Cover Page

How Clients Buy

A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services

Tom McMakin

Doug Fletcher

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Tom dedicates this book to Harry Wallace and the crew at PIE for their fellowship and inspiration.

Doug dedicates this book to his parents, Wade and Mary Lutie, for introducing him to the world of books.

The Problem

Chapter 1
A Curious Problem

Was that you we saw last Friday night at the Seattle airport?

We would've said “Hi,” but you were on the phone.

We were the guys in blue blazers dragging our roller boards over to Ivar's for a plate of oysters and a Pyramid IPA. You might have seen us pounding out thank-you notes on our phones before the late flight home.

Allow us to introduce ourselves.

Doug leads a business development consulting firm and sits on the board of a midsized consulting firm. Before that, he cofounded a technology-enabled consulting firm that specialized in global web survey projects. He got his start as a management consultant at A. T. Kearney, and before that was trained on GE's leadership development program.

Tom also runs a consulting firm that helps the biggest names in professional services grow their businesses—a kind of consultant to consultants. He was in private equity before that, and in his first big gig served as the chief operating officer of Great Harvest Bread Co.

This is all to say we've spent two lifetimes offering clients consulting and professional services. We've scoped projects, delivered outcomes, wined and dined clients, written white papers, presented at conferences, and relentlessly followed up.

The proof? When people ask our kids what we do, the kids don't know.

“They travel a lot,” they say.

We've written this book to describe how clients buy consulting and professional services because we think if more people in our industry could get smarter about how expertise meets the opportunity to help, the world would be a better place. We look around and see lots of thorny problems that need solving. We also see lots of smart people ready to help. The challenge facing them both is to connect with each other more efficiently.

Maybe you're an accountant, a lawyer, or an Internet security specialist. Maybe you consult on strategy, human resources, finance, marketing, operations, or procurement. Or you're a freelance designer or marketing expert. You might be part of a large organization, working for the big consultant Bain, the consulting and accounting firm KPMG, or the human resources specialist AON. You might work out of a handsome glass and steel tower in downtown Boston or Chicago. Or you might be just starting out or recently retired, offering procurement, organizational or training advice, working out of your newly converted guest bedroom.

Either way, this book is for you.


As a consultant or a person working in professional services, all of us know we have to become rainmakers—the people at the top who bring client business into their firms. In most large firms, you have to be successful bringing in new business to be considered for promotion to partner. And, if you're a founder or cofounder in a small to midsized firm, you live and die by the work you bring in to feed your troops.

It's the harsh imperative of consulting and professional services: being smart about something is not enough. You have to know how to engage with potential clients, understand their unique challenges, and scope business. You have to figure out a way to build a bridge from your expertise to those it can most help. You have to make it rain, or you will die in the desert of commerce.

The problem is that selling consulting and professional services is hard. Some would say really, really hard.

It's hard because selling consulting and professional services is different from selling shoes. The former is sold on relationships, referrals, and reputation, while the latter is sold on attributes like size, weight, color, style, and performance. It's the difference between an intangible and tangible sale.

Further, despite the importance of becoming an effective rainmaker, we're never taught how to sell the work we do. We're trained as lawyers, accountants, web developers, financial analysts, engineers, or architects, how to do the work, but not in how to bring in new clients.

Then, there's the inconvenient fact that in our line of work, sales is a dirty word. While researching for this book, we interviewed dozens of rainmaking pros and were struck by how many of them said, “Never say ‘sell.’” In fact, they reported that they don't even think about selling. To them, it's counterproductive. Dominic Barton, Global Managing Partner of McKinsey & Co., one of the world's premier strategy consulting firms, put it this way: “If I mentioned sales in our firm, I'd be hauled up in front of our professional ethics board. It's just not the way we think.”

On top of that, our consulting niches are becoming more specific as they become more global. A client today is just as likely to be in Singapore as San Francisco. A generation or two ago, golf on Saturday was a good way to meet new clients. In the twenty-first century, methods like these are outdated.

Finally, much of what we think we know about selling—the need to generate leads, prequalify them, then pitch and close prospects—is wholly inappropriate to consulting and professional services. What really matters is your relationship with a would-be client, which is formed and nurtured over a lifetime.

Call it the rainmaker conundrum: we need to do business development or we die, and yet we're hobbled by obstacles that keep us from effectively developing this very same business.

There must be a better way.

Chuck McDonald, a senior attorney practicing in Columbia, South Carolina, puts it this way:

The one thing they don't teach you in law school is that the most important thing in private practice is how to get clients. You find out fairly early whether you are going to be able to do that which enables you to climb the ladder within a firm structure. If you're not, you're a fungible good. There are what we call “worker bees,” but they just don't get the same, frankly, respect within the firm or the same compensation. So, it is a very important component.

And so, it's strange to us that more isn't written about business development in the consulting and professional services trades. A quick Amazon search of books on the topic of leadership generates a staggering 191,348 listings. Yet you can count on one hand the number of books that have been written on becoming an effective rainmaker in the expert services professions.

Consulting and professional services is a $1.7 trillion global industry, with 6.1 million of us in the United States working as consultants or in professional services. As the U.S. economy has shifted from manufacturing to a more knowledge-intensive economy, the consulting and professional services sector has expanded, enjoying growth that outpaces the wider economy. While gross domestic product grew on average 2.2% over the last two years, the consulting and professional services sector grew on average an astonishing 11.5%. That's five times as fast.

It is high time we got smart about how to connect with those we can best serve.

The Promise of How Clients Buy

We will help you understand how clients buy consulting and professional services. This knowledge will increase the number of clients you have and earn you more money. More importantly, it will cause your expertise to find its home, solve more problems, and make the world a better place.

To be clear, this is not a book on the sales funnel, selling techniques, better prospecting, persuasion, closing, or negotiation tactics. Instead we describe the client's buying decision journey, knowing that it is this perspective that can give rise to a business development approach based on service and not manipulation.

The Breakthrough

For us, the breakthrough in understanding how to best sell professional services was when we realized that those who successfully build their consulting and professional services practices are students of how clients buy and work to support that buying journey using very specific strategies and techniques. They aren't focused on sales at all.

These pros tell us there are very specific requirements that must be satisfied before a client pulls a trigger and decides to buy our services, preconditions we call the Seven Elements of How Clients Buy.


The Seven Elements of the Client's Decision Journey

Our Method

The advice that we offer in this book around each of these elements comes from three primary sources:

  1. Interviews conducted with over two dozen senior professionals working in a wide range of consulting and professional services, including law, accounting, investment banking, commercial real estate, and management consulting (strategy, advertising, and HR). While most of those we interviewed were seasoned “rainmakers” in their field, we did speak with a handful of individuals at the beginning and midway points of their careers. We spoke with individuals at some of the largest firms in their industry and also with professionals at midsized, boutique, and solo firms. Finally, we spoke with professionals who bought professional services.
  2. A review of the existing literature, both academic and popular, on the subject of business development for consulting and professional services. There are some strong materials out there. Three of our favorites are Ford Harding's Rain Making, Arthur Gensler's Art's Principles, and Mike Schultz and John Doerr's Professional Services Marketing. Our hope is that what we have written here builds on their work and contributes to the ongoing conversation about what works and what doesn't.
  3. Our collective experience working in management consulting and business services for fifty years. We looked to our own personal experiences in our consulting practices to capture what we had learned and share it. It was encouraging to us that much of what we feel is true was echoed in what we heard from those we interviewed.


Your expertise deserves to find an audience—the exact right audience where what you know and what you've seen (and you've seen some stuff) will find a home where it can create value, not just for you, but more importantly, for the people whom you most want to serve.

The world needs your expertise. Let's dig in and learn how to build a better bridge to those that could use it.

Chapter 2
Finders, Minders, and Grinders
The Business Development Imperative

When Russell Davis first heard the news, he flew home from Switzerland early. Word had come to him from all directions—the foreign edition of CNN, urgent phone calls from home, and emotional email bursts from friends on campus.

In a convulsion of violence, a mentally disturbed student shot and killed thirty-two students in the Norris and West Ambler Johnston halls at Virginia Tech. It was mid-April of 2007 and Russell was studying abroad, but he was also class president and a dyed-in-the-wool Hokie.

“I felt I needed to go home and be with everyone.”

The next few weeks were filled with emotions for Russell and for his fellow students, a complicated stew of anger at the shooter, grief over the lost promise of those who had been slain, and relief and guilt over having not been a target. Russell remembers trying to frame the right words for his address to the graduating class in May.

“I wanted to be careful; it was a commencement, not a funeral,” he said. In the end, standing in front of five thousand graduates at Worsham Field, he spoke from the heart, “You only live once. Never waste a moment.”

Russell showed leadership in the way he chose to be with those whom he had decided to serve. It wasn't like Mel Gibson on a stallion, rallying of the Scottish tribes in Braveheart, but a quieter call to duty, which becomes the standard against which the rest of us measure ourselves.

At Virginia's Darden School of Business, where Russell earned an MBA after Virginia Tech, roughly half of the students apply for jobs at the big consulting firms. Of those, half get interviews, and then half of them get offers. It is the same at all the leading business schools.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG), one of the country's premier strategy consulting firms, has a mission to “go deep to unlock insight and have the courage to act.” For that, they need leaders and strong thinkers who have the courage of their convictions. When they first met Russell on the campus of the University of Virginia, they must have known they'd found a real leader, recruiting him to be a summer intern in between years at business school. Later, when he graduated, BCG asked him to sign on, full-time, as a consultant.

Getting hired by one of the big consulting firms is, for many, like winning the lottery. “BCG and the others would come in and make presentations to the students and talk about the cool strategy work they did for clients. I knew I would learn a lot in consulting and that it would open doors. Those of us who got offers were pretty excited. BCG, McKinsey, and Bain have a line out the door to get in. They get the best and brightest.”


Consulting draws some of the best business school students because consultants are called in to do challenging and essential work. “Since working at BCG,” reports Russell, “I've worked on growth strategy, cost reduction, and operations projects in consumer products, transportation, and industrial goods. I've learned a lot in two years. I travel a fair bit, but the firm treats me well and I make good money.”

Really good money.

The average starting salary for a post-MBA graduate like Russell at BCG is $147,000 with another $50,000 to $70,000 piled on top in bonuses and 401(k) contributions. This wage is not the exception but the rule at the most prestigious firms like Bain, McKinsey, Oliver Wyman, L.E.K., and A. T. Kearney. It's the same with the Big Four professional services firms, where KPMG, Deloitte, E&Y, and PWC all pay total compensation north of $150,000 for recent MBA graduates, as do the big IT consulting firms like Accenture and IBM.

I'm Not Even in That Universe

If you are a sole proprietor, work for a small CPA firm, or have just hung up your shingle as an attorney, Russell's world may seem distant and vaguely exotic, like GN-z11, the galaxy Hubble just discovered at the far reaches of space. Interesting but not really relevant. You hear about hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay, and you think to yourself, “hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue would be good.”

We understand. Both of us have been sole proprietors. Tom remembers launching a private equity firm and wondering if the deals would come in. “I'd lie awake at night thinking about the kids and the next mortgage payment and see blood dripping from the ceiling.” Doug remembers flying out to New York to make a big client pitch and wondering if he had made some sort of tragic mistake leaving the security of a job at General Electric to launch his fledgling consultancy.

Stick with us. We're digging into the world of high-end consultants for a reason. It turns out their problems are the same as ours, and in their experience, there are clues as to how clients buy.

The Ladder

Russell learned a few things about consulting while working at BCG. “There's a distinct ladder. As a new consultant, there's an expectation that you get up to speed quickly, and that you contribute quickly. If you join BCG right out of undergrad, they call you an associate. If you get promoted from that or join post-MBA, you're a consultant. After consultant, you become a project leader where you manage a team and probably have a couple of consultants and maybe an associate working with you. Two years after being a project leader, you might get promoted to principal and have two project leaders working under you. If you work as a principal for between three and five years, you'd be eligible to stand for election to the partnership. Then as a partner, you might be promoted to senior partner and possibly to the firm's leadership.”

While the titles might be different if you are in an architecture or law firm, the idea is the same. First you toil with the rest of the recent grads, and if you are good, you advance one rung on the ladder at a time. And the firm makes it worth your time. Partners at BCG make seven figures with bonuses and profit sharing. If you're a kid from Staunton, Virginia, like Russell, that has your full attention and absolute dedication.

Up or Out

The second lesson Russell learned at BCG was harsher. “It's up or out here. The messaging starts as soon as you get here. ‘Look around you,’ they say, ‘there are not as many partners as there are consultants. Do the math: not everyone can be partner.’ Everyone talks about it,” he says.

“You know you'll either be promoted or you'll get the boot, though no one ever really gets fired. Instead you hear someone left the firm to take on an ‘opportunity in industry.’ What you don't hear is that it wasn't 100% their choice. And it happens on every step on the ladder. There is constant pruning.”

Everyone who enters into BCG is taught this basic lesson and so begins to ask the natural question, “What do I need to do to succeed here?” It is a Darwinian meritocracy in which only the best survive. Everyone else is “counseled out.” It's all very polite, but large consulting firms are built to be unforgiving pyramids in which not everyone can succeed.

The Three-Legged Stool

Over beers on the weekend, Russell and his newly minted colleagues would talk about what it takes to get ahead at BCG.

The first leg, and everyone agrees on this point, is you must be good at the work. This goes for every kind of professional service: law or IT consulting as well as the more rarified world of strategy consulting. No one gets from the first to the second rung without doing a good job at delivering the service that is embedded in the promise of their firm. Accenture is the largest IT consultant in the world. If Accenture says it will produce actionable data from multiple sources in and outside of a business, you must be able to do that for clients, or Accenture (and you) will get fired.

The second leg is team leadership. You must be able to rodeo others on a team who are delivering the work. If a Seattle-based CPA firm sends a group of professionals to audit the books at a cannery in Alaska, they'll send a team leader to keep everyone driving in the same direction. She'll also get to pick where everyone has drinks after work.

Both of these skills—doing the work and leading others in the delivery of work—have beginning, intermediate, advanced, and master versions. Fixing the e-commerce site of a $30 million dollar retailer of sporting goods is hard. Our friends at Accenture tell us that fixing was harder. The first job was a blue square groomer, the second a black diamond pitch off the backside.

The third leg of the stool is the ability to generate new business. It's one thing to be able to do the work well and to lead successful engagement, but someone in the firm has to be the one who spoke with the client in the first place, inking the deal that got the work.

Art Gensler, author of Art's Principles and founder of Gensler—the premier design and architecture firm that designed the Apple Store—says, “Business rarely falls into your lap. You must go out, explore, and find clients.”

The Commercial Imperative

They say in consulting and professional services that there are “finders, minders, and grinders.” Grinders do the work. Minders supervise the grinders. Finders bring in the work on which everyone else delivers.

Russell is clear on this rainmaker imperative. “By the time you are a partner, you need to have a commercial focus. You need to come across as credible and be able to sell a multimillion-dollar transformation to a company.”

But to know what to do is not to know how to do it. “If I had one question for a senior partner at the firm,” says Russell, “it would be ‘How did they find their best clients?’ Most of the work at a big firm like BCG comes from repeat business and from referrals, but I would be interested in knowing what the partner did, especially in the early years, to find those big clients that hire us over and over.”

We find this question interesting as well.

The Rest of Us

This question of how to find new work is not limited to the big firms. It's common to all consultants or professional service providers. While website designers or freelance cybersecurity specialists might not be working in the Cravath salt mines at a 10,000-person professional services firm, they experience their own version of “up or out.” They either bring in new work or they fail.

“If I don't sell, I am out of business,” says Megan Armstrong, the owner of a three-person marketing communications company. “Without clients, there's no work.”

It's really just a variation on the same theme: to be successful in consulting and professional services, you have to be a grinder, a minder, and a finder. It is the platform on which all of us stand. If you're weak at any one of these three disciplines, the stool will not support your weight. If you're at a big firm, it means you'll wash out and not make partner. If you're a sole proprietor, your enterprise will fail.

Okay, I Need to Sell; How Do I Do That?

Saying that those in consulting and professional services need to think about where their next meal is coming from is not a controversial statement. How to do that, as we will see, is controversial. Some see expert services as just another product that can be sold like a pen or a load of lumber. Others, and we are in this camp, see consulting and professional services as very different, requiring a unique approach.

Russell knows that he has to learn how to go out and find business if he is going to make it in this world of consulting. He also knows it's going to be hard. It's a skill he didn't learn in business school. So we took his question to the best in this business. We interviewed some of the most accomplished pros and learned why selling consulting and professional services is a challenge. In the next chapter, we will work to better understand how consulting and professional service practitioners engage with would-be clients is different from the way other goods are sold. The goal is not to sell what we do but to be invited by clients into their projects as trusted partners.