Harry Nelson

Towards Better Business Development

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about the best ways to develop business.  For a long time, I’ve felt uniquely blessed by a broad network and industry presence that leads to a steady flow of new clients, referral sources, and projects finding our firm.  Lawyers who join our firm often remark on the volume of calls and emails that come in on a daily basis.

On one level, these are a sign that we’re doing things right:  we have a strong network, active social media, and have built a good reputation with current clients and other attorneys, who typically are the ones from whom the prospective clients calling have heard about us.  This isn’t accidental:  when I moved to California nine years out of school, I was terrified of the prospect of being another anonymous lawyer.  I only knew a handful of people and understood that the only way I was going to thrive was to put myself out there.  At the time, I thought of myself more as a lawyer for university medical centers (the work I had done the most of in Chicago) but I realized that Los Angeles housing prices and private religious school tuition would be out of reach if I took an in-house job that dovetailed with the way I thought of my expertise.  So I got to work broadening my skill set, and, in the process, gradually reinventing myself as someone with broader healthcare expertise outside of the academic medical center context.  I’m currently reading Jay Samit’s book, Disrupt You, and his excellent advice for the process of reinvention hit home when I think back to my early years in Los Angeles; the economic realities of Southern California expenses forced me to “disrupt” myself.

While I take pride in the way that it worked and that we now keep busy from the flow of incoming work that finds us, a few recent incidents have made me think that it’s a double-edged sword.  First, a healthcare consultant who I respect shared a short list of clients he was looking to get in front of.  His list included some big names in the healthcare industry.  He asked me who I was targeting as a new client this year.  I was at a loss. I had no answer, because I hadn’t given any thought to who I would be interested in working with, outside of people who had called or emailed already.  He came back to me a few weeks later, with a new name he was thinking about and adding to his list.  Meanwhile, I still didn’t have the name of a single company I was tracking.

Not long after, I was listening to a presentation in our office by Ahmed Enany, the CEO of the Southern California Biomedical Council. He put up a slide with a list of leading Southern California digital heath companies.  It turned out that, out of the list of 15-20 companies, three were current clients, but I was struck that this was wholly accidental—these companies had reached out to us on the advice of someone else, not vice versa.  In all three cases, these were chance connections.  I had never heard of several of the other digital health companies on Ahmed’s list, and not had even considered  proactively reaching out to any of them.

My strong sense is that our most serious competitors are not nearly so passive.  I found myself wondering how many of the companies on the digital health list might be clients if they had actually heard of us, let alone if we had actually reached out to them.  I also found myself wondering how our growth or client profile might change if we got more proactive and didn’t sit back waiting and hoping that they catch wind of what we’re doing.

This led to our thinking about another missing piece of our puzzle:  doing a better job of reaching out to current clients after projects to get feedback.  At my previous firm in Chicago, Butler Rubin, the lesson I learned was that the best source of work was existing and past clients.  These days, we have so much new work coming at us that we do a mediocre (to use a kind word) job of reaching back out, seeing how we did, what we could have done better, and expressing an interest in new work.  I’ve had more than one conversation where, to my chagrin, a client who liked our work on one project, had no idea that we had the expertise to help with a different project.  I’ve been intrigued for years with adopting a feedback loop, and most ambitiously, a net promoter score system in which our entire team would be motivated to focus on happy clients.  (For anyone interested in understanding net promoter systems, this video explains the concept nicely.)  Guess how far I’ve gotten in actually implementing such a system?  Not very is the right answer.

So these two areas are a focal point of getting better at  business development.  I look forward to sharing some of the lessons we learn.

There’s a larger lesson here:  our strengths (high visibility and a strong network) have given rise to weaknesses (lack of proactive outreach to new, existing, or past clients).  Steady client inflow has let us get lazy, letting the decision about who we work for be guided by who calls us.  I suspect if I canvassed other professionals, there are many people on the other side of a divide who do a better job at the proactive business development, who need to put the work into building their network and visibility to showcase their expertise.  (I learned the idea below of how the three aspects come together to make business development happen from my friend, Jonathan Fitzgarrald.)


I recently spoke to a group of lawyers about this work.  I look forward to sharing those ideas sometime soon for people struggling with this.  In the meantime, we’ve begun to work on putting together the resources to address our challenge of more proactive business development, focused on reaching out to ideal clients and engagement with existing or recent clients.

What are you doing on these fronts?   Do you identify  prospective clients to reach out to or have a system in place to reach out to existing clients? On the broader issue, do you see business strengths also translating to business weaknesses?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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