Why the professional services industry must change

John Maffioli founded the BDLN in 2014 after spending eight years at EY, the last two as strategic growth markets director. John is also the founder of both FEBE, a network of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs, and Maxop, a training and recruitment company for the professional services sector. The following interview was by BDLN.co.uk editor Matt Wright…

What inspired you to launch the BDLN?

We’re on a mission here at the BDLN. We want to inject a massive dose of dynamism, energy and commercial awareness into professional services. For many years now there’s been an unhealthy disconnect between professional services firms and their clients. Look at the clients: a more dynamic bunch of forward-thinking businesses you couldn’t hope to meet. Talk to their professional services firms: there may not be the same levels of charisma or energy.

That said, there are lots of exciting things happening in professional services right now… but not enough. The time has come for the gap between the client’s mindset and their service firm’s mindset to disappear.

The BDLN will make that happen by celebrating the professionals at the top of their games, and by encouraging all firms to place the discipline of business development at the heart of their cultures, rather than seeing it as a rather fluffy after-thought. By sharing the best practice of the most commercially aware and successful business development professionals, the BDLN aims to transform the industry for the better.

What needs to change in professional services?

I believe the entire culture of accountancy and law needs to change. It encourages people to behave in stereotypical ways that hold them back – Tony Cohen of Deloitte explains this brilliantly in his recent BDLN article where he discusses the importance of being authentic. Going to networking events can be incredibly dull – most lawyers and accountants don’t stand out or make any effort to stand out. I always felt they could be inspired to do more. This is a people business. People buy people and they want to buy people they love.

If you trawl through most professional services websites they all say the same things: we offer a friendly, proactive and partner-led service.

The BDLN has been set up to make firms think: “How are we really different?” How can we become leading lights by offering truly heroic client service? We want to keep raising the bar higher and higher.

During the recession, CEOs and CFOs received unprecedented numbers of approaches from firms vying for their business. That has opened the eyes of buyers because they now know what’s really out there. The old boy’s network that used to exist… those days are over.

What’s clear is that buyers value commerciality more than anything – something Andrew Lavery explains beautifully in his recent piece for the BDLN. They want firms with commercial acumen who can show them exactly what to do. What they don’t want are technocrats who sit on the fence and bore them to death with rules and processes.

The professional services industry will thrive in the long term by creating an army of business-development-savvy people who submerge themselves in their clients’ business activities and sectors so they really understand what affects their clients commercially. The challenge is teaching staff and partners how to really align commerciality with their cross-service-line proposition. Professionals must stop acting in silos because that reduces their ability to open up multiple selling channels.

What defines all the highly successful professionals you’ve met?

Professionals who achieve great success approach business development with passion. They don’t just dip their toe in but fully submerge themselves, using every method possible to get out into the market, whether it’s networking, target calling, or using a particular platform to get themselves heard.

The only way you can possibly do that long term without burning out is by aligning your professional life with a genuine passion. It could be a particular sector, such as technology (see Tony Waller’s article), or a specific field like entrepreneurialism (see Guy Rigby’s piece), or by focusing on a service that really floats your boat, such as litigation (read what Paul Marmor did). Whatever it is, it’s got to make you tick, because you must devote a huge amount of time and energy if you are to stand out in your field.

But if you find your niche and love it, your passion will show through and clients will be drawn to you. For me, the art of business development is about making yourself infectious and irresistible, with the depth of insight to really back that up.