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Why Partners Don’t Develop New Business and What to Do About It

Your accounting firm’s partners aren’t developing new business — and it’s starting to impact overall firm growth and income. Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

It’s a common and complex problem throughout the industry, made all the more challenging because there is often no single, simple solution. Usually, multiple factors contribute to this worrying status quo, and you’ll have to address and identify them all to get business moving in the right direction again.

Fortunately, there are effective ways to tackle the problem. Below, we’ve collected some of the most typical reasons that partners’ business development efforts stall…and the solution for each.

1) There is no shared expectation that you need to develop new business.

This can be a cultural issue. In many firms, individual partners are left to own discretion about how much new business they should go after. Unfortunately, this kind of environment often encourages people to retire in place.

How can you fight against this tendency? Make the expectation that partners continually pursue new business as specific, public, and visible as possible. 

2) There is no incentive to develop new business.

The motivation should be obvious, right? Not always. Certain compensation structures can actually undermine people’s motivation: structures based on an individual’s longevity with the firm, for example, or an equal division of partner income. Sometimes there’s almost a disincentive, if your compensation system is weighted too heavily on how much you bill yourself, rather than new business you bring in.

The solution here is to rethink your compensation structure for partners. This can be a big undertaking, but it may be necessary for getting your firm on solid footing.

3) Business development isnt consistent with an individuals personality.

This can happen when a partner’s background is primarily that of a technician — they may not have much training or personal interest in business development.

Here, you can either change the individual’s role or create new ways of doing business development that don’t involve traditional networking. For example, a more technically-oriented partner might contribute to business development by creating educational content. Perhaps they are natural writers — or perhaps they can work with a writer to capture their thoughts. They might be good at coming up with concepts for online content, teaching clients and staff, or speaking at industry events. These more straightforwardly educational roles may be more consistent with who they are. And by building their profile as a Visible Expert, they can contribute to your business development efforts in unexpected ways: our research has found that high visibility experts actually increase both a firm’s leads and its ability to close sales.

4) The partner just doesnt know how to develop new business.

In this case, a partner may have enough motivation and incentive to pursue new business — they just don’t have the skillset. Perhaps they’ve never been trained, so they don’t know how to plan or lack important presentation skills.

The solution for this is relatively straightforward: coaching and skills development. This may mean learning from more experienced partners or looking to external consultants.

5) They dont have the tools or support they need.

Sometimes, a partner may have the basic skills but lack the tools that allow them to engage in business development — the support they need to really be successful.

Solving this problem is simply a matter of developing the right tools and getting the necessary support. This might mean developing a pitch deck that gives an up-to-date overview of the firm, or making sure your firm has the ability to conduct background research on potential prospects that allows the partner to talk knowledgably.

6) Fear of failure.

Some partners may have the motivation, the skillset, and the right tools — but they’re terrified of failure. In their heads, it’s better not to try than to fail. This is a tricky challenge to navigate, requiring real emotional sensitivity.

One way to approach the issue is through firm-wide individual support and training, getting everyone involved and building a culture where you embrace experimentation. Make it clear to everyone that success in every role depends on learning and iterating together. If you can subtly destigmatize the idea of failure, reinforcing that it is a necessary component of success, then you’ll make it easier for everyone to try bold things.

7) Im too busy!

You’re probably familiar with this old saw. You might think it’s another way of saying, “I’m insufficiently motivated,” but it goes deeper than that. In fact, this is the most common thing you’ll hear from partners. This is something anyone can say, and it’s usually a mask for the real reasons. Often enough, that real, hidden reason is one or more of the six above.

The solution? Look closely, and identify what’s really going on. Once you get past the excused, you can get to work setting your firm on the right track.

For guidance on how to develop new business and growth your firm, check out Spiraling Up.

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Author: Lee Frederiksen, Ph.D. Who wears the boots in our office? That would be Lee, our managing partner, who suits up in a pair of cowboy boots every day and drives strategy and research for our clients. With a Ph.D. in behavioral psychology, Lee is a former researcher and tenured professor at Virginia Tech, where he became a national authority on organizational behavior management and marketing. He left academia to start up and run three high-growth companies, including an $80 million runaway success story.

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