walking together while you chew the fat.

SWITCH OFF TO THE INDUSTRY NEWS

Social media has been a terrible thing for making us envy others’ lives. But I think the industry media is even worse when it comes to envying other firms and practices. All we see is other people’s successes: the clients they’ve won, the promotions made and the projects others have been awarded (sometimes at our expense). If you want to be happy, switch off to this for a while. Focus on your clients’ news instead.

TRY SOMETHING NEW

Sometimes, in hard times, a new efficiency emerges, or a new work stream presents itself. Could this be the time it happens for you? For instance, AI is taking the world by storm right now. Could you use it in your practice? What new products or services could it spawn?

This is the time to be inventive and innovative and to try something new.

LOSE SOME CLIENTS

Just because times are tight, it doesn’t mean you have to punish yourself by doing bad work. Don’t be afraid to lose some clients, even in conditions like these. Maybe it’s time to take a back seat or ‘strategically underperform’ in an area or with a client relationship. Maybe it’s time to pass a client you don’t enjoy working for to someone else. By getting rid of clients who aren’t a good fit with your practice, you could give yourself the mental space you need to take on the world right now.

LEARN FROM AN OLD PRO

Some of the older members of your team are likely to have gone through far worse than this – perhaps several times. Why not use their experience to your advantage in today’s environment? Ask them what strategies worked in the 1990s (remember, your worries aren’t new). Find out how they got through and how it shaped them.

You could also talk to a scout.  Some firms have this as a formal role (especially the venture capital types). Others have people who intuitively scan the horizon for opportunities.

GO FOR THE LOW-HANGING FRUIT

Finally, some BD activities can yield big wins with little effort. Here, I’ve detailed two BD activities you can do in 20 minutes; here are another three that will take just 30 minutes.

WANT MORE?

It’s not just you who’ll be anxious right now, your clients will be too. You can read some tips for handling worried clients right here.

And, if you’d really like to know how to get through these anxious times, book a BD45 session. As one partner said, “It was nice to know I’m on the right track and get some ideas for the next step”.

BOOK A PRIVATE BD45 MEETING WITH SUE-ELLA


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RELATED READING & REFERENCES

Maister D (1993) Managing The Professional Services Firm Simon & Schuster, UK

Pink D (2013) To Sell Is Human, Riverhead Books

Clapper T (2015) Co-operative Based Learning and The Zone of Proximal Development

Wotapka D (2018) Tips For Handling Anxious Clients Journal of Accountancy

Sue-Ella’s Articles

The Key To Successful Practice? Stop Focusing On Winning Work

How Good Are Your Networks?

You Have Only 120 Hours a Year for BD. Here’s What You Should Focus On.

Why BD Works Best When You’re In Your Comfort Zone

Don’t Sack Your Senior Professionals Just Yet

 Sue-Ella is the Principal of Prodonovich Advisory, a business dedicated to helping professional services practices sharpen their business development practices.

She works with professional services firms that focus on positive client relationships, and with individuals who want personal, intelligent support.

©Prodonovich Advisory. This article was written by a human. Please respect our copyright and the effort taken to produce the original material in this article. This article, and any portion of it, may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author.