New business is the lifeblood of any professional services firm. New clients and new work from existing clients drive a firm forward and provide opportunity for both professional and business growth.

But for many firms, bringing in new clients can be a major challenge. They simply don’t have the business development team structure to support steady, consistent growth. Billable professionals, slammed with work, “have no time” to find and develop new prospects. Then the work slows down and panic sets in. There is a mad scramble to get qualified leads and close new engagements, only to have the cycle repeat itself.

There must be a better way.

There is, and it takes the traditional professional services business development model and turns it on its head. To understand why you need a new structure and how it works we need to start with an understanding of business development and how it has changed.

Business Development Defined

Business development (BD) is the process of identifying, nurturing and acquiring new clients and business opportunities to drive growth and profitability. As commonly used in the professional services context, BD includes major elements of traditional marketing and sales functions, such as lead generation, nurturing, opportunity qualification, proposal preparation and closing.

How Business Development Is Evolving

Once upon a time, business development was pretty simple. Do good work, take care of your existing clients and get involved in your local community and the referrals would come your way. For those professionals with outgoing personalities, a round of networking events and perhaps an occasional educational presentation was all it took to be a successful rainmaker.

In this traditional seller-doer configuration the role of business development was quite limited. BD was there to support individual rainmakers. Setting up appointments, managing some events and helping with proposals was all that was expected. The individuals filling these roles often had administrative backgrounds with little or no formal marketing or sales training.

But then something changed.

Slowly at first, but then with increasing speed, professional services buyers changed their behavior. Rather than calling up a colleague to ask a business question, they began to use search engines. Online shopping became easier and easier. We began to develop the expectation that we could find exactly the right product or service to fill our specific needs. In industry after industry, a wave of digital transformation rocked traditional buying patterns and expectations. And professional services were no exception to this trend.

A recent study of professional services buyers showed that over a five year period traditional referrals decreased by 16% and client loyalty declined by 20%, even though client satisfaction remained stable. However, the latest edition of this study indicates that client referrals are back on the rise.  At the same time, the use of online search continued to be the second most popular channel to search for business solutions, just after asking their peers or colleagues for a referral.

What’s going on here? The answer is pretty clear. Buyers are using digital technology to find a “perfect fit” solution—a firm with the right expertise and focus to solve the specific challenge they are facing. Buyers are looking for tailored solutions that provide superior value. It matters less and less whether or not these service providers are local. Even before COVID-19, remote work was becoming more and more normalized.

Now, make no mistake about it—traditional face-to-face interaction has not disappeared, nor is it likely to. Rather, it is becoming one possible path to new business, rather than the only possible path. Based on our study of buyer behavior, we estimate that approximately 70% of buyers’ sales behavior happens in the digital space.

So how is a modern professional services firm to respond to this shift in the behavior of prospective clients? What is the right way to structure your business development team?


Two Models of Business Development Team Structure

While the specifics of how firms structure their business development function can vary, two basic models tend to dominate. The first of these is the traditional model in which a seller-doer drives business development. We call this structure the Rainmaker Model.

The primary alternative is a model in which multiple people collaborate to implement a strategic business development plan. We call this configuration the Team Model.

The Rainmaker Model is focused on individual fee-earners. Their goal is to build long-term relationships and become a trusted advisor to the clients that they bring into the firm. In turn, these personal relationships will produce referrals to build their practice.

In this approach, the role of marketing or business development personnel is to support the activities of the Rainmaker, often at the direction of the Rainmaker. The result is a portfolio of clients who are loyal to the Rainmaker.

When you overlay this traditional model on the emerging patterns of buyer behavior, the limitations become obvious. The range of talents and activities required to succeed at both digital and traditional marketplace is daunting. How can one billable professional find the time or acquire the range of specialized skills necessary to be successful? They probably can’t. And what happens if that person moves to a competitor? Their personal relationships probably leave with them.

And, of course, there is that pesky problem of cross selling the firm’s services. In an alarming number of cases, it simply doesn’t happen. Because each Rainmaker is focused on their own practice, the “siloing” of practices is almost inevitable.

Given these limitations, it is not surprising that an alternative model has emerged.

The Team Model envisions a business development function where the individual fee-earning professional is just one member of a team that includes diverse skill sets and roles. The professional’s primary goal is not to develop individual relationships, but rather to showcase the firm’s full range of expertise to solve clients’ problems—including emerging issues that might affect clients in the future.

Why expertise rather than relationships? The answer is simple. Expertise is the number two deciding factor in the final selection of a firm. While many clients certainly value good relationships, they also value solving their critical business problems. And as we mentioned earlier, it’s very difficult for an individual to successfully deliver as a jack of all trades.

Every team needs a leader, and in this model that role falls to marketing or business development. They assemble and manage the team, planning and coordinating multi-channel activities. Members of the team may come from a marketing or business development background, or they may be fee-earners themselves. Importantly, roles within the team are based on skill sets and interest, not titles.

The focus of the team is on the firm as a whole, not just a single practice. This allows the team to make strategic decisions about priorities and resource allocation and not assume that every practice should be treated identically. What best serves the firm as a whole? How can our client’s benefit from the full range of services we offer? This concept is often referred to as a “one firm” strategy. No matter which practice they work with initially, clients have easy access to any of your services with a minimum of fuss.

One of the biggest benefits of the Team Model is that it builds the value of the entire firm’s brand, not just a single practice. This means that when a professional leaves your firm, the value doesn’t go out the door with them.

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Key Business Development Activities and Roles

The activities required to attract, nurture, qualify and close a new client can vary depending on your industry and marketing strategy. We’ll focus on the most common and widely applicable activities and group them together in a series of roles. In a large, complex organization, you might have multiple individuals in each of these roles. In smaller firms, a single individual may function in multiple roles.

The secret here is to think of these activities as tasks that can be accomplished in a variety of ways. You can hire someone, outsource the activity or train an existing staff member. Also, don’t get hung up on a person’s title. Their skill and interest are more important than their formal role. Be willing to adapt to an evolving business development challenge.

Your business development team structure might look something like this:

  • Researcher—Which markets should you pursue? How should you price your services? What are your true differentiators? What is the most efficient channel to reach your target audience? These are the types of questions that you need to answer to reduce your risk and accelerate new business. Unless you are a major enterprise, this is often an outsourced activity. You may also conduct prospect research on individual firms and people you plan to meet with. Usually, this is an inhouse activity.
  • Strategist—The insights that you gain from research and experience need to be turned into a formal strategy and marketing/business development plan. This plan is what guides your business development team. Be careful—good implementers do not always make good planners, and vice versa. This activity can often benefit from an outside perspective: a resource who is not buffeted by internal politics.
  • Digital Specialist—With the dramatic growth of the digital space, it is hard to imagine how a firm can succeed without specific digital expertise such as search engine optimization, website skills, marketing automation and analytics. Outsourcing some or all of these functions is common, as many of them are not needed on a daily basis.
  • Outreach Specialist—From guest posts to speaking engagements, there is a need to reach out to and secure placements and partnerships. Look for a person with good organization and can be pleasantly persistent. These activities are frequently outsourced as it not usually a full-time need.
  • Implementation Support—This role is similar in some ways to the BD support found in the Rainmaker Model. Sometimes you just need help implementing your plans. That might be setting up appointments or preparing a webinar slide deck. Graphic design skills are also a very common need. These tasks are commonly accomplished with a mix of internal and external resources.
  • Subject Matter Expert—This person has the technical expertise that you want to showcase and promote. While they have the core knowledge, they may not necessarily be good at sharing it or closing the sale. Almost by definition, this has to be an in-house person. However, retaining an outside Visible Expert as part of the team can add credibility and trust.
  • Presenter—This person presents their expertise in a live or recorded format. A polished presenter can elevate the content and inspire confidence. Many subject matter experts (SMEs) have this skill, but many do not.
  • Writer—Not all SMEs are strong writers. Many firms employ or engage outside writing or editorial talent to produce compelling content that conveys expertise.
  • Networker—Networking has not gone away, it’s just expanded to digital channels. So, whether it is social media or a face-to-face networking event, someone has to make the connections and build visibility for your expertise. Some SMEs excel at making these connections, others do not. You may need to look no further than your firm’s junior talent, some of whom may be eager to promote your firm’s expertise online.
  • Proposal Preparation—Proposals play a major role in some professions and a small role in others. In those requiring significant attention, it is essential to have this skill set on your business development team. If large, complex proposals come only infrequently, you may want to hire outside support when you need it.
  • Closer—Closing a sale is a central business development activity, one that that requires skill and talent. Some firms team a talented closer with an SME to benefit from both talent sets. Closers are typically an in-house person.
  • Operational Leadership—Last but certainly not least is the need to make all of your business development activities happen as planned. This requires someone to shepherd people through the process. This person must have a clear understanding of the strategy and the ability to navigate day-to-day organizational challenges. While typically an internal position, this may be outsourced if the bulk of lead generation and nurturing is also outsourced.

A Final Thought

Structuring a successful business development team is a challenge for many firms, especially as buyer behavior continues to evolve. In many cases, this requires a rethinking of the traditional Rainmaker Model. Contemporary business development is becoming more complex and requires a much broader skill set if one is to thrive in today’s digital-driven marketplace. The Team Model gives most firms a much better way of structuring their business development team.

Free Resource

The Business Development Guide

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Elizabeth Harr

How Hinge Can Help

Hinge has developed a comprehensive program, The Visible Firm®, to deliver greater visibility, growth and profits. This customized program will identify the most practical offline and online marketing tools your firm will need to attract new clients and attain new heights of profitability and growth.

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