In the vast majority of boutique consultancies, the seller/doer model isn't just a business strategy but a necessity. Founders or partners often find themselves in the dual role of "seller," focused on client acquisition and relationship management, and "doer," delivering the service offerings. This makes your business development skills not just beneficial, but essential to drive growth - your ability to convert opportunities into new projects directly impacts your top and bottom lines.
One big challenge, of course, is that time is a finite resource. I wrote about balancing delivery and growth here, a few weeks ago. Being thoughtful about how you allocate it is a must, but so is improving specific skills. It's not just about doing more BD; it's about doing it better, with the limited time you have.
With that said, your business development skills might or might not be a limiting factor to your consultancy’s growth. To be fair, for most consultancies I speak to, it is not.
Most solo and micro consultancies often underinvest in marketing, which translates into insufficient lead flow. There are simply not enough leads and opportunities in the pipeline. When that happens, investing in business development training means allocating resources poorly. There are other initiatives that move the needle cheaper and faster.
But assume you have a healthy and effective marketing engine, with an abundance of leads and opportunities flowing in. Let’s also assume you have well-structured and priced offerings, with a decent average revenue per project. In this case, your conversion rate of opportunities into new projects will likely become the bottleneck of your top-line growth. And improving your business development skills is one of the most effective ways to impact this KPI.
The exercise of calculating ROI from BD skills development programs is straightforward and illustrates well why it matters. When done right, they will increase the number of projects and partnerships won. And the opportunity costs also include reputational risks, especially when you target a small niche and most opportunities come from conversations with the same people and organizations.
We are currently working on a handbook about business development skills, where you’ll be able to dive deeper into the topic. For now, let’s quickly go through three key ideas you might want to be aware of.
First, the illusion of activity. The illusion of activity is a pitfall that many consultancy founders fall into, especially when they're wearing the seller/doer hat. It's easy to mistake being busy for being productive. You might find yourself spending hours tweaking your LinkedIn profile, attending networking events, or sending out cold emails, thinking you're making strides in business development. While these activities may seem like they're contributing to your goals, they often amount to "busy work" that doesn't directly impact your bottom line.
This leads us to the second idea, the skill awareness gap. There's a common misconception that business development is all about networking and salesmanship. While these are important, they're just the tip of the iceberg. Skills like client relationship management, value proposition crafting, and even financial modeling are equally crucial but frequently ignored. To bridge this gap, it's invaluable to use a framework or assessment specifically designed to identify the full range of essential BD skills. You can significantly improve your effectiveness by upskilling the right skills.
Finally, another common challenge in skill development programs is a psychological one: the overconfidence or underconfidence of partners. On one end of the spectrum, the Dunning-Kruger effect can tempt you to make marketing promises you don’t know how to deliver. You pay the price of overconfidence later, with poor service delivery and a tarnished reputation. On the other end, imposter syndrome often makes highly competent consultants underestimate their capabilities and shy away from opportunities that could have been game-changers for their practices. Both biases lead to poor decision-making and missed opportunities. External assessments and mentorship are also helpful here to give you an objective perspective of your skills and where you can improve.
Business development skills are not a luxury or an afterthought. They will, sooner or later, directly affect your consultancy's growth and profitability. Depending on your situation, taking the time to assess, refine, and develop these skills can be the most important initiative to unblock growth.
“With two disciplines to master, one must take priority. So which should come first - your core expertise or business development?
People naturally assume that their expertise - the thing they’re actually paid to do - should always take precedence. But from what I’ve seen while training thousands of seller-experts, putting business development first leads to more success. This happens for a simple reason: if you focus on your core expertise first, you might never improve at business development. But if you treat business development as your number-one priority, you will naturally improve at your craft along the way. (...) You’ll be talking to more prospects than ever, speaking at professional conferences, developing collateral materials, having lunch with strategic partners, and so on. As a result, you’ll have your finger on the pulse of the industry and a direct line to the most pressing concerns of clients.”
Source: The Snowball System, Mo Bunnell
Selling is as important as delivery in attaining client loyalty.
Professional service buyers who were a 5 out of 5 “very satisfied” with the buying process were 50.8% “loyals” and 49.2% “switchers”. Buyers who were 4 out of 5 “somewhat satisfied” with the buying process were 25.2% loyals and 74.8% switchers. And those who were “neither satisfied nor dissatisfied” - or worse - with the buying process were 20.4% loyals and 79.6% switchers.
Your business development skills and processes matter more than you think.
Look at your numbers: What’s your pipeline bottleneck?
Investing in business development or sales training will yield the best results when you already have a consistent and effective marketing engine in place.
First, you pick your targets by narrowing and documenting your positioning. Then, you generate interest and demand through lead generation and/or client marketing campaigns. Finally, you screen those leads and vet real, qualified opportunities.
Your BD skills will play a role in converting those opportunities into projects. If you don’t have enough opportunities yet, (1) The ROI of any training will be low, or will take too long to manifest, and (2) your measuring is likely off, due to your low denominator.
You have limited time and resources. Better invest them wisely.