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Selling Professional Services? It's All About Leverage

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Attracting—and ultimately closing—deals with new clients can take professional service providers anywhere between several months and several years. Since most firms rely on their partners and principals to bring in new work, client acquisition ends up consuming a lot of the organization's most valuable resources.

One sure way to increase profitability, then, is to find ways to reduce the time that these highly paid professionals spend developing new business—so that they can devote more time to generating revenue.

Understanding the Lengthy Sales Cycle

The starting point to leveraging partners' and principals' time is understanding why prospective clients take so long to buy and what activities partners and principals are undertaking to accelerate that process. Then, it's a question of figuring out other ways to accomplish the same objectives.

Several factors contribute to elongating the sales cycle.


First, most prospective clients will only buy from those they know and trust—and winning trust takes time.

Second, most prospects already have satisfactory relationships with other advisers who offer similar services.

While some will give new firms a chance—just to balance their portfolio of advisers—many end up waiting until a major problem develops. Knowing this, savvy service providers leave nothing to chance. Instead, they delve for unmet needs and then seek out opportunities to raise prospective clients' awareness that their current situation is less than ideal—thus ensuring that they are the early birds that get the worms.

Third, once a prospective client decides to consider hiring a new professional service provider, it can take awhile to decide whom to involve in the process and agree on a list of selection criteria. Then, each person involved in the decision-making process at the client organization must gather and evaluate the information that he/she requires to recommend or approve a particular firm.

This problem is compounded at larger organizations, which involve many people in the decision process. Even after the decision maker selects a provider, it takes time to agree on fees and negotiate terms and conditions of the working relationship.

Finding Opportunities to Leverage Partners' and Principals' Time

While moving prospective clients through their buying processes is an essential cost of doing business, opportunities exist to leverage partners' and principals' time as they establish and nurture relationships, participate in prospective clients' decision-making processes, and negotiate and close deals.

It is often helpful for someone else—someone not also responsible for business development—to manage this process. That way, the firm has someone who can focus on ensuring that the firm not just capitalizes on every chance to make an impact but does so efficiently and effectively.

For most professional service organizations, the most time-consuming activities occur in the early stages of the relationship. The objectives of these activities include capturing prospective clients' attention, demonstrating your value as a potential trusted adviser, and laying the foundation for an ongoing relationship. There are many ways to pursue these objectives, and most service providers use more than one method.

You can network with others who are likely to witness problems that you can solve—and help them recognize when to refer their clients to you. You can speak at conferences that these professionals—or the prospective clients themselves—are likely to attend. Or, you can write articles that describe how you've helped other clients address these problems, and so establish your firm as the expert in a particular area.

While all of these methods are effective, some are more costly than others. For example, one-to-one networking generally requires much more partner time than public speaking. On the other hand, publishing in a seminal journal has the potential to reach many more people—and may be much more credible—than public speaking or publishing the same article in your firm's own newsletter. Moreover, while a partner can hire someone to ghostwrite an article, he/she must network—or speak—in person.

Whatever activities you choose, you'll need to do them consistently and frequently. It takes multiple impressions to create an impact—and many more to build trust. If your organization relies on the firm's partners or principals to make these impressions directly, costs add up quickly. Therefore, maximizing profitability depends on leveraging the time of your highest-paid professionals.

A good example of leverage is the way that one of our clients recently went about attracting attention to his organization and its capabilities. The goal was to raise finance executives' awareness of the implications of a new reporting requirement—and position the client as a subject-matter expert. The major challenge we faced is that our client's most promising prospects are notoriously hard to reach.

The client decided to offer a webinar that would help CFOs, controllers, and auditors understand what they needed to do to comply and invited two other professional service providers—with complementary expertise—to participate on a panel. Because we worried that getting our target audience to even open our invitation might be difficult, we decided to communicate with them via a trusted source—rather than going direct.

The decision to promote the webinar through two publications that target the desired audience was a good one. We attracted more than 500 registrants—almost all of whom were the senior executives that we had hoped to reach. In doing so, we certainly leveraged our senior executives' time. They simultaneously reached hundreds of their most promising prospects without even having to leave the office.

But that was just the beginning. By sponsoring a webinar, we positioned our client's organization as an expert in the field. By associating the firm with other "brands"—those of the other speakers and the publications that promoted the event—we not only gained access but also increased credibility. By choosing a venue that didn't require a lot of time or travel, we increased participation. Now, that's leverage!

Once you've successfully differentiated your organization from the competition—and have the prospective client's ear—it's easier to move the process forward without direct contact. To the extent that you can anticipate prospective clients' needs, you can have materials ready that will address their concerns.

Examples of helpful sales collateral include testimonials from satisfied clients, estimates of costs for various services based on prior experience, and articles and other publications that give them a sense of what they can expect to obtain once they start using your services, and explanations of how—and why—your services differ from those of other providers. In addition to saving partner time, the availability of these materials may also help clients reach decisions faster.

Then, the key is to continue to build trust and stay prominently on prospective clients' radar until they are ready to buy. Rather than following up with prospective clients individually, firms can stay "top of mind" by communicating with all prospects on an ongoing basis. The goal of these mass communications is to keep prospective clients aware of your ability to address their problems so they will remember your firm when they are ready to buy.

Achieving the Desired Outcome

If all goes well—and the client decides to use your firm's service—negotiating the terms and the conditions of the deal will invariably require partners' and principals' time. However, the negotiation activities take relatively little time. Moreover, in an ideal world, partners and principals would spend all their non-billable time doing exactly that.

While depending on partners and principals seems the most obvious choice when it comes to developing new relationships with prospective clients, savvy firms try to leverage these individuals' time. Moreover, having someone who understands the lengthy sales cycle from the client's perspective—and allocating appropriate resources to nurture these relationships—is often the key to minimizing costs and maximizing profitability.


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Barbara Bix is managing principal of BB Marketing Plus, where she helps companies enhance their brands by capturing and enhancing the customer experience.

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