Image: Chris Potter/Flickr Image: Chris Potter/Flickr

I wrote in my last column about how a chance meeting led to my friend being called in to help save the failing division of a large professional services company. The principle problem was a shortfall in new business. There was no plan to win new clients and Robert, the guy in charge, hadn’t the skills and experience to know what to do about it. But my friend, having taken a look at the business, knew exactly what was required. Over a period of 2 years they turned the division from an embarrassing failure to the most successful in the company. Here’s how they did it.

They fixed a meeting with the partners of the division to explain the extent of the problem. They presented the key financial facts clearly and honestly. Everybody could see that unless something was done the business would eventually cease to exist. Robert said it was a shared responsibility as no one person could fix the problem. Each individual would have an important role to play and become accountable for solving the crisis.

They looked at their products, compared them to the competition and concluded many were not fit for purpose. They had to be far more innovative and compelling. They needed to understand what their potential clients required to solve their own problems. In the past they’d offered what they thought people wanted, now they were going to establish what they needed.

As in many companies business development gets pushed to one side in the good times. When revenues are increasing and targets are being achieved why worry too much about the future? Prospecting for new clients is hard and doesn’t come naturally to many people. Particularly in professional services where people are hired for their professional skills not their ability to market themselves and their company. In Robert’s division this was certainly the case. At one time there had been a fairly regular meeting when business development would be discussed but that was about all. No clear actions, more an exchange of who knows who.Attendance dwindled as the meeting was, to a great extent, pointless.

Well now things needed to change. A fortnightly meeting was scheduled and attendance was compulsory. No excuses you had to be there. But unlike previous gatherings this one had a clear purpose. Armed with their improved products, designed by asking current and future clients what they really needed, they focussed in on one or two particular market categories. Robert knew if they tried to do everything at once they would fail. Concentrating on specific areas made the process more manageable. They built a pipeline of prospects and allocated responsibility around the table. Each person had ten companies to contact, fix a meeting and win some business. Every fortnight they would meet and review progress.

Of course this was not without its problems as you would imagine. In spite of it being a “compulsory meeting” some still attended occasionally. Not surprisingly these guys won little new business and were more than happy to leave it to others. It proved tough to meet people from a standing start.

But over time they began to learn what worked. They developed their own individual techniques, built personal networks and grew in confidence. Robert and my friend led the meeting providing advice and support, using examples of what worked. They role played contacting clients to anticipate objections and shared their own experiences to help each other. They quickly realised introductions were a much easier way of getting face to face meetings so concentrated on how they could get to know more people.

At the fortnightly meeting the pipeline grew, priorities were set and accountability ruled the day. It felt uncomfortable turning up without having done what was agreed. So people took responsibility for their actions, shared their successes and asked for advice when they needed it. And guess what? Gradually they started to win some business. Net losses turned to net gains. But there was one more thing my friend advised Robert he had to do.

The discretionary appraisal and reward system had to change. They designed a new performance related model based on how they wanted people to behave. People were rewarded for their results and promoted on merit. Eventually the division built a culture base on proactivity and shared ownership. And the under performers, the ones who choose not to get involved? They mostly left or moved elsewhere in the company.

The division became the company’s most successful. Robert was promoted and my friend who’d helped him moved on to his next assignment.

By David Mansfield, founder of The Drive Partnership and visiting professor at Cass Business School