Technical professionals chose college majors that are highly analytical and shied away from more customer-facing fields such as business or marketing oftentimes because they never wanted to sell anything. In life, being perverse, these professionals are then confronted with their greatest fear as they approach their peak earning years. They are told by firm leaders that they must sell to advance to the ranks of Partner. The thought of selling gives many seasoned professionals significant angst. This angst is a result of their association with sales being opportunistic, pushy and deceptive. Reframing this association with selling to be more synonymous with helping is the first step towards building acceptance of the tasks required to be effective at business development. The earlier in a professionals development that you can reframe a negative sales perception, the sooner the professional will begin exhibiting effective business development behaviors. In the next two blog posts we will share some ways to do this but also wanted to solicit our readers to share their experiences with this too.
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Rain making requires building a referral network by maintaining contact with people over the years. That’s how most rainmakers sell accounting, actuarial, architectural, engineering, legal, consulting and other professional services. Much of this work is done by phone, because phone calls cost less in time and money than do face-to-face meetings and because they allow conversation to flow to productive subjects in a way that email doesn’t.
But, something there is that does not love a call . . . namely me. Left to my inclinations, I would use the phone only in emergencies and for ordering pizza. I am, in fact, an expert at avoiding making phone calls.
Here are some things you can do to avoid even the most essential calls:
- Tell yourself that the probability of anything good coming out of the call rounds to zero and give up immediately. The statement of probability is true, which is why the tactic works so well. Of course, if you make enough calls to enough people, the cumulative probability of something good happening gets quite high, but let’s not think about that.
- Take a quick look at your email in-box before calling. This highly recommended tactic almost always works, because you immediately surrender control of your day to responding to urgent, if not always important, matters. By the time you are done, you must move on to something else and can put off calling until tomorrow, when you can repeat the process.
- Tell yourself that your calls will be unwelcome and you will become a pest. Years of personal experience and experience with hundreds of professionals show me that this statement is untrue, as long as you handle yourself properly, focusing on the other person’s needs rather than pushing a sale. Still, imaging myself being rejected for being pesky feeds my personal insecurities so effectively that it stops all effort cold.
- Treat calling as if it is something you must squeeze in on top of everything else you must do. That way it is the first thing that gets squeezed out. For this to work you must never acknowledge that calling is equally or even more important to the firm and to yourself than the other things you are responsible for.
- Repeat to yourself over and over that bringing in business isn’t really your responsibility or, at least, shouldn’t be. Of course, this can be career limiting, but a dedicated call avoider won’t let that stop him.
There are other trivial techniques for avoiding the phone—sharpening a pencil, going to the bathroom, getting coffee; I have tried them all—but the five I have listed are the best for busy professionals. Just recognize that when time comes around for promotions (or layoffs, for that matter) and your business development contribution is reviewed, these excuses won’t help you.
Wouldn’t it be nice if I could work on only the most interesting assignments in my profession!
Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do the work at a fat profit!
Wouldn’t it be nice if these assignments were delivered to me without my having to exert any effort!
Wouldn’t it be nice if they were delivered in a steady flow without any work overloads or gaps!
Wouldn’t it be nice if they were given to me in preference to my firm’s most prestigious competitors!
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone in the firm delivered them to me without expecting anything from me other than high quality execution!
Wouldn’t it be nice if I could spend my career that way, steadily advancing in both rank and compensation!
Wouldn’t it be nice if people recognized that delivering the work is what I am good at and didn’t expect me to learn how to sell, which I don’t like and am not good at!
Wouldn’t it be nice if . . .
. . . but I can’t and they aren’t and they don’t and . . . so I work hard at developing business and help win interesting work for myself and others in the firm and, over time, I have learned to like what I must do and take great pride in it.
(This post is another in our series of Rainmaking Problems. We invote your comments on this problem and would also welcome any problems you would like to submit to get comments from other readers.)
In my last post, I noted that curing bad habits is easier if you know what to do, rather than just what not to do. Instead of saying I, say we. Increase your eye contact and you will say uhm less often.
Over the years, the people in our firm have developed lots of prescriptions to deal with common bad sales habits. But I haven’t found satisfactory solutions to others. For example, what would you advise people to do to:
1> Stop talking so fast? I have never found a satisfactory cure to this common malady.
2> Stop selling after a client has agreed to a point? We all know do this, but failure rates remain high. What advice will reduce them?
Are there bad sales habits that you would like other readers’ advice on curing?
Senior professionals often tell their juniors to stop doing things that detract from meetings with prospective clients.
Don’t say I.
Don’t stand with your hands clasped in front of you (sometimes called the fig-leaf position).
Don’t interrupt the client.
Don’t talk so much.
Don’t say uhm so much.
Don’t sound so academic.
Try not to sound so presumptuous.
Don’t talk so fast.
The pressure on younger professionals goes up as such instructions get repeated overtime with, at the least, the implication that lack of improvement could limit their careers.
These instructions are often hard to follow. It is relatively easy to stop saying I by replacing it with we, but many of the other examples are hard to comply with. A person who sounds academic doesn’t do so intentionally. From long personal experience, I know how hard it is to stop talking fast.
They are hard to comply with, because they don’t tell you what you are supposed to do. And your ability to modify your behavior depends more on what you do than what you don’t do. So, when given instructions like these, try to translate them into something you can do, instead.
That’s why it’s easy to stop saying I so much; the we-alternative is obvious. The alternatives to some of the others are relatively easy to identify. So, for example, instead of holding your hands in the fig-leaf position, you can fill one of them with a prop (a pad of paper, your glasses, or even a pen) or place one on the back of a chair. Though harder, you can practice letting your hands hang naturally at your side, between gestures.
The person who sounds academic can try reformulating what she has to say, as if she were explaining it to a twelve-year-old. The person who sounds presumptuous can broaden client-specific advice (you should, you need to) with observations from firm experience (we have seen that many companies faced with your situation have found it helpful to . . .). For some alternatives to talking too much, see the post, He Talks Too Much.
Sometimes, the do instead of the don’t isn’t easily deduced. Sally Goodman taught me that for most people increasing eye contact reduces uhms. Otherwise, I never would have known.
But if you can translate don’t do that into do this, your chances of changing your behavior go up.
In a previous post I described professionals who wanted to hire business developers instead of doing the hard work of getting business, themselves. These people don’t think like partners, because they want to abrogate the single most critical responsibility of an owner in hard times, making sure there is a flow of work to maintain the staff and pay the rent. *
Contrast these people to Cleo. A year or two away from being put up for partner, she already thinks like an owner. She established herself as a high potential employee when the economy was hot by doing excellent work in large quantities and mentoring junior professionals. She also built a small, but productive network that feeds her new business. A staff member at one name corporation goes out of her way to find Cleo opportunities at the company.
Last fall, as the cold hand of recession gripped her firm, Cleo asked to have much of her client work reassigned to others who were under-utilized, so that she could devote more time to finding new business. She has found it tougher going than she had expected and hasn’t generated as much revenue as she had hoped. Even so, she has increased her already substantial respect among some key partners. She thinks like one of them.
* Note: Business developers can be hugely valuable to a firm. Here I refer to a partner’s recommendation to hire one as a way to avoid revenue responsibility, himself.
Several years ago some friends formed a firm and asked for advice on generating business. “Should we hire a full-time business developer?” one asked. “No,” I answered. “We’re all busy with our clients. It’s hard to make time for anything else. In that case, doesn’t it make sense to hire a dedicated business developer?” he responded. “No,” I said.
We talked about other things for a while, like the urgency to generate revenue. As I was about to leave, one friend said again, “Hiring a business developer seems to make a lot of sense.” “So, go ahead and hire one,” I responded somewhat curtly. Taken aback, my friends asked me why I thought it was a bad idea. “Because you own this problem,” I said. “Generating revenue will determine whether you and your firm succeed or fail, and none of you wants to own the problem. But, like it or not, you own it. You can’t off load it onto someone else.” Had even one of the three been an aggressive business getter, my advice might have been different. A business developer might complement their efforts, but never replace them.
I was reminded of this exchange yesterday, when a practice head at a mid-sized firm faced with declining revenue suggested hiring a business developer. I will call him James. James has probably worked for the firm for fifteen years and knows hundreds of former clients. Others in the firm say that many of these clients worship him. Adjusting for the obvious hyperbole, I have no doubt this is true. He is brilliant and kind and extends himself for his clients, should they make the smallest request. He knows his business cold. Yet, once these people become former clients, he never calls them, nor lifts a finger to get more business. A business developer might actually pick up the receiver and dial, but how empty the calls would be compared the ones James could have.
When business falls off in a downturn, you can count on someone suggesting hiring a professional business developer. And, sometimes it makes sense to do so. More often it is simply a professional’s attempt to avoid responsibility for sales. People who do that aren’t thinking like partners.
(My next post will address when it might be a good idea to hire a business developer.)
Many professional service firms have up-or-out policies, meaning that any professional who is passed over for promotion twice is asked to leave the firm. The firms exercise this policy most strictly on promotions to partner, where the stakes are the highest for the young professional. By that time she has invested heavily in the firm in unpaid overtime, lost time with family and friends, and a more general loss of balance in her life. If she gets promoted, she reaps the status and financial rewards of partnership. If not, she’s out of a job.
Though a few professionals might make partner purely on the basis of their technical competence, the overwhelming majority must demonstrate commercial success to get the nod. In short, they must show that they can bring in work to get and keep the title of partner. The financial logic of the firms dictates this requirement.
Other firms state explicitly that they do not have an up-or-out policy. At these firms a professional may opt to stay at a less-than-partner level for a career, if they are willing to forgo the benefits of partnership. In a boom economy, this lack of up-or-out mentality allows a firm to keep talent sorely need to get the work out the door.
But when the economy turns, there isn’t enough work to go around. The company must then decide whom to let go. The professional who will never make partner and who, due to longevity, is near the top of her pay grade, may not be the first to be laid off. Come the second round of cutbacks, she is a ripe target. In other words, firms that do not have an up-or-out policy exhibit up-or-out behavior when times get tough.
This is just a long way of saying that anyone seeking a career at a professional services firm should take statements that her potential employer isn’t an up-or-out firm with a large grain of salt. Management means it when they say it. They simply find it impossible to hold to it in the face of financial stress.
If you want control over your own destiny, stay in touch with your former clients, build your network and bring in business. If you can do that, you will have a do well at your current firm and have more to offer another fimr, if you choose to move on.
At the stage in a career when professionals are expected to start developing business, they usually have anywhere from three to eight years of experience and, in many ways, are the backbones of their firms.
Partners toss them client work as it comes in, knowing that they will catch it and get it done right. They help with the recruitment and training of junior professionals and with an array of administrative duties.
Some of these tasks can be alluring. A senior partner at a firm informed me that one promising young professional we are coaching was spending a lot of time on the firm’s knowledge management effort. “In the short run, he’ll get a lot of thanks for all he’s doing in that area, but it won’t count for much when he comes up for partner,” the man cautioned. “To make partner he will have to have demonstrated that he can bring in business.”
But what is a young professional to do when the head of his practice asks him to work on knowledge management or some other worthy effort? Promising young professionals have advanced quickly in their firms by saying yes when asked to do things. It goes against their instincts to say no.
I believe that at this point in their careers professionals need to say no, selectively. Doing so is a step in their progression from working for partners to being one. If you have to develop business like a partner to become one, then, logically, you have to behave like a partner in your dedication to business development, and successful partners don’t let administrative duties stand in the way of their rainmaking. Nor can you.
Here is the real question as I see it: When partners don’t yet see you as a peer and still treat you like an associate, how can you get them to allow you the freedom you will need to develop more work for the firm? Note that this is a how question, not a should-I question.
The one thing that will make a “no” to a partner’s request for your time acceptable is a prior commitment to something more important for the firm. Few things are more important than developing an account or market. A positive effort to do one of these things will often trump the partner’s request. But only if the following conditions apply:
- You have a clear idea of what you are trying to do and it makes sense to someone senior in the firm.
- You have a plan. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but it must show a sensible approach to the effort and make it clear that execution will require time.
- You demonstrate that you really will do something by taking initial actions, preferably ones that require you to be out in the market. If, for example, you have delivered a speech and visited two clients to talk about a subject, your claim to need time for rainmaking will be far more credible than if you have done nothing.
- On the basis of the plan and your actions you get at least an informal approval from someone senior to devote time to the effort. This person becomes what a Chicagoan calls your “clout.”
In short, make it clear that you are really doing something positive and important for the firm and you may find that you earn the right to say “no.”
In an earlier post, I described how to write a professional bio. In this one I will describe how it can be used as a career planner.
The New Year is here, always a good time to do a little planning. Go to your computer and bring up your professional bio. Print two copies and update one of them. How do the two compare? Have you made progress in building your credentials and reputation this year?
Next, on the back of the updated bio, list what you want it to say at the beginning of 2010 that it doesn’t say now.
- Added one new chemical company client
- Published one article
- Gave two speeches
Put the two copies of your bio in a file and, from time to time during the year, take it out and look at your list of things you want it to say you have completed at the end of the year to see what progress you have made.
Repeat this process every January. A well written bio summarizes your accomplishments in your profession. Use it to make sure those accomplishments are growing, and so, increasing your stature in your field.