Improve Your Business Development Skills with Mo Bunnell, Author of The Snowball System |


Welcome to On Record PR. I’m your host Gina Rubel and the Founder and CEO of Furia Rubel Communications. Today, I am excited to go on record with Mo Bunnell, CEO of Bunnell Idea Group, to discuss how professionals can develop their business development skills.

It is an all-too-common story early in your professional career – as a lawyer, an accountant, a financial advisor – and you are judged on the quality of your work and the ability to turn it around quickly. Then, after years of growing your experience and expertise, you are expected to lead client relationships and build a book a business. As a former practicing attorney, I can tell you that business development is not a skill taught in law school. In fact, they also don’t teach marketing, public relations or crisis communication in law school.

Mo Bunnell has trained more than 20,000 professionals to grow their book of business, relationships, and career at law firms like King & Spalding, Dechert, and Akin Gump. He has also worked with other professional service firms like BCG, Sotheby’s, and Willis Towers Watson.

Mo is the author of The Snowball System: How to Win More Business and Turn Clients into Raving Fans and he hosts the podcast Real Relationships, Real Revenue.

Other resources referred to during this podcast include:

Mo, how did you get started. You’re an actuary, right?

Yes, that’s right. For whatever reason, I fell in love with the idea of being an actuary when I was in high school. I went to school, and got a degree in it, a Bachelor of Science in actuary science. Passed all the actuarial exams. Takes almost a decade, at least it did back in the days before it was easy for these actuaries now. I moved from a role from being 100%, like you said, about billable client satisfaction, was I responsive, things like that. And was in the situation where literally in one day I went from all my metrics of success being that, to all my metrics of success being client retention, growth, and things like that.

I went to my boss the day of that transition, the promotion, if you will, and asked him for a playbook. How do we do this? How can I learn? I was used to studying as an actuary and I wasn’t prepared for his response. I thought I would get, “Here’s how we do it. Here’s how we do business development, a way that’s authentic and always has your client’s best interest in mind,” things like that. And I wasn’t prepared for him laughing at me, which he giggled, but I heard it like a Scooby-Doo sinister villain laugh in my mind, like, ha ha ha. Like there’s no playbook. He said, “Mo, there’s no playbook. Treat the client right. You’ll be fine.” I have spent the rest of my career building that playbook, science-based, authenticity based, client interest-based, so that how can you grow your book of business and your relationships in a way that the clients love, but it’s also not just waiting for random things to happen. Like the professional is in control.

It sounds to me that Bunnell Idea Group was founded because there was no playbook. Is this correct?

Yes. It’s almost like the classic entrepreneurial story that the thing I built for me became something other people wanted. Gina, like you, because you’re so good at this. You have been at it 20 years. Congratulations.

It’s amazing. At the beginning, I read tons of sales training books. It all felt manipulative and cheesy, like sliding a fancy pen across the table at a steakhouse and doing things in that weird way that certainly didn’t appeal to me. And then there were other great resources that were more about building trust and things like that. And they were better, for sure. But there was nowhere there was a system, like how can you boil it down to bringing in the work you want, deepening the relationships that you want and managing yourself, so you do those things when you’re busy like that’s the crux of it.

It’s been 25 years since I started tackling that, but 16 years since we started Bunnell Idea Group. We’ve developed a system, 17 modules, almost a thousand pages of IP, and literally every skill a professional needs to know to be great at retention and growth.

Gina Rubel: I am so excited to have this conversation. I grew up in a world where the word sale was considered a bad four-letter word in the legal industry. Even using the terminology business development is so important in professional services because of the negative connotation that the word sale tends to have in that space.

Is business development learnable, or are people born with these skills?

I’m so glad you asked this out of the gate. Business development is a learnable skill and the research backs this up and we’ve trained over 20,000 people. I’ve seen transformations happen, unlocks if you will. But the research first.

There’s a gentleman named Dr. K. Anders Ericsson out of Florida State University, who wrote a remarkable book called Peak. Before he, unfortunately, passed away two years ago, he spent 30 years studying the science of expertise and he studied everything from violin experts to business professionals, high-end litigators, chess masters, athletes, and anybody that was great at something complex. That’s who he focused on. And irrefutably, every single time a complex skill was both learned and earned.

The trap people can fall into is let’s, like we both do a lot of work in law. Say somebody’s a seventh-year associate. They’re looking at that senior partner, that’s 60-something years old. They’re practice leader, top of their craft. We can look at somebody when they have their skills that are vastly superior to ours or that they’ve just been at it longer or whatever. And many people can conclude that, well, they were just born with it. There’s no way I could do what Sue does. The way she talks about money or the way she brought in that large matter or whatever.

But what we don’t see is how Sue worked her tail off over 30 or 40 years to learn how to structure a meeting, to learn how to stay in touch when the person’s not responsive, to learn how to hack her habits while she was super busy with other things so that her pipeline wouldn’t go dry. We don’t see that effort. And we don’t see that skill development. So, we can conclude that Sue was born with it. And it’s just not true.

What Erickson found in his research is that any complex skill is a roll-up of dozens, maybe a hundred plus micro-skills. Yes, one person’s born with three. Another was seven. Somebody got lucky, they’re born with eight. Nobody has all 100. They had to work at it.

Gina Rubel: I love the way you said that and I’m just going to repeat it for our listeners. Complex skills are learned and earned. That just became my mantra. I know you quote Ericsson quite a bit in your book, The Snowball System, and that in and of itself just said it all to me. It just gave me more confidence to do even more things after 20 years in business and congratulations to you for doing this for as long as you have as well.

Often you talk about avoiding selling, but instead creating a buy. What is that and how can someone do it effectively?

I’ll talk mindset and then process.

Mindset first, you already hit the nail on the head when you said most people don’t like selling. In the very first version of our materials, about 16 years ago, when we started, I used the word sales throughout, because I thought somehow single-handedly in the entire universe, I can redefine it for everybody in a good way. I failed at that. We switched everything to business development, to your point before.

But mindset first. I think a phrase people can have in their mind is that people hate to be sold to, but they love to buy. And that’s worth repeating. People hate to be sold to, but they love to buy. So that, because we experience that ourselves, we can conclude that I shouldn’t talk about my services to somebody else till they ask for it, for example. Well, that’s entirely false. Clients want to be brought new ideas. They want to have the expert help them see around corners. They want to be nudged and pushed in a proactive and positive way. While we hate to be sold to, we love to buy.

Gina Rubel: Please unpack each of those.

Mo Bunnell: Listen and learn, create curiosity, build everything together, gain approval.

Listen and learn, first. When people listen first, say I’m meeting a prospective client. I’m out for dinner. They’ve agreed to meet with me. And I’ve got expertise that they might need. We get a triple win when we listen first. The first is Dr. Diana Tamir found the pleasure center of the brain lights up when we’re answering what the literature calls self-disclosing questions. That’s just the meaning that when they share their personal perspective, something only they know, the pleasure center of their brain lights up, like the same area of the brain that lights up when we drink Red Bull, when we’re on stimulants, when we eat great food.

Win one is they love it. They’re on a high when they’re talking about their own goals and aspirations and things like that.

Thing two, we learn their priorities and their words. Whole lot easier for us to say, yes, that’s exactly what we do versus throwing spaghetti at the wall and starting with a 20-page PowerPoint of these are all the things we do and the transactional practices, X, Y, and Z firm. We’re going to learn their priorities and their words.

The third thing, super interesting. When people are answering questions where they share their personal perspective, other studies beyond Tamir’s work have shown those are highly correlated to likability. The more they talk and the less we talk, the more they like us. So that’s listen, learn.

Let’s say that we heard something. There’s a way we can be helpful. We’ve learned their priorities and their words. The next step, our second step is create curiosity. Now, this is conceptual at this point. We’re not talking about what an engagement letter or a statement of work or something like that works like. We’re more conceptually turning the lens back on us. We might say something like to transition, “Gosh, we’ve helped clients like that tackle that exact topic before. Would it be helpful if I described how another client in your exact situation solved that issue?” We get into that conversation. Now, that’s more at the conceptual level about how we might be able to add some expertise.

The science on this shows people are dialed in, they remember more when they’re curious, people select somebody if they were curious about their services before. We’re trying to wade into being hired, without doing it. At first, we’re just trying to be helpful.

Step three, we call building everything together. Now that’s where you’ll start talking about how we would specifically do the work in this situation for this…


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