How do you increase motivation for marketing and business development in a professional service firm?

Motivation is a big and complex subject. So let’s start by reviewing some of the basic theory before considering its relevance to the professions.

A motive is a person’s reason for doing something and comprises three elements:

  • Direction (What a person is trying to do)
  • Effort (How hard a person is trying)
  • Persistence (How long a person continues trying)

When we consider a professional practice, the first priority is to have a clear strategy and plan so that people understand what the firm is trying to achieve and their particular role and contribution. When it comes to business development, the specific goals of the individual need to be considered also – if they are unclear and not specific then it will be difficult for them to motivate themselves to pursue them. Effort and persistence will be affected by the recognition and reward systems that exist – it may no longer be enough simply to say “If you want to be admitted to the partnership then you must develop new clients and new work” – people need more structured goals, more tangible measures and more frequent feedback on their successes and failures.

Most people will be familiar with Herzberg’s model of hygiene and health approaches to motivation. This means that you should ensure that the basics are ok (e.g. job security, pay and benefits, working conditions, supervision and autonomy) before trying to increase motivation through ‘health’ issues such as achievement, recognition, job interest, responsibility and advancement.

The culture of a firm is important for motivation too. Consider McGregor’s “Theory X and theory Y”. Do your partners adopt X or Y? Theory X suggests that people cannot be trusted. They must therefore be controlled and need financial incentives and threats of punishment. If you apply this approach to intelligent and hard working professionals then they will often rebel against it. Theory Y – this suggests that people seek independence, self-development and creativity in their work. If treated right, they will strive for the good of their organisation – this is a better model to adopt when considering professional service firms. The later development of this theory – Social (Schein) – indicates that behaviour is influenced most fundamentally by social interactions. People are responsive to the expectations of those around them, often more so than financial incentives – and this suggests the need for cultural change and the development of team goals, plans and actions.

Intrinsic motivation is related to rewards based on the task – and this is often not appropriate in a professional services environment where extrinsic motivation (that is, unrelated to the task) is often a greater motivation – pride in a job done well, pleasure at seeing a client situation resolved speedily, satisfaction at achieving a good result in difficult circumstances and respect from fellow professionals.

Let’s consider some of the other models of motivation. The expectancy theory (Vroom) attempts to explain how people choose which of several possible courses of action they will pursue. The choice process as seen as a cognitive, calculating appraisal of:

  • Expectancy (If I tried, would I be able to perform the task I am considering?)
  • Instrumentality (Would performing the action lead to identifiable outcomes?)
  • Valence (How much do I value these outcomes?)

It is often easier for fee-earners to choose not to get involved in marketing and business development – fee-earners will feel more confident of performing their professional job and often this will lead to short term results such as chargeable hours worked (which is what they are often measured on). This also suggests that we must ensure that fee-earners have the necessary skills and confidence to tackle the business development tasks we set them and to provide clear and specific goals.

Justice theories of motivation are concerned with equity theory which suggests that a person is motivated to maintain the same balance between his or her contributions and rewards as that experienced by salient comparison person or persons. They will consider two types of justice:

  • Distributive justice – Whether people believe they have received or will receive fair rewards
  • Procedural justice – Whether people believe that the procedures used in an organisation to allocate rewards are fair

So at the core here is the need for clarity around how people are rewarded for their business development efforts (how do you measure and reward them in your firm?) and to ensure that there are systems to ensure that all fee-earners are treated equally.

Goal setting theories of motivation (Ed Locke) are also useful. “A goal is what an individual is trying to accomplish; it is the object or aim of an action”. He offers some interesting insights:

  • Difficult goals lead to higher performance than easy goals
  • Specific goals lead to higher performance than general ‘do your best’ goals
  • Knowledge of results (feedback) is essential if the full performance benefits of setting difficult and specific goals are to be achieved.
  • The beneficial effects of goal setting depend partly on a person’s goal commitment (determination to try to achieve it)

In addition to supporting the need for clear objectives, the need for regular feedback is highlighted. But you should note that Earley suggested that goal setting may be harmful where a task is novel and where a considerable number of possible strategies are available to achieve it. This means that fee-earners might need more support and structure in new business development activities. Kuhl distinguishes between action orientation (where people use self regulatory strategies to achieve desired goals) and state orientation (where they do not).

Day to day, motivation to get involved in marketing and business development will depend on the psychological contract that people have with your firm (do they feel sufficiently involved in and committed to the firm that their additional efforts to develop new clients and work is an integral part of their role?) and the role models that they follow (do your senior partners demonstrate the marketing and business development behaviours you want more junior staff to emulate?)

Like I said, motivation is a big subject. The theory can provide some helpful insights and tools, but each firm will need to examine a range of its cultural systems, beliefs and behaviour patterns before identifying how best to increase motivation towards achieving its particular marketing and business development aims.


I do not restrict access to the FAQs but I politely request that you let me know by email and acknowledge the source ( if you wish to use the material anywhere.

As always, if there are particular topics you would like me to address in the future, please let me know. You will also find a source of more and up to date information on a broad range of management and marketing issues in the professions by checking out the blog where I also post regular reviews of books that might be helpful.