Skip to main content

This focuses on the elements we think need to be in place before you grow your professional service firm…but firstly, a diversion. Have you seen the movie, The Founder, with Michael Keaton? The Founder is the story of Ray Kroc and McDonald’s. The opening scene (about 2 mins) of this movie draws some fantastic parallels with professional service firms and may provoke some thought! Search on YouTube ‘the founder opening scene’.

Most American diners had a single mixer making milkshakes, Ray is trying to sell 5 or 6 head machines in the very opening scene. Ray is saying to a diner owner “I know what you’re thinking, what the heck do i need a 5 spindle for, when i barely sell enough milkshakes to justify my single spindle. Right? wrong.” Ray goes on to reason that the owner is not selling enough milkshakes because his customers’ know how long it takes to order one and therefore as supply has been low, then demand has actually dwindled. He reasons that in order to increase demand you first need to increase supply, a fascinating theory that could be applied to professional services firms.

“Increase Supply and Demand will Follow” – Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, The Founder

When thinking about how to grow your professional services firm, it’s common to look straight at issues with marketing and sales. But, marketing and sales should be one of the last considerations. Clearly, a very important component, but without the support of the other components, you may have a marketing department firing on all cylinders, without the capacity or capabilities to deal with the increased demand, which means you don’t grow at all and instead, you create chaos.

What is so interesting with professional services firms, is that they have no idea what their staff will be doing in he short to medium term.

If this is true, then how do you know that the number of staff you have is correct? Is it 1 too many or 1 not enough? And further, how do you know you have the correct capabilities and mix of staff in the correct areas?

In most cases you don’t know the correct number of staff or what capabilities you should have, the firm has been built around the capabilities of the owners and the organisational structure that has developed – which allows for the firm to generate its current billing performance.

The 5 steps to growing your professional service firm can occur concurrently and it is not a suggestion that you need to complete one before moving to the next.

It’s also important to understand that this document does not contemplate acquisition as a growth strategy, this document is focused on growing organically. However, growing by acquisition will still require consideration of the 5 steps, there is just added consideration such as what are you buying, cultural fit, premises, staff integration, organisational structure etc.

Step One: Ownership Structure

This is more important than you may think. It all starts with the owners. All the owners of the business need to be aligned around growth and the plan to grow. Importantly (and this seems common sense), all owners must want to grow and they need to understand what growing a professional services firm involves.

This can be difficult when you have owners at different stages of their career. The younger owner wants to push and grow, the owner closer to retirement wants steady and comfortable. The younger owner is happy to change the team structure and internal processes. The older owner doesn’t see the need – its been working for a long time now.

The two biggest considerations with growth is being able to give up some control and the willingness to change.

Giving up some control may mean that the owners don’t review all the work, or they don’t hold the key client relationship. A thought that may be foreign to 1 to 3 partner professional services firms.

Owners need to embrace change that can support growth. This may include investing in technology, changing the staff structure, changing the role that owners play in the firm. Owners need to play to their strengths. Change is not an easy concept to move with and as mentioned, all owners need to be aligned.

Two quotes spring to mind on change, from legendary CEO of General Electric, Jack Welsh.

“Change before you have to”
“If the rate of change on the outside, is faster than the rate of change on the inside, the end is near” – Jack Welsh

Step Two: Team Structure and Capabilities

The second factor contributing to enabling growth in a professional services firm, is the team structure and their capabilities. This ultimately leads to the billing capacity of the firm which underpins growth and is a critical component of “increase supply and the demand will follow”. Clearly, you need to have appropriate capacity to handle future increased demand.

At this point, a review of your team structure and the capabilities within the team is critical as is projecting what the team structure may look like in one or two years. Do you have the right people in the right spots? What capabilities do you require for the services you provide? Where are the gaps? Who in the team can lead other people? Who in the team can take work off the owners to enable the owners to spend time growing the business and / or doing what they do best?

Team structure and the capabilities of the team can be a limiting factor on capacity and therefore billing performance. If the team structure is wrong (as in all roads lead to the owners) and the capabilities of the team are poor or lacking in areas (once again, all roads leading to the owners), then this is a limiting factor on the capacity of the firm and ultimately its growth. This is typically what a flat structure professional services firm looks like (with all roads leading to owners).

Improvement can be made in this area by re organising the team structure to a deeper structure, which allows team members to be more independent of the owners. It allows for delegation which creates efficiency. A deeper structure can be achieved by developing or hiring the capabilities that are missing. This process to improve the team structure may take some time and something often overlooked is the ability of team members who would be suddenly managing staff in a deeper structure – do they have the capabilities to do this? What additional skills need to be taught to manage other people and their work? They may be great technically, but can they handle the softer skills required when managing people and workflow?

Step Three: Systems and Processes

The systems and process of the firm are extremely important. Coupled with the team structure and capabilities, they can have a large bearing on the efficiencies of your business and ultimately its capacity to both serve the existing team structure and also to facilitate growth.

It’s a given, every professional services firm will have systems and processes. But the questions to ask around these are:

  • Do you have a workflow map, for how you do everything in the business? Templates, checklists, procedures, FAQ’s?
  • Are you striving for the best practice in everything you do?
  • How efficient are your systems and processes?
  • Are they constantly updated, challenged and changed or do staff have a ‘this is how its always been done’ attitude?
  • Have you changed processes with technology, to be more efficient?
  • Are you paperless or less paper (electronic storage, retrieval, processing and delivery)?

If you are a ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ to the above and the firm is in a little bit of chaos now, if you grow, you are going to compound the problem. This is why we haven’t hit marketing and sales yet in this chapter. You need the strong support of these other areas to enable your marketing and sales efforts to be effective.

Step Four: Marketing and Sales

Without realising it (or you may), your professional services firm will likely have 1 to 5 areas of focus. This is the first step in your Marketing and Sales plan. It is important you define your areas of focus. Not just for you, but also the team (and your clients) and the services offered in each area.

‘The first step in a marketing and sales plan is to understand your areas of focus’

Its important your areas of focus and the potential clients within these areas are the ones you want to work with.

Its just as important to understand your areas of focus and the services you provide as it is the ones you don’t provide. You can’t offer a service for everybody, so being really clear on your services and areas of focus allows you to say ‘no’ to a potential matter – as its not what you do, you don’t have the appropriate skills, you’ll be inefficient, it will be risky because you don’t have the appropriate IP, capabilities, etc.

The benefits of having areas of focus (the more niche, usually the better), is the IP you create in these areas, the systems and processes used, the services you offer can be refined, you can become an expert in that field and it can give great clarity with your marketing efforts.

From these areas, it is about creating a logical marketing plan to support these areas. Its likely that a marketing plan for each area will be slightly different, as they focus on different markets, different clients, different referral partners, different ways to generate leads and its important you understand these.

Sure, it’s important to market the firm but general marketing can only do so much, its within each area of focus and having a specific marketing plan focused on each area, where a marketing plan can become really effective. Its also important to not just think of your marketing plan as an external plan, you can use / have a strategy to focus on existing clients to the firm. Especially as clients will come to you for a matter and you may not hear from them until the next matter. How are you keeping in touch with these clients? How are you communicating and educating them on what other services you can provide them?

Each area of focus should have a plan for how you communicate, educate and ultimately engage potential clients in each area of focus. Being an educator is a really important consideration. It can separate you from the herd and can demonstrate how you can add value.

The role of Marketing is to generate leads. Once a lead comes in, then the ‘sales’ part of the process takes over. This in basic terms should allow you to qualify the lead, propose to the lead and then to win the lead as a client.

In basic terms, it’s likely that leads come into the business regularly, but may not be identified or tracked. A lead can come via referral or the phone ringing with a new matter. Understanding the lead, where it came from, how it generated and how its been dealt with/converted is critical information needed to improve your sales process (and will allow you to document it also).

At this step, it’s important you have system and structure to your sales process.

A process that considers:

  • At what stage do you make contact with a lead?
  • Is it via email or a phone call?
  • Who handles this?
  • Who asks screening questions of the client?
  • What questions do you ask?
  • Do you have a template for this?
  • How do you propose to or engage the client?
  • How long do you wait before making contact after a proposal has been sent?
  • Do you only present proposals in person?
  • How are you adding value to the client?
  • How are you demonstrating this?

All of these steps may be different for each way a lead comes in and for each area of focus. Its important to be measuring your leads and sales process and people involved to be clear on their roles. What gets measured, gets managed.

An example of a marketing and sales process in step form:

Areas of focus

  • Identify your areas, aligned with team capabilities and services provided
  • Build or buy a prospect list, or be found via google (or both)
  • Build IP, systems, processes, templates, checklists
  • Identify referral partners who have similar area of focus


Communicate to your areas of focus, via:

  • Digital
  • Phone calls
  • Letter
  • Trade show/conference events
  • Seminars
  • Newsletters
  • Podcasts
  • Targeted WOW Pack

Value/Points of Difference

  • How are you demonstrating value in your communications?
  • This usually means you are educating the client on something they didn’t know
  • Also highlights your points of difference to your competition

Sales Process

  1. Lead is received via:
  • Email
  • Phone
  • Web form
  • Referral

2. Qualify Leads:

  • Are they your target client?
  • Ask questions to understand the needs of the client and demonstrate your value

3. Propose to lead

4. Close

Step five: Identify and Communicate Opportunities/Value Added Services

The fifth and final step to growing your professional services firm and for once, not the most important step. Think of this step as the ‘cherry on top’. This has the opportunity to occur if your team structure and capabilities and systems and processes are such that your staff are enabled to do this.

This step centres on the capabilities of your staff to identify and communicate opportunities to clients. This is a clear sign of a high performing individual (if you have someone doing this in your firm now – without the support of the firms structure) and can be a clear sign of a high performing firm if it is the norm and everybody does it (as in the team structure and capabilities, systems and processes are well functioning).

This step is simply an added benefit to the firm if it can be achieved and that is, the above steps are so well systamistised and understood, that it becomes a logical extension of each team members capabilities.

Put simply, this is achieved when team members working on a matter, can identify the need or problem outside the scope of current engagement, communicate this with the client and engage (sell) the client for the solution.

This way of generating fees will trump any marketing and acquisition pain of finding and on boarding new clients. This requires a high functioning firm, where all the above steps are being mastered and extremely well documented and understood:

  • The owners have alignment and the staff know this. This is a clear direction for the firm and the team.
  • The team structure and its capabilities are such that team members have the skills and capabilities to identify, discuss and solve problems for clients. Further, the team structure allows for team members to have more time to find and communicate (and implement) opportunities identified.
  • The systems and procedures allow for the above to occur, because everything is documented and so well mapped out, with the systems and procedures allowing team members the time and head space to execute. Time has been created via efficiency and having the right people doing parts of jobs.
  • The areas of focus and the services provided to these areas are crystal clear, allowing team members to match services with opportunities.

This section is not a requirement to growth- its an added bonus. Your team doesn’t have to be offering ‘value added services’ or new services to clients. But if you and your team can, it will be the cherry on top!

Increase Supply and Demand will Follow

Once you have a handle on the above steps, you can then work to increase the supply of your team (in a controlled fashion) and demand should grow to match in with the growing billing capacity of your firm. But all these steps need to be in sync to allow for new clients and fees to come into the firm and be handled correctly and efficiently.

Owners need to aligned, team structure needs to be deep with appropriate staff capabilities, systems and processes need to be best practice and constantly challenged and updated, marketing needs to be focused with a documented and measured sales process – and the ‘cherry on top’ is when your team can identify, communicate and close out of scope opportunities with clients.

Maximise Return to Owners

This section can be the last step or something that is focused upon throughout your journey.

Clearly, all owners want to maximise their return, however this if often in conflict with growth, improvement in systems and processes, technology investment, updating the premises, investment in the longer term prospects of the firm and its why this section is important for owners to weigh up the return they desire versus their desire for growth, and basically the future investment in the firm.

A professional services firm returning 35% to owners from fees is performing well. The old saying for a professional services firm used to be 1/3 wages, a 1/3 overhead and a 1/3 profit. Anything over 40% is above average and anything above 45% is elite.

The above will be dictated by the success of the organisational architecture; being developing and executing a strategy, systems and processes and by extension, efficiency and the staff structure.

I’ve referenced Peter Drucker a few times in this document, so once more won’t hurt. Peter has a quote that can help an owner understand the relationship of return to owner and the operation of the professional services firm as a business.

“Profit is not a valid explanation of business. Profit is not the explanation, cause or rational of business behavior and business decisions, but the test of their validity”. – Peter Drucker

Strategic Planning for your Professional Services Firm

There is no doubt that to bring all this together, you need a plan. A plan to work out what to do, in what order, who is going to do it, its level of importance, when it’s going to be done and someone to hold the owners accountable to the plan.

Strategic planning feels and sounds a bit mythical. Almost like an unscalable mountain. Owners frozen with procrastination, a “where do I start attitude”.

A strategic plan doesn’t have to be a complex document. I’d say if it can’t fit nicely on a A3 page, its too long. I think there is merit in having someone facilitate a strategic plan and to hold those with areas of responsibility accountable to the plan, each other and its timelines.

The worst thing you can do is develop a plan and then don’t execute. I’d much prefer a rough plan and get started, pivoting and adjusting as you push forward, rather than a work of art that doesn’t get actioned.

A strategic plan can be whatever you need it to be to suit you and your business. If you need help getting started, may I suggest the following elements of a strategic plan:


You need to have a vision for the business, that can align you and your staff. A vision is something you aspire to be, that defines your future state.


You need to have a set of beliefs that can support your vision and capture what is important to you and your firm.


You need goals. Usually 1 to 3 years. A goal should be 50% achievable. Two easy and its unmotivating. Unobtainable and people become defeated. Goals can be anything from fee levels, profitability, write offs, new areas that you want to push into, an expansion of office, implementing new software, etc. Goals should be in line with the vision and beliefs of the firm.

I think many businesses don’t worry about a vision, beliefs and goals, but its really important for alignment and clarity. You and your staff know what it is you are trying to achieve.

Then we get into having a strategy. A strategic plan’s purpose is to help your business achieve its goals, live its vision and be true to its beliefs.

Elements of a Strategic Plan


This should involve the production of work, systems and processes, technology used, etc


This considers the services offered by the firm and is a really important step for clarity. Staff have a really clear outline of what is and isn’t offered as a service. Allows for great conscious focus on the services provided and the ability to create IP and dive deeply into the services offered. Also linked in with operations; is systems and processes relevant for specific services.

Marketing and Sales

This looks at a marketing plan and sales process for each area of focus. Be it a mini marketing plan for each area of focus, as your areas of focus will have different client targets, different referral partners, etc. Suggest looking at Chapter 4; (Step 4: Marketing and Sales) for more information on what should be considered.


This considers many things, such as staff structure and any capability gaps or holes in this. Do staff need extra training and development, or will you hire that in?

Do staff know what is expected of them? Do you have a staff review process in place? Do your staff have the tools and resources to do their job? Do they have clarity in their role and accountability to it?

This section can cover so much, we usually start with the biggest issues first and then work through them. For example, you may be needing to restructure, and you don’t have a robust review process in place and poor job descriptions. This would be a starting point to fix and you’d focus on these areas first and then move to the next important areas once these were nailed.

Financial Management

This can cover a few things. Firstly, target KPI’s that may be important to the success of the firm, such as decreasing write off’s to a particular level (and how), developing a dashboard and reviewing it with the key financial KPI’s, having a budget, having management reports, reviewing these regularly. Also included in this can be productivity and billings for individuals, teams and the firm, as well as forward looking at capacity of the firm.