In the media

What today’s rainmakers do differently

Harvard Business Review

17 October 2023

PA Consulting consumer and manufacturing expert Tom Day is featured in a Harvard Business Review roundup on business development at professional services firms.

The article notes that much research has been conducted to determine what makes top salespeople at B2B companies perform better than their peers. But little has been done on professional services firms, which have a unique go-to-market model in the B2B landscape. At most B2B companies, demand generation, sales, product delivery, customer success, and account management are discrete functions and tasks. But at professional services firms, partners are responsible for doing all of them. While most professional services firms have business-development support teams, the partners are “doer-sellers” and own the entire business-development and service-delivery life cycle. As “rainmakers,” they must build awareness of their expertise in the market to generate demand, identify and close new client business, deliver the work, and then renew and expand the relationship over time.

For partners, becoming an effective business developer has long revolved around a central tenet: If you do good work and develop a strong relationship with your clients, they will come back to you the next time a need arises. But there is a growing problem with this belief—one that is rarely discussed openly. Clients—even long-standing ones for whom firms have delivered unquestioned value—are much less loyal than they once were. A survey we conducted of roughly 100 C-level executives revealed that as recently as five years ago, 76% of buyers preferred to buy again from partners or firms they had used in the past. Today, that figure is down to 53%—and over the next five years, it is expected to drop to 37%. So-called soft-spend categories such as management consulting, legal services, accounting, investment banking, PR, and executive search—once shielded by senior executives from formal procurement scrutiny—are now much more likely to be vetted as carefully as other spend categories. The result is that buyers are no longer defaulting to established relationships with premium-priced providers and now consider a range of alternative service providers, midtier players, and boutique firms. For their part, professional services firms report an increase in RFP-driven purchasing, a slowdown in repeat business from key clients, and pressure on rates, billable hours, and advisory fees. In this environment, the widening gap between high performers’ and core performers’ ability to bring in business is troubling and has increased the urgency to understand what the best rainmakers do differently.

In collaboration with Intapp, a cloud software provider to professional services firms and a sponsor of the research, the authors conducted a global study of nearly 1,800 partners from across 23 firms to identify how they approach business development. The in-depth survey collected data on partners’ business-development preferences, behaviors, time allocation, and use of firm resources. In all, we evaluated more than 108 attributes for their impact on performance.

The analysis revealed five distinct profiles that define how professional services partners approach business development. Overall, the profiles are equally represented across the firms we studied, but their relative performance is anything but equal. We found that four of the five (representing 78% of the partners in our study) are negatively correlated with performance. Only one—the Activator—shows a positive impact on performance and revenue. The Activator approach consists of three key behaviors: committing to business development, connecting with clients and colleagues, and creating value through collaboration.

Connecting with prospects, clients, and colleagues. 

Activators build robust networks of current and prospective clients, subject-matter experts, and others who can provide value. They use their networks to surface new business opportunities, turning contacts into clients. Activators do this not just for themselves but for their colleagues, connecting clients and prospects with other partners and practice areas within their firms.

Activators also build networks across client organizations rather than cultivate relationships only with top senior decision-makers. They operate under the assumption that no client relationship is “safe” and understand that senior executives are less likely than they were in the past to “put their thumb on the scale” for current professional services partners despite long-standing business and personal relationships. So they develop connections with team members across the client organization who, though they may not hold the purse strings, have influence over how decisions are made.

Non-Activators tend to focus narrowly on a small handful of key clients. They spend far less time on platforms like LinkedIn and are less purposeful in their use of firm events. A common behavior (particularly with Confidants and Experts) is to hoard their relationships and avoid introducing clients to colleagues in their firm. Client relationships are a zero-sum game for them: Bringing in a colleague would divert the client’s attention away from them as the sole source of value. Worse, the colleague could destroy the hard-earned relationship by, for example, providing poor service. Only 29% of non-Activators frequently introduce clients to other colleagues in their firms—compared with 73% for Activators, who sell the collective “we” of their firms rather than just the “me” of their personal expertise.

Tom took that approach with his team to create opportunities with a potential client at a consumer-packaged-goods (CPG) firm. Tom’s team realized that its CEO was active on LinkedIn and started responding to his posts. One day, the CEO liked a reply from one of the team members. In a follow-up post, the team invited the CEO to visit PA Consulting’s R&D lab. The CPG company’s head of innovation began following the thread; then she liked another post, and her team reached out to Tom’s to set up a visit to the lab. Thanks in part to those connections, the CPG firm engaged PA Consulting for a seven-figure deal, as well as two other large projects. “It’s about getting to the right people inside a monster of an organization,” he says. Had he pinged the CEO directly without help from his team, the effort would have likely gone unnoticed.

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