Business Development Is Not What You Think It Is

When it comes to selling, pop culture has given us a wealth of stereotypes. Just recently, Progressive Insurance played off a famous Alec Baldwin quote from the film Glengarry Glen Ross. In the commercial, Jamie is depressed that he lost a sale, but the ever-present Flo is there to cheer him up, and even offers ice cream. Alas, when Jamie requests sprinkles, Flo immediately responds “Sprinkles are for winners.” 

In Glengarry Glen Ross, it is Alec Baldwin’s character who chastises a salesperson with “Put that coffee down! Coffee’s for closers only.” That movie also gave us the memorable abbreviation “ABC” – Always Be Closing. (Note that this iconic clip is NSFW!) 

We’ve seen sleazy salespeople on TV shows, in film, and even in comics. Think The Office and Dilbert. Think used car salesman Robin Williams trying to sell a widow a car – at her husband’s funeral – in Cadillac Man.

But like most things Hollywood, perceptions aren’t reality. 

In fairness, we have a negative view of salespeople based upon our own personal experiences – people who show up at our office unannounced, wanting to meet with us. Or who call us at work trying to sell something that we don’t need. Or even call us at home or – gasp – show up at our door. (Those darn Girl Scouts trying to get us to buy delicious cookies for a great cause again!)

Whatever the reason, we have a negative perception of “selling.” And business development (BD) is just selling, right?

Uh, no.

Business development is not selling.

The Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS) recently released a new definition of business development, which is:

A component of marketing, the process of identifying clients and opportunities, developing relationships, and securing profitable work for the firm. 

Read more here

“Sell,” which we all view as a four-letter word, does not appear in this definition. And “developing relationships” is certainly not synonymous with sales.

Over the past few years, I’ve been conducting BD and seller-doer training for AEC firms. The term “seller-doer” itself is somewhat controversial, but it is a responsibility, not a title. A seller-doer is someone who helps bring in the project and then helps do the project work. Sure, you can call the role “doer-seller” to indicate that the person is more of a “doer” than a “seller,” but you must also first “sell” the work before you can actually “do” it! You say Po-tate-oh, I say Po-tot-oh

Semantics aside, the architecture, engineering, construction, and environmental industry has created a role within their firms that requires their “doers” – usually technical professionals – to bring in work. According to research from SMPS and the SMPS Foundation, 84% of engineering firms use seller-doers, as do 70% of architectural firms and 66% of construction firms. This study also found that more than half of AEC firms plan to increase their use of seller-doers over the next decade. More than half of construction and engineering firms also anticipate increasing their use of dedicated business developers, so both models exist in many firms. But few companies have enough dedicated BD staff to handle all the work alone. 

Personally, I believe the number of firms currently using sellers-doers is low, and I had the opportunity to lead the referenced SMPS research initiative. The reality is that anyone who is working on a project team plays a role in the sales process. We know that most firms in the industry generate roughly 80% of their work from existing clients. This stat comes up again and again in industry research. Sure, some firms generate 90% or more from repeat clients, while others only generate 50-60%. However, the model of keeping clients happy to generate future work is omnipresent in our industry – and in many others (who reading this has only ordered from once?).

When framed that way, “business development” really is everyone’s responsibility. Project issues can lead to lost business and lost revenue.

Certainly, business development is a long-term process that often requires introductions to prospective clients, and traditional sales and marketing techniques are necessary. These include things like attending networking events, conferences, and trade shows; writing articles and blogs; speaking at events and conferences; direct mail and email marketing; following up on referrals; and more. And yes, every once in a while business development requires one to pick up the phone and call a stranger – a terrifying thought for many!

When it comes to providing seller-doers with the critical skills they need, the reality is that “selling” plays a limited role in training.

Skills for Business Development

The SMPS research queried AEC firms on the most requested topics for seller-doer training, and these emerged on top:

  • Getting the Most from Client Organizations
  • Developing Client Capture Plans
  • Time Management
  • Market Research
  • Networking Best Practices

Based upon my interactions with clients, here are some highly-requested topics within the umbrella of business development (or seller-doer) training:

  • Understanding & Communicating with Different Personalities – I personally use DISC for this, and the focus is not on understanding your own specific personality type, but rather understanding the motivations of others, looking for clues as to their personality traits, and communicating with them appropriately. 
  • Client Experience – A discipline within professional services firms that will be in major growth mode in the coming years, going far beyond typical customer service by collecting and employing data that will help enhance a client’s interactions with your firm.
  • Emotional Intelligence & Empathy – Some executives believe that the most important skill to have in a professional environment is emotional intelligence – the ability to understand, control and express your emotions, as well as the way you relate to others – regardless of what your job or position is. 
  • Time Management – The number one failing of the seller-doer model is an inability to balance the “doing” with the “selling” (not selling!); understanding how to maximize personal productivity while eliminating waste is essential.
  • Written Communication – From emails to letters to notes to proposals to project deliverables. Effective written communication is still critical – and in danger of becoming a lost art.
  • Verbal Communication – This includes presentations, but also one-to-one or one-to-few conversations as well as non-verbal elements, like eye contact and body language.
  • Active Listening – It’s easy to fake listening, just make eye contact. But listening to understand is a learned skill, and if you’re busy thinking about your next point – or something else you’d rather be doing – you’re not listening actively. 
  • Etiquette – This covers everything from workplace to meetings, from phone and email to those dreaded social outings and dinners. 
  • Storytelling – One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou, who noted that people don’t remember what you say, they remember how you made them feel. And no one has felt wonderful and inspired after listening to data dumps of facts and figures or company histories. Stories, on the other hand, are critical to information sharing and recollection. 
  • Collaboration – It’s more than just playing nice in the sandbox, but about helping one-another achieve a common goal. True collaboration takes a change in attitude for many of us and requires attributes like strong communication, listening skills, and emotional intelligence.
  • Research – Research is at the core of what most of us do, and few firms are conducting enough of it. But how do you do it? Where do you look for information? What information should you be looking for? How do you interpret and prioritize it?
  • Creativity and Innovation – Sadly, children all have incredibly creative minds, but through things like school standards and common curriculum, they lose their ability for creative thinking. And then AEC professionals come into a workplace filled with codes and standards and processes and procedures and “we’ve always done it that way” thinking, and suddenly the last of their creative juices are zapped. But creativity, and its cousin, innovation, are essential for business, and business development, success.
  • Establishing Rapport & Driving Conversations – Our parents admonishments of “Don’t talk to strangers” has limited our conversation abilities in the workplace. How do you start conversations? And keep them going? And end them? How do we make people feel comfortable talking with us? This is another critical skill that is rarely taught in college or at work. 
  • Key Account Management – Making sure that you are focusing on the top 20% of your clients, which probably account for the majority of your work. This requires providing a high-level of service and positioning your firm for future work. 

Do these topics really sound like “sales”? Aren’t these topics that are just as important in business and project management – as well as in life? 

In fairness, there is another requested topic that does have that dreaded word: Consultative Selling.

Once you learn about it, however, you understand that the process is really no different than any initial meeting with a client to understand their needs and determine the true project drivers and success metrics. It is not selling at all – it is learning and interpreting by leading the conversation in a way to maximize the information and ideas being exchanged. As I’ve shared with some of my audiences, this approach is more akin to a project start-up meeting. 

This is why we need to reframe our understanding of business development and eliminate the innate fear that so many AEC professionals have of it. 

And we also need to stop kidding ourselves and expecting professionals with no training in business development to succeed in it. 

But Scott, some people just weren’t meant to do business development!

This is absolutely true. I do agree that some people have a better aptitude for it than others, yet I’d also argue that if you don’t have the aptitude for business development, you don’t have the aptitude for leading project teams. This is why so many AEC firms rely upon their project managers or project executives to generate repeat work with their clients. In fact, business development is often part of their job descriptions. 

Everyone in your firm has an important role in business development, but those with any client-facing responsibilities are your front lines. Take an engineer that is part of a project team, but not a project manager. If that engineer ever participates in even a single meeting with the clients, end-users, contractors, vendors, or other team members, they are on the front lines representing your firm. They are part of your business development process. Doesn’t it make sense to want to maximize their skillset? If they are nervous and not well-spoken, if they have trouble having conversations, or if they don’t have the best etiquette, these can all reflect poorly on your firm. Likewise for their emails that don’t employ capitalization and punctuation, or their lack of response to client requests in a timely manner! 

Business development is everyone’s role, and companies need to ring out the fear factor associated with it. BD skills are human skills. Business development is very rarely about cold calling these days, and although it is sometimes necessary, few “seller-doer” professionals will be tasked with it. So leave that irrational anxiety in the rearview mirror and start embracing business development. 

Once you do that and everyone in your firm is engaged in BD, your culture will change – you’ll see more opportunities coming in the door and be able to focus your efforts on the highest-value clients, in turn leading to happier and more engaged staff.

Interested in providing business development training for your firm? Only one-third of firms utilizing seller-doers provide any sort of BD training to them (source: SMPS). aecumen offers a variety of business development training programs and modules that can be customized to your firm’s unique needs and delivered in-house at your office(s). Reach out to Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at 717-891-1393 or to discuss a program that best suits your firm.

Connect with Scott

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.