The traditional, relationship-first business development playbook for professional services firms is on life support. To thrive in today’s competitive environment, firms need to embrace an expertise-first selling approach that puts them in the driver’s seat.
For decades, professional services firms followed the same business development playbook — build personal relationships and business will follow. This model relied on rainmakers leveraging their networks to land new accounts. The operating belief was simple: “People do business with people they like.”
Today, that kind of thinking could be the reason your pipeline has tapered to a slow, inconsistent drip.
Clients’ buying behaviors have rapidly evolved, making leisurely relationship-building incredibly difficult. In the digital-first buying era, your connections are only as strong as your Wifi. And that’s not your only challenge.
Buying committees now span functions, geographies, and levels. Consensus must be built between disparate stakeholders. In this new environment, clients increasingly do business with people they THINK like.
RELATIONSHIP-FIRST SELLING HINDERS A FIRM’S GROWTH
The traditional sales approach — reliant on relationships first — hasn’t evolved with the realities of today’s digital-first landscape. You know your firm has relied on this method of sales for too long if you:
- Let clients take the lead instead of being proactive.
- Wait for an RFP, limiting your role in shaping the opportunity.
- Let the client define the problem and the project, instead of collaborating with them to imagine what’s possible.
If you’re like a lot of firms, this traditional approach starts with a heavy focus on building personal connections — taking clients golfing, going to dinner, serving on a board, or networking at industry events. The aim is to make personal connections now that will lead to business eventually. But this dynamic reinforces an impression that your firm is just one in a sea of interchangeable options, rather than an expert with a unique perspective.
lack of differentiation isn’t the only sales pitfall
Lead generation is the next area where traditional sales models can steer firms off course. Historically, the responsibility to generate business falls almost exclusively on practice leaders and consultants who are expected to bring in leads through conferences and other means of organic networking previously mentioned. There’s a great deal of investment in unpredictable, inconsistent results.
And referrals? They’re treated as a golden ticket, even when they come from sources that don’t fully grasp the firm’s capabilities or fit appropriately, leaving firms with engagements that aren’t the right fit.
Relationship-First Selling Puts Clients in Control
Under this traditional (read: transactional) model, clients drive the buying process from start to finish. They define the scope of projects and issues while firms line up to respond with RFPs. This puts the emphasis on price rather than expertise, as clients weigh options for the lowest bidder to execute on parameters they dictated. It also assumes purchasing decisions happen in a vacuum when, they in reality they involve a wide array of stakeholders.
When potential clients control the journey, it’s much harder for your firm to meaningfully set itself apart. The result is that clients see firms as vendors that are selected based on fees first and expertise second, setting the stage for a transactional relationship instead of a fruitful partnership.
THE NEW MODEL: TAKE CONTROL WITH AN EXPERTISE-FIRST SELLING APPROACH
In a way, the relationship-first sales approach was a bit like improv theater. Business developers and practice leaders were just looking for any way into the room, with the intention of reacting to clients as they set the scene. In a digital-first selling motion, you’re writing the script and putting your firm in the director role.
Begin by intensely focusing on your ideal clients and honing your positioning. Spotlight your firm’s specialized problem-solving skills based on three distinct attributes:
- Who you help. Laser focus on the specific clients and problems that your services can best help.
- Why you are unique. Define the proprietary approaches, methodologies, or innovations that set you apart.
- The value you provide. Quantify and promote the tangible outcomes and impact you deliver for clients.
With this clarity, you’re primed to develop original perspectives that translate into thought leadership content: bylined articles, research reports, speeches, webinars, and more.
EXPERTISE-FIRST SELLING CHANGES YOUR LEAD GENERATION MODEL
In this approach, your lead generation effort is fueled by thought leadership content that engages and educates your ideal clients. Your marketing strategy supports these efforts through audience building via search, social, email, and more. Some leads come inbound, others through targeted outreach with useful, relevant thinking. (We recommend the one-two punch of organic and paid marketing strategies.)
As a result, you’ll find your conversations with prospects begin organically, driven by the way you think and solve problems — not about where you hope to go for lunch. Remember that it’s less about “people doing business with people they like” and more about “people doing business with experts they THINK like.”
Personal relationships may develop over time, but they derive from the initial value you provide.
THE MODERN SALES APPROACH SHAPES THE NEW BUYER’S JOURNEY
With you in the director’s chair, the buying process becomes a true collaboration, not a reactive response to rigid RFPs. You play an advisory role – guiding new clients through the process of framing their problem, identifying potential solutions, and gaining internal alignment from the get-go. With expertise-first selling, buying decisions are ultimately based on the firm’s proven abilities, POV, and ability to deliver maximum value — not just the lowest bid. This consensus is enabled by your readily accessible thought leadership, providing validation and inviting buy-in across all levels of the client organization. Not just with your one or two established connections.
Purchasing friction? Minimized. Collaboration? Active and fluid. The potential for an effective, successful engagement? Maximized.
SHIFT YOUR MINDSET: THE MODERN SELLING APPROACH IN PRACTICE
The modern sales approach represents a seismic shift for many organizations accustomed to legacy models. What does this transformation look like when firms embrace a client-first, expertise-first selling mindset?
While the change may feel daunting, leading firms pave the way by adopting five key principles:
- From order taker to order maker. Rather than waiting for the client’s direction on next steps, you lead the process by advising on the most logical path forward based on your expertise. Lean on your knowledge to proactively set project scope guardrails rather than let the client narrowly define terms. This paves the way for you to bring in outside partners and specialists to fill any capability gaps, if necessary.
- From responding to RFPs to shaping solutions. Instead of chasing volume by responding to RFPs, focus resources on developing and sharing thought leadership that offers clients a better way to solve their problems. Aim to influence the procurement processes upstream rather than keep up with the downstream torrent of proposals.
- From firm-first to client-first. The solutions your firm presents should aim to address the client’s wants and needs first and foremost. This may mean less revenue or margin in the short-term. It may even require walking away when your firm isn’t the best fit. Regardless, guiding a potential new client to the best solution for them is the best way to earn trust over the long-term.
- From one single option to tailored options. Rather than providing a single proposal, offer potential clients multiple solutions that illustrate different combinations of risk and reward. This demonstrates how your IP and expertise can be delivered in various ways to match each client’s preferences.
- From billable hours to value-based pricing. To be a leading firm, abandon an hourly billing model in favor of pricing based on the value you provide. Whenever possible, the price you charge should reflect your ability to unlock results. Not the amount of time it takes you to deliver them.
FORGET THE PAST. THE FUTURE OF SELLING IS VIRTUAL AND VALUE-DRIVEN
The future belongs to those who let their expertise do the selling — and who embrace mixing digital marketing practices with human rapport.
This shift may feel daunting, but ultimately, it’s a gift to the firms who embrace it. When you flip the script to put expertise first, you open the door to sustainable success. You build a repeatable process for new client acquisition. And you position your firm to win in the next generation.