My professional services firm is going broke. What am I doing wrong?

I am an accountant sitting there watching my professional services firm go broke. What are we doing wrong?    

You are not alone and I know many in professional services – lawyers, accountants, engineers, marketing consultants  – who are going through the same pain and are trying to explain to those around them that the market has definitely changed and you cannot sit there aggressively waiting for the phone to ring anymore.

In speaking with one partner from a well-respected law firm, he vented his frustration at the lack of action being taken in his firm by partners and their teams in terms of driving the push to find new business in current and new accounts.  He stated that some teams were just sitting around with no work to do, and no one knows what to do about it.

“It’s so frustrating, they just don’t even know how to pick up a phone and call clients and prospects.  They are just sitting there saying they have no work to do all the while our business is struggling to meet revenue targets.

“While I know some service areas have been hit harder than others, there is still work to be done and if we could only just get talking to customers we would be OK.  All I know to do is to get out and have coffee with as many clients as I can, and even though I haven’t been trained in how to sell well, I am finding business.  Although I would like to know how to do it better for sure.”

Despite the tougher market, there are market opportunities out there.  There is money to be made.  There are clients to be won!  However, many professional services firms are not realising their true potential. 

Relying mainly on passive referrals for new business leads and glossy marketing materials, most professional services firms are not securing their current and future revenue streams.  They have left themselves vulnerable and weak.  In many cases they are not even accessing their existing client databases to see what new business opportunities exist there.

And don’t even talk to them about cross selling and up selling other service lines – many remain trapped in the silo mentality.

Through our work and observations in the professional services sector, it appears many managing partners and principals are wanting more from their partners, directors, managers and associates when it comes to pro-actively building sustainable and profitable business relationships with their clients.  

The problem is many of them do not know where to start or how to do it.  They have tried to make a start by putting on a business development manager, but it’s really the partners and managers themselves that need to be out there selling as part of their job.

Our research shows that no longer is it good enough for these people to rely solely on their technical competence – that is, being only a lawyer or accountant.  Now and in the future, these people also need to effectively self promote and prospect for new business using professional and ethical sales strategies, demonstrating real value for money. 

However, the sales function does not come naturally to most people in these professions, and often they don’t possess the relevant tools necessary to make it work.  They certainly weren’t taught this at university.  In fact many were fed derogatory myths about selling, and many still believe them to be true today.  Which is one of the reasons they are in trouble.

We have found that many professional services staff have not been shown the right way to sell or taught the behaviours and skills necessary to put them in a position to win quality business.  Often the sales function’s importance is undermined, underestimated or left to too few people, usually the most senior partner or “rain maker”, possibly leaving the business vulnerable to missed market opportunities, hidden revenue and competitor erosion.

Many firms lack the foundations to create a viable professional sales culture, for example:

  • Inaccurate or poor perception of what good selling really is and its importance to business.
  • Very poor skills in the sales area.
  • Partners and directors lacking direct accountability for new business and revenue growth.
  • Mixed messages: “I’ve got to find more business but if I don’t do my six billable hours I won’t meet my performance standards.”  Partners are being caught in the billable hour performance trap and not putting in the time to get out and grow business they can then pass on to their teams to deliver.
  • No use of client data bases and a silo mentality limiting up sell and cross sell opportunities.
  • No new business sales strategy or plan.
  • No client retention strategy or plan.
  • No sales model for people to learn, follow and apply.
  • Sales limited to “pull” prospecting strategies such as brochures, website, etc at the expense of pro-active prospecting and real professional relationship sales strategies.
  • No key performance indicators and key result areas linked to sales, new business growth etc.

To name a few.

Given that professional services firms are operating in an increasingly competitive market place with more sophisticated clients, expecting higher levels of service and value, some of their services are at risk of being commoditised:

  • What are firms doing to differentiate themselves? 
  • How are they ensuring their future viability and success?
  • How are they making sure they are sales fit?

The ones who get it right NOW will set themselves up well now and in the future.   Those that don’t will either be reduced to shadows of themselves or be out of business altogether.

So to all you lawyers, accountants, engineers, and consultants out there, if you are not already, it’s time to get sales fit and learn how to sell the right way.

It will be worth it.


Sue Barrett is founder and managing director of BARRETT, a boutique consultancy firm. Sue is an experienced consultant, public speaker, coach and facilitator. Sue and her team are best known for their work in creating high performing people and teams. Key to their success is working with the whole person and integrating emotional intelligence, skill, knowledge, behaviour, process and strategy via effective training and coaching programs. Click here to find out more

Click here for blogs from Sue Barrett.


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