Climbing Mount Audacity

10: Building a firm-wide sales capability

Throw away the charms - Four stages of competence - After the jolt - Taking the project medicine - Knitting it all together - If it was easy everyone would be growing like topsy - Moving towards the top 5%

The most common conversation I have with professional service firm seniors, from singleton entrepreneurs to MDs of multi-million revenue companies is a variant of “how do we win more work?”. Working on the premise you are brilliant at what you do (my starting assumption throughout this series) then the nub of the entrepreneurial challenge is the answer to this question: you need to build a systematic sales capability.

The highlighted word is critical. There are some lucky businesses that fire out of the blocks with a great first client – which fuels some early successes. Many companies will have one or two gifted business developers who sell work in a idiosyncratic, mysterious way. Everyone else just clutches a good luck charm and hopes the ride continues. Exposure to a small portfolio of clients and/or unpredictable forward income (as reliant on specific people cf. a firm-wide capability) means such companies are virtually worthless or, at best, value-capped.

Before I unpack this some more, let me relate my personal experience and learning curve.

Building a firm-wide sales capability

I only started to look seriously at this issue a couple of years into my entrepreneurial venture. Whilst we had been successful selling up to this point, it was a non-executive on our Board (see blog for the value of such board challenge) who disrupted our state of mild hubris – making us realise that such success was wholly attributable to only a few individuals. I was one of these and, like the others, could not really describe what I was doing well. I had never personally traversed a conscious-competent stage and, as such, could not really coach others in what to do. We all recognised – bolstered by the Board’s challenge – that the next, logical step in the build of the firm was this systemisation of the sales capability.

What this conversation touched on was the classic four stages of competence model. Essentially, whilst a few of us felt comfortable selling and were pretty successful at it, such competence (if you could call it that) was organic, highly-personalised, not codified and somewhat erratic. This is such a critical point because to build out a professional services firm in any predictable manner, business development needs to be systemised, de-personalised, codified and a predictable function of sales activity in: revenue out.

sales capability image 1 Figure: Four stages of competence

The first step on this journey is to have the jolt and our board discussions did just that! From the perspective of firm-wide competence or capability, we effectively had arrived at stage 2.

Being honest, I still didn’t really – at this point – know what “good looked like”. I could accept, however, the premise that we were (like many early-stage firms) selling in a highly individualized manner and to traverse meaningfully out of start-up land we next needed to (very deliberately) broaden out this capability. The journey had begun.

Our next step was to run a competitive search exercise to locate an expert facilitator – someone who could guide and facilitate the exercise to develop a firm-wide sales capability. Eventually, we arrived at an excellent fit – someone who we felt aligned well with our values and way of working; importantly, someone with manifest sales expertise who could deftly facilitate the development of an approach bespoke to us as opposed to imposing a methodology upon us.

Climbing Mount Audacity…
From Startup to Scaleup!

We're sharing everything we know about how to build an awesome professional service firm (and enjoy the journey en route!) PLUS travel updates, reflections on our stumbles and general musings on our Method Grid journey.

Let me make a critical point here; perhaps learnt as much with hindsight than fully appreciated at the time. Such expertise needs to be very carefully placed into such an initiative. Fundamentally, you are setting off on a very deliberate project to result in a sustainable outcome: firm-wide systems, tools, habits and behaviours. Such a project can never be done to you! Rather, the leaders of the recipient project must own and deliver the project – using such expert partner(s) as facilitators and contributors at key moments.

Over the period of, roughly, twelve months (much shorter and you probably do not appreciate how multi-dimensional such an exercise is; much longer and you risk energy dissipating), we completely overhauled our firm’s approach to selling. To give you a sense of this scope, it included such facets as: getting the whole leadership team aligned to the imperative, developing a comprehensive methodology and toolbox (from first contact, to sales meeting, to pitching, to categorizing/tracking prospects, to qualifying opportunities etc), training the entire firm in this approach (and the critically important self-talk aspects), selecting and embedding a CRM tool, clarifying BD targets and accountabilities, introducing the right management information and meeting structures to stay on top of our new (sales activity) KPIs, updating competency/reward/promotion frameworks to recognise BD contribution. And more. You get the drift.

I recognise that the discipline of project management can be pedantically wearisome for many. All I would say, is in this instance, we really applied the project management medicine to ourselves – to keep us honest to the many deliverables that needed to knit together and the outcomes we sought.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can say this project was one of the smartest internal initiatives we ever committed to – setting off, as it did, another inflexion point in the companies growth journey (and a quantum leap forward in value). We had effectively shifted from (risky and unpredictable) reliance on a few individuals to a firm-wide growth engine.

Figure: A firm-wide sales capability

In future weeks, I aim to get into the specifics of this project and share with you a number of the approaches and tools we developed. For now, though, I hope this brief case study gets across the imperative of just tackling this challenge – and tackling it early. If nothing else, hopefully, I have jolted you to ask (like my board adviser did to me) whether you are guilty of highly individualized behaviours cf. a developed, widely-shared, intelligently-enabled, common approach. Be honest with yourself and your firm’s current status in this regard. Maybe, I have at least led you to Stage 2 in the competence model?

If so, hopefully you have now gleaned how urgent the next steps are.

If you are reading this as the singleton owner-manager (or your firm is still very small) then you have a huge advantage. It is far easier to build these habits and processes (and embed these tools) in a small team; thereafter, new joiners to your business can be easily inducted into the way we do things around here. As such, I strongly commend anyone in early-stage maturity to tackle this challenge immediately. Conversely, the longer you leave it – and the larger the firm – the tougher a climb it becomes.

Regardless, and it warrants the repetitive reinforcement, I also strongly commend you to run this as a specific project with fulsome investment from the firm’s leadership. This, in full acknowledgement of the time, effort, cost and continual leadership-presence required to be successful. None of what I will share with you in future blogs is particularly complicated; it does, however, require a lot of hard miles to be trod. If it were easy, every firm would have a great sales engine and be growing like topsy. It is not easy. So, the key point I am making here concerns the appropriate prioritisation and scoping of this exercise. You do not solve the issue by commissioning one-or-two sales training days from an external trainer assuming all will come good from there. It takes real leadership commitment, a focused, unrelenting approach and many, many months before you affect any enduring change in this area.

By way of some summary aids, the high-level scope of such a project plan might look as follows:

sales capability image 3

Figure: Building a sales capability: example scope elements

And, for an up-and-running  firm, the stages in this capability journey may look as follows:

sales capability image 4

Building a sales capability: example project stages

That’s enough for now. A lot to digest. As a minimum, I hope the read has agitated you to reflect on the matter? If so and you have concluded that your firm-wide sales capability is at stage 1 or 2 and you seek to address this with a deliberate capability-build project: then you are already in the top twenty percent of firms. If I can, next, successfully navigate you through successful execution of such a project, you will be in the top five!

UPDATE: The full series on building a professional services sales capability is as follows:

Blog 11 > The difference between marketing and selling

Blog 12 > Developing a winning sales attitude

Blog 13 > Developing sales communication skills

Blog 14 > To hunt or to farm? Getting the balance right

Blog 15 > Building your first sales pipeline

Blog 16 > Tracking sales opportunities

Blog 17 > Elevator Pitch: How to rise to the top

Blog 18 > Mastering the sales call

Blog 19 > Mastering the sales meeting

Blog 20 > Sales Qualification

Blog 22 > Account Management

Blog 25 > Sector development – or – how to go to market!

Blog 26 > Writing winning proposals

So, what’s next?

Next week, I will continue my focus on selling and how to build a sales capability: with a reminder as to the critical differences between marketing and selling. As only when this distinction is completely understood, can meaningful progress be made with the latter.

Hopefully, you’ll join us on this journey. It’s totally free, and you don’t have to be a Method Grid customer (though you’re more than welcome to sign up for a free trial here).

We’ll be releasing a new post each week. To get each post emailed to you as soon as it’s published, sign up for the Climbing Mount Audacity mailing list below.

Climbing Mount Audacity…
From Startup to Scaleup!

We're sharing everything we know about how to build an awesome professional service firm (and enjoy the journey en route!) PLUS travel updates, reflections on our stumbles and general musings on our Method Grid journey.

See you next week. Have something you want to hear more about? Let me know in the comments below or via Twitter.

Note: You can find out more about the annual Retreat Dom runs here.


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  1. JD Schramm says:

    Dom, LOVE how you have illustrated the 4 learning stages by Maslow. I use this often in my teaching. I’m writing a book right now and would like to cite you and how clearly you have illustrated this. Can we communicate by email to ensure I’ve got you “correctly referenced”

    1. Dom Moorhouse says:

      Hi. Many thanks for the courtesy implicit within this message and thanks for kind words. You can reach me initially on [email protected] (will share my personal address from there).
      Good luck with the book project. Dom

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