BD coaching

At Wheeler Associates, we coach partners and those pushing for admission to partnership to improve their business development (BD) skills and effectiveness.

Anatomy of a BD coaching programme

The aim of any business coaching is to make the individual more effective in their business role through facilitated learning which brings about positive change and action. BD coaching in the professional services sector focuses on a coachee’s responsibilities with regard to business development, namely, the management and growth of existing clients and the winning of new ones. 

Coaching is more effective than training because it is highly tailored to an individual’s needs (with the coach working one-to-one with the coachee), is based around continuous learning, is carried out in a ‘non-threatening’ environment and involves the individual developing his/her own solutions to problems, meaning a higher chance of these being actioned. The coach’s role is to support the coachee through positive encouragement, providing a structured approach to identifying solutions, inputting business development knowledge through directive coaching and acting as their conscience to ensure that agreed actions are prioritised and implemented. 

As BD coaches, we try to break the business development challenge down into small manageable chunks by helping the coachee to identify a few actions during each coaching session. These sessions usually last for 60 - 90 minutes. Reviewing outcomes at the beginning of the next session helps maintain a focus on getting things done. Discussing what worked well and what not so well allows the individual to learn from their experiences, thereby developing confidence for the future. 

Although every fee-earner we coach has different priorities for improving their BD performance, we try to ensure that our coaching programmes have some common threads. Most will result in the preparation by the coachee of a personal BD plan, which allows them to plan and record the results of their BD activities. Although we provide a template for the plan, the level of detail and the frequency with which the plan is updated is down to the individual. Where we are coaching those pushing for partnership, management is often keener to see these individuals articulating their BD strategy, documenting their planned activities and recording their results. 

Market assessment and strategy formulation 

At the outset of most BD coaching programmes, we get the coachee to outline the nature of their practice in terms of the services that they are providing, the types of clients that they have, how they think they are perceived in the market, who they are competing against, where they see the best growth prospects coming from and how they currently go about winning new business. Most admit that they have not been through such an exercise before, with some struggling to answer all of the questions, so, this often becomes their first piece of ‘homework’. 

Having carried out this market assessment, we then move on to identify some BD objectives for the coachee, usually expressed as fee, market penetration or reputation targets. These objectives will have been discussed with the firm’s ‘sponsor’ for the coaching – Managing Partner, Practice Head, etc. – at the contracting meeting which usually precedes such a coaching programme. From this flows the coachee’s BD strategy expressed in terms of the services and markets to be targeted, how this is to be achieved and how the services are to be differentiated. 

Client development 

As it is always easier to generate new business from existing clients, we usually proceed to question the coachee about his/her current key clients, trying to identify areas where they (or their colleagues) could deliver advice where there is currently another advisory firm being used or in a new area where the client has not yet instructed anyone. Identifying the key client decision-makers, the strength of existing relationships and the approach to be adopted to exploit these relationships to win new business then follows. 

At this stage, we will also discuss with the coachee any lapsed client relationships where the work has stopped flowing, why they think this has happened, whether they think the relationship can be revived and how best to achieve this. 

After this, the next priority is usually working with the coachee to identify clients of the wider firm where he/she currently does no work but where opportunities to do so have been identified. The key here for the coachee is working with their colleagues to build up a better picture of the client’s requirements, to identify which competitors the client is using and why, and then to develop a strategy for getting the coachee introduced to the client so that they can successfully cross-sell their services. 

Intermediary referrals 

Most advisers rely for at least some of their work on referrals from intermediaries like accountants, lawyers, corporate financiers, bankers, investment managers, property consultants, etc. Analysing which of these relationships are key for referrals going forward and hence which are worth investing in is important because an unfocused approach can result in a lot of wasted effort and a big expenses bill for lunches. 


Finally, and only after all the other avenues have been explored, the coachee should decide whether they should be targeting any organisations where the firm currently does no work. The odds of success are longer, but a relationship with a key decision-maker (who the coachee/firm may have advised in the past) or some unique expertise possessed by the coachee/firm may be strong enough to make investing in this activity worthwhile. 

Marketing programme 

In any advisory market, the amount of new business that an individual generates will be related to their profile and reputation in the market, which in turn is partly a reflection of how much marketing they do. 

All our coaching programmes focus on those activities which coachees should be undertaking to both raise awareness of their expertise but also to create opportunities to meet with decision-makers to begin the selling process. Thought leadership and relationship building are crucial at this stage and we use directive coaching to point coachees towards the most effective ways of achieving this. 

New business successes 

The final component of one of our coaching programmes is to ensure that a record is kept of all the new business generated by the coachee during the course of the coaching. Not only does this allow the coachee to see the fruits of their efforts, but it also allows the firm’s management to assess the ROI from the coaching activity. 

In a nutshell, that pretty much covers our approach to coaching fee-earners to improve their BD skills. Usually, we find that four sessions spread over 3 – 4 months can result in significant improvement in almost anyone, even those who already consider themselves to be effective rainmakers. For those being considered for partnership by their firms, we often find a willingness to invest in coaching support over a longer period, usually 12 – 18 months.