Can Doers Sell?

Most of us didn’t become consultants, lawyers, coaches, marketers, or accountants, only to become sales people. We went into the field because we enjoy the work, the problems we get to solve, and the relationships we form with clients.  And yet at most firms, business development is squarely the responsibility of senior level practitioners.  There’s a disconnect which leads to an obvious question: can we really expect doers to sell?

Doers Must Sell

To a certain extent, the question is a red herring. We know that at least some doers can sell because they’re already doing it, and even if they weren’t, clients demand it.

Before you make partner, the work itself usually involves selling in some sense of the word. Lawyers persuade judges, juries, regulators, and arbitrators to accept their view on a matter. Consultants persuade clients to implement their ideas. Publicists persuade reporters and influencers to cover their clients. Communicating, cultivating trust, and persuading are a natural part of most high-end professional knowledge work.

In many fields, professional norms dictate that only licensed practitioners can solicit business.  But even when that’s not the case, client demands often serve the same function. Whenever services are complicated or mission critical, clients want to know that the person they’re working with has done it before, has a point of view on what to do, and is someone they trust to get it done. Understanding the problem itself often requires years of experience that you don’t get if you spent your whole career in business development. As the old adage goes, clients hire lawyers, not law firms.

How can doers sell better?

So if we know that doers have to sell, and we know that doers have shown themselves capable of selling, the real question isn’t whether or not it’s possible.  The question is why it’s so hard, and what can we do to to make it easier.  Based on my experience working inside of or with dozens of professional firms, there are three ways we can help practicing professionals to develop new business.

Teach doers to sell

Once you make partner, your job fundamentally changes. After a full career where work is assigned to you by others, you all of a sudden have to earn it for yourself. But up to this point, nobody has ever taught you how. It’s just assumed that you’ll figure it out. In order to make partner, most professionals have to go through a fundamental career shift, but most firms offer little or no practical support in making that shift.

To help professionals develop business, firms need to invest in teaching them a completely new set of skills. Unfortunately, while there’s a wide variety of sales training available, most of it is targeted towards salespeople. Developing business for professionals is fundamentally different in a variety of ways:

  • Salespeople follow a traditional sales process, but that’s not how buyers of complex professional services like to buy.
  • Salespeople spend all their time selling, but most professionals spend their time servicing clients, and only a small amount generating new business.
  • Salespeople went into sales as a vocation, most professionals see it as a necessary evil.

As such, any sales training needs to be focused on the unique constraints faced by professionals. It should provide a process that fits alongside their client work, start at a more fundamental level, and address the unique challenges they face in transitioning from client service to client development.

Put in place systems that help doers sell

The nature of professional work is such that partners have a wide degree of autonomy, and this often leads to scattered business development efforts. For a new partner, this can feel like you have to develop an entire business development process from scratch. But even when partners are pursuing their own efforts, the firm can support them with a common set of high quality tools, systems, and processes. At very least, firms need to have:

  • A CRM system that’s simple and useful, designed for people managing relationships, not managing compliance
  • A library of high quality tools and templates for everything from introductory e-mails to presentation templates to RFP responses
  • Curated “knowledge objects” – articles, short videos, or other resources – that partners can send to clients and prospects dealing with specific issues in order to nurture the relationships
  • Internal networking opportunities for partners to build relationships with each other, opening up cross-sales and referral opportunities
  • Formal and informal avenues for sharing best practices, celebrating wins, and commiserating over losses

Hire staff to help doers sell

Even though partners must sell, they have finite time and capacity to do so. Instead of expecting them to do everything, firms should have support staff with clearly defined roles and expectations to make sure that partners are able to focus on what they do best.

That means hiring people to:

  • Help partners stay on top of their relationships and gather new ones
  • Coach partners to help them improve their business development skills and mindset and structure scattered activities into a cohesive plan
  • Ghost write content based on the partner’s ideas
  • Manage the RFP and proposal process
  • Shadow partners at events and speaking engagements, gathering leads and following up
  • Respond to inbound leads, nurture them, and assign them to the appropriate practitioners
  • Generate leads through outbound marketing activities
  • Share knowledge across the organization

The more experts in business development can take off of a partner’s plate, the more time partners can spend doing the activities best suited to their talents, including sharing expertise, nurturing relationships in-person, and designing solutions.

Doers can sell if they have the right support

The challenge for professionals isn’t that they can’t sell, it’s that we often put them in a position where they’re required to develop business without supporting them with the skills, processes, and support to help them succeed at it. In most professions, business development is a fact of life. The question is what we can do to as individuals and firms to make it easier.