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How to select the right business development coach


Focused coaching on soft skills such as communication and negotiation is vital to gaining momentum in a professional career.

By Hans Morse 14 minute read

Being a great practitioner is not enough in a competitive market. Many accountants, lawyers and management consultants lack experience in business development and commercial skills. Client relationship management, client acquisition, networking and negotiation are areas that need masterful development. Gaining trust and building long-term relationships is the key to success in professional services and we can only do this by really understanding what drives our clients professionally and personally.

Being a good business developer also requires you to hone in on your personal style and strengths — something that can’t be developed through traditional sales training.

At the same time, organisations are trying to cut costs. Unfortunately, many consulting assignments are seen as nice-to-haves where advisers need to work harder on articulating the real value to their clients. Additionally, new graduates are expected to gain client-facing experience with little or no commercial skills — experience that just isn’t part of their career curriculum.


So focused training or coaching is a must to gain momentum in a professional career. Personally, I target two measurable outcomes: positive behavioural change and increased revenue. Both are important goals for high performers to junior staff.

Soft skills such as communication, effective negotiation or even defusing conflict are part of EQ — emotional quotient (or emotional intelligence). Training to develop these skills should extend beyond customer-facing staff to those in procurement or purchasing who engage in high-value negotiations to secure services or products with potential long-term business relationships.

So how do you select the right business development coach for your organisation?

When I first started, I was introduced to a very experienced executive coach by a well-respected non-executive director on some ASX-listed companies. It was interesting to hear that in most cases, executive coaches were simply working for themselves. Many of the best athletes have coaches who work independently, and there are benefits to that independence.

In most cases, executive coaches are semi-retired or retired CEOs or other C-level executives, just like coaches to athletes who were former athletes themselves. Surprisingly, many executive coaches from coaching organisations lack the skills to provide specific business development coaching.

BD coaching is very different to executive coaching or sales training.

It focuses on honing commercial skills, developing EQ and setting a functional BD personal plan for an individual in a firm. BD coaching also varies according to the individual’s needs and could include advice on a particular bid approach or managing a difficult client.

Sales training programs, on the other hand, work well to provide teams with the commercial skills, methodologies and tools to undertake business development tasks with confidence.

Both work well in professional services or even industries with very technical and complex long-term client relationships, for example IT and medical devices.

However, I have attended many sales training courses over the past 20 years and none of them addressed the important things. Most were based around value propositions or meeting client needs through solution selling. These antiquated approaches just don’t cut it with savvy buyers.

Important methods of approach are based around the buying process, as opposed to a sales process. They take in the client’s decision style and whether the client has indicated a need, or the approach for potential process improvement or transition. Again, something regular sales processes do not capture.

So, why not leave BD to internal business development staff? Well, there are a number of reasons and again, independence is important. Others include the specific skills of a coach and the fact business development staff are generally too occupied with account management, revenue or other business-as-usual goals. Finally, many smaller firms don’t have BD resources and don’t need them on a day-to-day basis.

Important considerations when selecting a BD coach or sales trainer for your organisation:

  1. Comfort and trust equals rapport

You must feel you are in a non-judgemental environment when interacting with your BD coach or sales trainer, meaning you feel comfortable, safe and willing to have open communication. Yes, at times you may feel vulnerable and raw, which is uncomfortable. However this mood state is needed to allow your coach to gain insight into you as an individual. Only then can they identify the skill development required and support positive behavioural change.

So before engaging a BD coach or sales trainer, ask yourself the following questions: Do I feel comfortable with the coach, safe to share my fears, concerns, limitations and weaknesses? Do I like their style and approach? Do I trust they have the skills to help me reach my true potential?

If your answer is yes, rapport can be established. It’s not rocket science when you think about it. It’s no different from why your clients choose to work with you!

  1. Be realistic with your goals and expectations

What do you really want to achieve? Is it realistic? Do you have clear steps to a measurable goal?

I’ve seen firms that are reluctant to take BD seriously in building a client-centric business, or try to take shortcuts. Realistically, if you want to target new business it can take well over 12 months from the meet and greet to billing a new client (for large clients, the average is 18 months). By this stage your coaching engagement should be wrapped up, with a good level of skills development and a strong plan of attack.

  1. Skills and the experience to back it up

It’s most important that BD coaches have real life experience in business development or sales. Have they actually sold anything, including professional services? Many coaches use vague approaches such as ‘How to generate new business’ or ‘Generate more business through effective networking’, etc.

An experienced BD coach will focus on understanding decision styles with real client situations and address these with techniques to overcome obstacles along the way. Most sales training programs use slick-but-flawed techniques that fail to address decision styles and the heuristic bias of decision-making in general, and neglect the coachee’s personal style and EQ.

  1. Has the coach walked in your shoes?

Many BD coaches today have never met a client or worked for a professional services firm. Can you imagine appointing a former CEO as an executive coach who has never actually worked for an organisation or understood specific industry cultures? The experience comes from imparting real-life examples as case studies to allow you to reflect on it in your own situation.

Hans Morse is an experienced professional services business development coach and trainer who has previously worked with EY, KPMG, PwC, Deloitte and a number of law firms in full time and contract consulting roles.

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