Question: Successful Strategic Planning in Professional Services Firms

The problem with many strategic plans is that they are only that, plans. On average, professional service firms achieve only a fraction of the goals that they set during strategic planning sessions. Why is that? How can the situation be improved?

3 Expert Insights

Having both led strategic planning process and coached the process, there are three things that are essential to have plans that translate into improved results, particularly in professional service companies:

1) Be clear on the organizational goals.  Sounds simple, but most companies don't do this.  A strategy is designed to achieve a goal.  If the goal is not clear, in war or in business, the likelihood of success is low.

2) Broad participation and data gathering, including staff input, management input, financial analysis and customer input.  The broad participation increases the quality of the resulting strategy as well as the subsequent buy in, which drives improved results

3) Have a planning process that pays for itself.  By using a customer interview script that provides customer input and increases repeat and referral business, it’s easy to devote the required time to planning.

I can provide details, timelines, sample surveys, customer interview script, etc.  I hope this helps.

Strategic planning in professional service firms requires 3 elements:

1. An understanding of the market and a delineation by segment of market opportunities

2. an internal analysis (effectively a comprehensive SWOT analysis) to define strengths, weaknesses, your competitive advantage and the market segments most likely to require your services, and only then

3. a program to generate revenue.

The questions least often asked and where planning fails are (1) Why do potential clients buy?  and (2) What obstacles exist in achieving the sale?  There may be a different answer to these with every prospect.

The usual and easy answer to the latter is "price."  The answer, not having answered the former, is to reduce fees-a self defeating solution.  Defining value must be the response. The focus of the plan must respond to the motivation of the prospects. There must be a need, if resolved,  that will contribute to the decision makers personal objectives (ego, status, compensation, performance metrics). Note, not necessarily the benefit to the enterprise. The firm must be able to respond to the need more effectively than competitors.  There must be motivation. Often, prospects (management) will deny that a need exists or that outside services are required as a solution. Third party (investors, directors, lenders) encouragement (pressure) to reach for outside expertise may be required to gain acceptance.

All of the other important elements of salesmanship apply. Relationship building, credentials of the firm, performance history, expertise are all critical. But without answers to the 2 questions noted, a plan to generate revenue will fail.  Selling professional services is a very personal matter.

A strategy you can't (or won't--for "any" reason) implement, is a bad strategy.

I major reason strategic plans fail is they fail to help the firm focus. Focus is not adding a new priority to the pile. Real focus demands that you stop doing other things. Especially where business development is concerned, some activity that worked or might have worked in the past is very hard to stop. The answer isn't a "better strategy," per se, but rather a strategy that is understood and for which there is confidence it's the right strategy. Doesn't mean it can't be bold; it does mean it has to be reasoned and explained and there is broad support.