Creating and Harnessing Momentum in Business Development

When an attorney is focused on business development and is implementing consistently a strategic plan designed to reach clearly identified goals, magic happens.  Often it’s magic that brings in new business, and for practices with longer sales cycles, it’s magic that first brings in connections and opportunities that eventually lead to new business.  The magic that always exists in the presence of consistent activity, though, is momentum.

Momentum is defined by the Macmillan Dictionary as “progress or development that is becoming faster or stronger,” and Merriam Webster adds that momentum is “strength or force gained by motion or by a series of events.”  Momentum is a force that seems to take on a life of its own.  In business development, momentum occurs when opportunities begin to flow from one another, introductions materialize, and all of the work that you’ve done yields a noticeable uptick in rainmaker results.

I’ve identified several steps to create momentum in business development.

  1. Develop a plan that includes activity in several complementary domains.  In other words, when you identify one activity to include in your plan, look for related activities that naturally build on that one.  For example, if you plan to write articles or a blog, look for ways to repurpose that content, perhaps by launching a newsletter (which is a good complement to a blog) or by speaking once or twice a year on themes that you’ve identified through your writing.
  2. As soon as you’ve decided to commit to an activity, put it on your calendar.  Momentum requires action, not just plans.  It’s easy to “decide” to have two lunches a week with good contacts and then to “decide” to start next week.  Or the week after.  Or the week after that… You know, when things slow down enough for you to catch your breath.If a commitment isn’t in your calendar, question whether it’s really a commitment.
  3. Take consistent, concentrated action.  One push may be all it takes to roll a perfect boulder down a perfect hill, but business development doesn’t exist in a perfect world.  Committing to an activity requires committing to consistent engagement.  One lunch isn’t momentum.  Five lunches might start to create momentum.  Twelve lunches in a month may be enough to get some momentum going: not only will you know that you’ll have lunch with strategically selected contacts three times a week, but you’ll be in the habit of mentally sorting your contacts to select the right lunch partners, identifying why you should meet, and planning what you’d like to realize from the lunch.  You’ll also likely get into the groove of offering and asking for assistance.Concentrated action is usually required to create momentum.  Taking action once a month is consistent, but unless the action is massive (such as hosting a seminar and then implementing a follow-up strategy that requires additional action) you’re unlikely to see momentum build.  In today’s world, our attention spans are shorter, and momentum both thrives on and creates attention.  Make business development your top priority for a set amount of time (the length of which will depend on your specific plan and practice) and that concentration may create the right content for momentum to blossom.
  4. Measure your results.  Tracking results quantifies outcomes (even when the only measurement is qualitative, as it often is especially in the beginning stages of business development) and helps to create momentum.  When you see that doing X leads to positive outcome Y, you’re more likely to repeat X.  Measurement also helps to avoid fruitless activity.
  5. Once a quarter, review your activity and results, looking specifically for synergy and complementary opportunities.  For example, if you’ve received several referrals from CPAs, perhaps you should consider how to spend more time with selected CPAs.  If you’ve sponsored a meeting, review the results of the sponsorship and your planned follow-up steps, then think about how you might build on that activity—for example, you might invite attendees to hear you speak on a topic of interest.

We all feel momentum when it happens: the phone starts ringing, one great idea generates another (and both get implemented), and you discover that your network of contacts really is a network that you can access.  Calculated steps can create momentum, but you must also prepare yourself to recognize it and to analyze what specifically created it.  When you’ve identified that what, make sure you build more of that into your plans.

A caveat about momentum, though: when it comes to business development, think of momentum as an accelerator, not as a continuous motion machine.  Remember that we commonly talk about losing momentum at least as often as we discuss gaining it.  Momentum leads to strong results, but it is not an independent force that will continue in perpetuity.

The key to creating momentum is also the key to keeping it going: consistent action. 

Do you have momentum in business development?  What would it take?  If you’re uncertain, a good place to start is by evaluating what activity has delivered the best results over the last six months and then asking yourself how you might create momentum around that activity.

What are you thinking?

How do you regard business development activity? Do you believe you can succeed? Is the wolf at the door, waiting to devour your practice if you fail? Is bringing in new business a “nice to have” activity, or is it a critical stepping stone for you? Are your clients fortunate to have you on their side?

To some lawyers’ surprise, the answers to these questions influence (sometimes heavily) the chances of success.

Attitude or mindset is a “soft” characteristic of rainmakers. It’s easy to ignore or dismiss as touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo. However, I’ve seen lawyers over and over demonstrate how critical it is to have a positive attitude toward business development and NOT because a positive attitude will attract good results to you or will somehow magically predispose clients to your office.

Attitude matters because it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Believe you’re not good at business development? Every setback will prove you right. Believe clients aren’t looking for someone like you? Every cool response will convince you even more.

But if you believe that you bring useful skills and knowledge to your clients, if you believe that you can develop the business you need for a thriving practice, chances are that you will persevere until you prove that correct as well.

Over the many years that I’ve been working with lawyers (and in reflecting on my own experience), I’ve identified three aspects of attitude that may impact rainmaking efforts’ outcome.

  1.  Do you believe you can succeed? I occasionally tell lawyers that the third client they land is the most important.  The first two you might dismiss as mere good luck or being in the right place at the right time, but when you sign the third client, you know that you’re doing something right.Before you have concrete proof of your ability to bring in business, how you measure your results can have significant influence on your future performance. Low volume, higher fee practices tend to take much longer to develop than high volume, lower fee practices. If you measure your results in terms of activity that moves the biz dev ball forward, even if it hasn’t yet led to business, you’ll raise your confidence in your abilities in an appropriate manner.

    As you define your goals, then, bear in mind what makes sense for you to measure.  In some practices, you should start by measuring the influx of business right away. (That applies to, for example, sole practices that need income to survive and those who’ve already developed some business but are now seeking to grow and systemize their activity and client pipeline.) In others, you should start by measuring meetings with potential clients or referral sources, the growth of relationships with current clients, or advancement in leadership in targeted organizations.

  1.  Do you believe you know enough to get started? Because lawyers tend to be risk-averse, we have an inclination to approach important tasks with “read the manual, aim, aim, aim, read the manual again, ready, aim again” — perhaps never getting to fire.

    Assess realistically what you need to know before you start your rainmaker activity.  
    My suggestion is that you know how to define your practice in a way that communicates clearly to your would-be clients and referral sources. Get started with that, and then work in everything else.There are terrific books and programs available on business development, and you should take advantage of those learning opportunities in conjunction with your activity.  But don’t wait until you’ve read all the books and attended all the programs and created a flawless business development plan.   Start now.  
  1.  Why do you do business development?  If your answer is, “because I know I have to,” you need to dig deeper and find a reason that inspires you. Do you want to change your clients’ lives or businesses? Do you want to impact an area of the law or industry? Do you want to become a partner in your firm, to move to another firm, or to start your own practice? Do you want to buy beachfront property? Do you want to pay off your parents’ mortgage?

    When you get tired of business development — and you will — you need to have a reason that will inspire you to keep going.  I recommend you come up with several reasons that hit on several levels. For example, some of my personal goals are to reach the lawyers we as a society need and help them learn to build a successful practice so they don’t give up, to buy a summer house in Wyoming, and to fund a promise to send a class of underprivileged kindergartners to college. On some days, I conclude that I’ll just stay in motels when I visit Wyoming and lawyers will just have to take care of themselves, but the image of those little faces (whom I have yet to meet) keeps me going.Don’t misunderstand: you must have more than a good attitude to succeed in business development. I don’t believe that envisioning something will make it happen without any effort. But I do believe that a positive attitude makes it easier to put in the work and to keep going when it would be easier to stop. I’ve seen it over and over with my clients and myself.

How about you?  Take just a few minutes to check your own attitude. If you find it not as strong as you’d like, work on building a better attitude. Attitude is a soft attribute that can help you to attain real success.

Do you feel pressure about business development?

“Pressure is what you feel when you don’t know what you are doing.”

  • Peyton Manning

This quote stopped me in my tracks. My first inclination was to disagree, because I sometimes feel pressure because of a deadline or because of the importance of some activity, even though I know what I’m doing.  Digging a bit deeper, though, I think Manning has a point.

When it comes to business development, the lawyers most under pressure are those who don’t have a cohesive plan, who aren’t implementing their plan consistently, or who haven’t fully committed to one or more activities that are likely to help them secure work.  Although they know what they’re doing on certain levels, there’s a disconnect between intellectual knowing and buckling down to do the work. If you know that you should request an on-site meeting with a client, for example, and you expect that you might well land more business or receive a referral or even deepen a valuable relationship, but you don’t ask for the meeting, you’re going to feel pressure.

In contrast, if you have a plan that you’re implementing consistently, though you may feel tension until you see results from your plan, that tension is different in nature. When you know what you’re doing, both in terms of the specific activities and the timing, you also know that you can shift your plan as needed to tweak your results.

You know that you have something that’s fundamentally workable. You’ve done your homework and you’ve prepared yourself and your plan.

Do you feel pressure about business development? If you do, take a few minutes today to get to the source of that pressure. You’ll probably find that it’s one of these issues:

  • You don’t know what you’re doing (you don’t have a plan or you don’t know how to implement some aspect of your plan)
  • You don’t know how to make time to implement your plan consistently (so you never have an opportunity to reach momentum)
  • You don’t know how to perform one or more activities incorporated in your plan (and so you haven’t even started)
  • You’re terribly uncomfortable about some aspect of your plan (you aren’t confident that you can engage in business development activity without harming relationships… or your ego)
  • You need to bring in new business now and you don’t yet know that your plan will work (you haven’t implemented your plan and you’re focusing on the need for business rather than on your ability to meet that need)

Which of these issues underlies the pressure you’re feeling?  Once you’ve identified the problem, you’re that much closer to solving it.

How college football offers lessons in business development.

I love college football.  There’s something about the rivalry, the enthusiasm of players (most of whom have to know they’re playing for the love of the game, not for a shot at the pros), and the strategy that’s great fun to watch.

Football also offers lessons for business development, as I noticed recently.  A few of my favorites:

  1. Play to win, not to avoid losing. In 2010, Auburn was the #1 team.  Cam Newton (and other strong players) graduated, and Auburn’s ranking plummeted.  The team suspended one of its strongest players who violated team rules at the tail end of the season.  It would be hard to blame Auburn for coming to the Chik-fil-A Bowl against Virginia with a plan to play it safe and to make a strong enough showing NOT to lose, and better luck next year.

    Instead, Auburn played full-out, even making the unusual play of an onside kick in the second quarter while leading.  (Onside kicks are usually reserved for near-desperation moves late in a game.)  That play has been marked as the game’s turning point, but it’s simply one example of Auburn’s “all in” play.

    In business development, you may find yourself tempted to play it safe or to avoid making a risky move for fear of failure.  Calculated risk that reflects your full commitment will always pay off.  Sometimes it will result in a glorious failure first, but playing to win succeeds far more often than playing not to lose.  Which are you doing now?

  2. Watch your timing. Jittery players get penalized for anticipating the snap, or for delaying the snap and thus the game.  Knowing when to take a time-out and how to control the tempo of the game is a key aspect of football strategy.  Each play calls for careful timing, in knowing when to hold and release a pass, when to power through opponents and when to run out of bounds, and much more.

    Timing is less precise in business development, but it matters.  Consider the stereotypical bad networker who hands out business cards reflexively and doesn’t understand why no one calls.  Promoting oneself before understanding a potential client’s needs rarely succeeds.  (That goes for online and website strategy as well.)  Especially if you’re eager or uncomfortable, it’s easy to jump directly into how you can help a potential client.  Instead, start by exploring the client’s concerns.  In other words, don’t lead with your experience or your skills.  Remember, we all want to know what’s in it for me?

    By the same token, timing comes into play in knowing when to ask for the business.  Too soon, and it may come across as pushy; too late, and you may miss the opportunity.

    What’s your rainmaking rhythm?  If you don’t have a system or at least markers that guide your steps, you may be missing important aspects of timing.

  3. Build a team and treat members with respect. Although we tend to herald individual players in football, it’s the team that wins or loses.  And while the stars are usually a key force, the best player ever will be ineffective without the support and help of other team members.  A brilliant pass is nothing without a receiver, and no play can succeed without blockers.

    That’s true in business as well.  Your team may include other firm attorneys and staff; sole practitioners may count business allies and centers of influence as part of the team.  However you define your team, know that you cannot succeed alone.

Remember that (depending on your area of practice) your former clients may be one of your most important team members.  Happy clients will help your practice expand by referring others and perhaps by bringing you repeat business.  Client service matters deeply.
Who’s on your team now, and what positions must you fill to support your business development effort?

Those are just three of the reminders I picked up while watching bowl games this week.  For you football fans, think about what else you can learn.  How do you respond to “penalties” (setbacks), fair or unfair?  How do you handle it when one of your “players” makes a mistake?  Who helps you to see the big picture, to better coordinate your efforts?  Who pushes you to deliver more than you thought you could?  How many “plays” can you run?  Do you know which are most effective?