Photo by Matteo Vistocco
It was not even 90 days after I started working for Deloitte’s West Coast forensic accounting team when I attended their national sales retreat in Phoenix, AZ. There were hundreds of talented business development professionals from all of Deloitte’s practices areas doing what they do best, networking. I was sitting next to one of the top revenue-generators in the consulting practice at the awards dinner who had just left the stage after receiving acknowledgment for his promotion to the Director level. An honor that is hard to earn as a non-practicing professional at Deloitte. I congratulated him and asked what he did to reach that level. His answer was simple. “I spent the first year focusing most of my time and energy building relationships internally at the firm.”
For someone who had never worked at a professional services firm before, I was somewhat perplexed and thought that was absurd. Why would you do that when you need to sell to prospective clients outside of the firm. Deloitte colleagues can wait!
I quickly learned that this new advice from my consulting colleague was critical to paving a successful path at a professional services firm. It started to make sense. I was selling consulting services and not products. Without connecting with and building the trust of my colleagues, I would not have many consulting services to sell. More importantly, I realized that my colleagues outside of the forensic practice already had excellent relationships. Why not leverage those relationships? Building new relationships with clients was so much harder and took longer.
This concept seems simple enough, but why isn’t it more intuitive for professionals to operate this way today?
A common reason I hear is trust. Professionals often don’t know and trust their colleagues well enough to introduce them to their clients. They become more territorial and protective of their clients than my 4-year-old son does with his favorite transformer toys. This seems silly, but it is still very prevalent in the professional services world.
Another reason is lack of knowledge or awareness. Professionals will not go out of their way to try to identify opportunities outside of their area of expertise if they do not know enough about the subject. They do not want to be put in a situation where they can’t answer a question or speak about the topic at a somewhat educated level.
So how do we fix this problem of poor collaboration amongst firms of all sizes?
Invest more time connecting with your colleagues, learn more about their areas of expertise, and educate them on your practice. Give them examples of cases you have worked on. Tell them why clients come to you and your team. Educate them on what to look out for and who the key buyers are. More importantly, start the exchange by asking them how you can help them. Be the first to learn about their practice and ask how you can help them before holding out your hand for their help.
Building long-term, trusting relationships with colleagues does not happen overnight. It takes time, but it can pay off down the road. You want to find ways to create your own “sales force” that can be your ears and eyes for opportunities in the market. Your colleagues can be a big part of that “sales force.”
Additionally, if you find yourself buried in billable work, yet still face the pressure of bringing in additional revenue, collaborating with your colleagues in other practice areas can help you have your cake and eat it. You generate origination credit without stacking on additional billable hours to your week. Find those colleagues who have the capacity for more work and introduce them to your clients.
I am still grateful for that dinner conversation I had with my Deloitte Consulting colleague in 2006. It opened my eyes to a different and much more effective way of generating revenue in the professional services market. Building trusting relationships with my teammates was much easier than building trusting relationships with new clients. Even though today as a solo consultant I do not have a team of colleagues, I still have a network of talented professionals with whom I can collaborate.