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Essential business development skills for professional service firms

hands on a laptop and above the laptop different business development skills popping out of it.

In a professional environment where every firm has roughly the same level of skill, ability and qualification, it’s the soft skills that enable you to retain clients and attract new business – business development. Clients – no matter what their value to your firm – want to know that they are going to be properly looked after. They expect good customer service, trustworthiness and a genuine interest in their business or other circumstances.

I regularly work with lawyers, accountants and other professionals on these soft skills. They matter because business development is essential to the success of your firm – and understanding the skills needed for good business development is critical to getting it right. I’ve seen that, while some people naturally have these essential skills, they can also be developed. This gives firms a broad base of business development skills that can help them to manage a successful strategy for growth.

What makes good business development?

For me, good business development is having a clear strategy that’s carried out in the right way. So it’s a blend of understanding what business you want, and having the relationship-building skills to get there. When I come across great business development in practice, these are the common attributes:

They know what sort of clients they want – this is the first pillar of good business development. Only by defining the types of clients you want can you focus on talking to the right people. Think about the work your firm is best placed to do, the financial value you need your clients to bring to the firm and the potentially powerful relationships that you want to build.

They take time to understand all their clients – this applies both to new target clients and to your existing client base. Taking the time to understand clients’ priorities and needs allows you and your team to anticipate the ways you can support them. This is particularly true for retaining clients and increasing their value – the more you understand them, the better placed you are to continue to help them.

They focus on building trust – it’s vital that clients trust their professional advisers. Clients often don’t have the technical or legislative knowledge and skill that your firm does – whether they are corporate or private clients - that’s why they engage you in the first place. They need to be confident in your ability both to handle the practical side of things, and to manage their business proactively. Later, this article will look at the Trust Equation, which helps you to understand if you and your teams are approaching this in the best way.

They communicate clearly – one of the most common complaints from clients is that they don’t hear from their lawyer, accountant or adviser. If a client feels they are continually chasing for information or progress, trust is diminished. Never underestimate the power of regular, open communication. Also remember that each client will have a preferred method of communication, so make sure you know what that is and use it. Establishing a communication ‘framework’ is key.

They network – networking helps to establish personal relationships with potential clients. By seeing them regularly, listening to what they say about their issues and understanding where you may be able to support them, you put yourself in a strong position to encourage an enquiry. The more people hear positively about you and your firm, the more likely they are to come to you for your professional help. Encourage your whole team to network where appropriate to promote your firm and support your business development strategy.

They think widely – it’s easy for professional firms to focus on the initial matter in hand and ‘get the job done’. Instead, good business development looks at how else you can help your client base. It suggests things they may not have thought of, and it considers alternative ways of doing things. This helps clients to see your firm as a reliable and credible adviser, and also expands the breadth of support you can give. That may mean referring them to a different service provider in some instances which also makes you look good.

The sooner individuals within your firm can start developing these skills, the more of an asset they will be. Someone with great technical skills and a track record for business development is a significant asset to your firm. Certainly, the more senior people get, the more these skills are needed – so it makes sense to spend some time getting this right.

The Trust Equation

As part of my book, Getting on: Making work work, I look at the importance of building good internal and external relationships. A significant part of this is based on trust. Do people in your firm trust you? Do your peers trust you? Do your clients trust you?

The Trust equation that I use comes from D.H. Maister, C.H. Green and R.M. Galford, The Trusted Advisor, 20th anniversary edition (2021), and is based on four elements:

  • Credibility

  • Reliability

  • Intimacy (being human)

  • Self-orientation (not just focusing on your own goals)


You can see how this equation works in the diagram below.


If people in your organisation spend some time looking at this equation, they can identify areas to work on. In fact, I’ve put together a handy resource sheet on the Trust Equation that you can download from my website and share so people can start thinking about this important element of business development.