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Don’t Discount Business Development Just Because You Don’t Understand It

One of the most frequently recurring frustrations of my career is the continual discounting of Business Development (BD)and Marketing by people who haven’t a clue what Business Development and Marketing really is.

It seems to me that in other industries, Business Development (aka, Sales) and Marketing take center stage. Think of the best known global brands, and you can probably associate aggressive Marketing campaigns with them. Marketing and BD often drive the bus at the most successful companies. Why is this? 

This figure is a bit dated (2003), but of the Fortune 500 CEOs studied, 30% came from Finance and 20% came from Sales and Marketing. 

Now how’s that look in the architectural, engineering, construction (AEC) and environmental industry? I have no idea what the real figure is, but I’ll guess that if you combine Finance, Business Development, and Marketing, fewer than 10% of CEOs come from those backgrounds. Five percent anyone? My guess is that construction firms are more likely to be led by professionals with these backgrounds than architecture and engineering firms, which are almost always led by licensed professionals. 

So what background does a CEO need?

Well, according to a 2018 LinkedIn study of 12,000 CEOs, the most common first job function of a CEO – by a wide margin – is Business Development. Oh, and Sales was second and Marketing ninth, just behind Operations. The study states that “Business development jobs require a strong mix of sales, strategy, and communications skills – all crucial to the role of CEO.”

I’m not griping about who should be CEO, but I’m a loud advocate of the role of Marketing leadership within A/E/C firms, with Business Development being a critical component of this “Marketing leadership.” (I’m active in SMPS, and the organization’s mission is Business Transformed Through Marketing Leadership, something that was adopted when I was on the board of directors.)

Unfortunately, I hear time and again about Business Developers and Marketers not being taken seriously because their roles are not viewed as being equal to the “core services” of a company.

Folks, you can’t do the work unless you can get the work. The greatest Engineer or Construction Manager the world has ever witnessed is worthless unless they have a chance to actually do their jobs.

But Business Development and Marketing are not “real” jobs, right? Anyone can do them!

Have you experienced that attitude before? Perhaps this week? And yet so many Seller-Doers – a very common responsibility in three-quarters of A/E/C firms – do not succeed because they don’t have the training, lack the requisite skills, have an incompatible aptitude, or simply exhibit a poor attitude.

A colleague recently described a situation at their firm, where the manager in charge of a branch office totally discounts the profession of Business Development because they don’t care for the Business Developer assigned to their office. Talk about judging a book by its cover!

Now turn the tables.

“I don’t like our Structural Engineer, so I think Structural Engineering is worthless,” said the Project Manager moments before their house of cards collapsed!

Business Development is one of the single most essential activities for the sustainability of a firm. It is the lifeblood of an organization. 

Oh, but wait … it is all about golfing, extended lunches, and happy hours, right? That’s what Business Development really is.

And yet so few Business Developers have time for golf. Heck, some don’t even play golf! (I decided to give it up when my handicap hit, like, 105.) 

I recently heard about a CEO who changed their firm structure and eliminated Business Development and Marketing positions, believing they were unnecessary. As the story goes, two months into the new structure, the CEO confided to a colleague, “Wow, this sh*t is really hard.”

This Sh*t is Really Hard

Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it should be discounted. I don’t understand gravity, but hey, I’m glad it’s there (or I wouldn’t be here). 

The same thing applies to Business Development. Firms that get it, thrive; firms that don’t, wither.

Business Development is about building relationships, and to quote the aforementioned CEO, “This sh*t is hard.”

So many Business Developers from other industries have come into ours, only to leave after a short period. This is not an instant-gratification industry. The sales process can be extremely long. It’s difficult to know if you’re being effective. The process requires a team – and too often that team is not engaged enough. The performance metrics can be unfair. The turnover can be brutal. And the people above the Business Developers, making decisions about their effectiveness and future, often don’t understand what BD really is – and isn’t. 

A very successful Business Developer working on the architectural side shared with me a story of biblical persistence. They called on a university regularly for 15 years before their firm got a first sniff at an opportunity. And now the university is one of their largest clients, and has been for several years.

Do you have the fortitude to survive 15 years of constant rejection?

Wait, do you have the fortitude to survive a few months of regular rejection? Most people don’t. 

There are some great stats out there about sales persistence. According to SalesForce Search, only 2% of sales are closed in a one-time meeting.

And according The Brevet Group, 80% of sales require 5 follow-up calls after a meeting, yet 44% of sales reps give up after the first follow-up. Oh, and it takes 8 contact attempts to even reach the person you want to meet with.

There are many other similar stats out there – some even more extreme. (Just Google “Sales Persistence.”)

Throughout my almost 30 years in the A/E/C industry, I’ve experienced countless times when a technical staff member with Business Development responsibilities (literally the definition of Seller-Doer) has made one attempt at a contact – email or voicemail – and given up, throwing up their arms with the accompanying, “I tried! They won’t return my call or email!”

Would you like cheese with that whine?

This sh*t is hard. Don’t discount it because you don’t understand it.

Oh, and about the whole belief of Business Development being an easy life of social interactions, parties, rainbows, and unicorns…

As I write this I’m getting ready to head to a business networking event. I went to one last night. And the night before. Next week I’ll be on the road four days – some for BD, some for BD training that I’m delivering.

I have a son in junior high school who still doesn’t mind hanging out with his dad. I’m helping to coach his baseball team for the eighth or ninth time; in fact, I’ve been asked to be head coach several seasons, but must always decline because of evening work commitments and travel. Being active in the community is important to me, and I’m currently vice president of a nonprofit organization – but have to miss a lot of meetings. Oh, and I’m married. I have an amazing wife who is running a nonprofit and who I try to help whenever I can. And I do enjoy hanging out with family and friends, trying to do my hobbies – like writing blogs! – and then of course I have the “house responsibilities” like yardwork and taking out garbage.

In other words, I have a life, too. In Business Development, you must make sacrifices.

To be fair, all jobs require some level of sacrifice. No argument there whatsoever.

However, in BD the sacrifices are often related to time away from family, friends, personal responsibilities, and hobbies. Oh, and downtime. Don’t forget about the importance of a little “me” time now and then.

And yes, I’d like some cheese with my whine. Perhaps a good sharp cheddar or an aged gouda, thank you very much.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve witnessed the unwillingness of a firm’s leaders to “give up an evening” to attend a business function. And personally, I feel that it has been getting worse. 

Furthermore, Business Developers are expected to regularly give up their evenings, but they don’t ever seem to get that time back during weekdays. And it seems like they’re damned if they are in the office, at their desk (“Your job is to be out there drumming up work!”), and damned if they aren’t (“What, were you out having a two-martini lunch again?”). 

According to Hubspot, 54% of sales professionals describe their lifestyle as stressful, with a third stating that their job negatively impacts their personal life. Roughly three-quarters of sales managers and VPs work evenings and weekends, and some reports have found that turnover in sales positions can be as high as 27% annually.

My father built several successful A/E/C businesses, so I was able to see him in action from my earliest years. He gave up a lot of evenings, or left the house crazy-early in the morning because of Business Development – breakfast events, early appointments, etc. He was active in the community, leading the boards of directors for several organizations, both business-related as well as community-related. He understood that BD can be a 24/7 responsibility, and he never once complained about it.

He knew that this sh*t is hard. Maybe that’s why so many CEOs have BD backgrounds – the dedication, persistence, and fortitude to generate business are the same attributes it takes to build and manage a successful business. 

In a recent post, I posited that Business Development is Not What You Think it Is. If you think BD is cold calling, think again. If you think BD is just having fun with friends, think again.

Business Development is an intentional process to cultivate and maintain lasting, mutually-beneficial relationships. It can take months or even years. Or, in some cases, decades. The sales process is long and often brutal. Just when you think you’ve developed a good relationship, your Prospect leaves their organization and you must start over. And the same process must be followed again and again, for each and every Prospect. 

Business Developers typically experience rejection far more often than they experience success. Business Developers in the AEC industry can rarely close the deal by themselves – they frequently need the support of a team behind them. And far too often, the team doesn’t come through.

Too Many Internal Battles

Imagine a Business Developer who works for months to set up an appointment. Think about that stat above – eight attempts to reach someone before the initial conversation. So they send emails, try to connect on LinkedIn, leave voicemails, and go to networking functions where the person they want to meet might be. They rely on their network to help make the introduction. They use every tool in their arsenal, just to have an introductory conversation

Finally, they make contact. But the Prospect doesn’t want to meet. They are too busy. They don’t need the product (service) the Business Developer is “selling” (not selling!). They are happy with their current vendor.

At this point, most people would give up.

To a real Business Developer, this is only the beginning of the marathon. They are just getting started. 

Over a period of time and multiple contacts – ideally with the sharing of value in some form – the Prospect begins to soften their stance on meeting with the Business Developer. Maybe it takes months. Maybe years.

Finally, the first meeting is set up. The Business Developer needs to take a Subject Matter Expert (SME) in the field of greatest interest to the prospect.

The first challenge facing the Business Developer is getting the SME to agree to block out time for the “dreaded sales call.” But finally the SME is on board.

The week of the meeting arrives, and the Business Developer reminds the SME that the meeting is happening.

“Oh, wait,” says the SME. “I forgot about it. I’m too busy to go.” 

So an internal battle begins. The Business Developer must plead with the SME to attend, or go above their head to make it happen, or perhaps find an alternative SME to take.

And the Business Developer really should be prepping for the meeting – or setting up a meeting with someone else. Instead they find themselves fighting an all too familiar battle.

Finally, the SME relents, or is volun-told to attend. Or, after a Herculean effort, an alternative SME agrees to attend with the Business Developer.

Now, of course, the Business Developer wants to strategize the meeting. Why are they going? What are they hoping to get out of it? How can they provide value to the Prospect? What questions should they ask? What do they know about the Prospect? And their organization? And their past projects? And their forthcoming project (if applicable)? And the AEC firms they’ve used in the past?

Alas, the SME is too busy doing “real work” (don’t you love when they pull that terminology out?) and says, “We’ll cover it on the drive to the meeting.”


Maybe the Business Developer insists upon the strategy meeting, or maybe they relent and throw in the towel. So much battling just to get someone to join them. It’s only the future of the friggin’ company riding on it, for crying out loud.

And yes, every potential relationship and potential project is about the future of the company. 

Finally, the meeting arrives. 

And thus, the first impression that comes with it. Sure, the Prospect already has an impression of the Business Developer based upon the (potentially) many phone calls, emails, networking interactions, etc. They have garnered enough of a positive impression that they agreed to the meeting, after all.

But what about the first impression of the SME?

Are they dressed appropriately or disheveled? Are they articulate or do they stumble a lot with what they are trying to say? Are they talkative or a wallflower? Are they focused on having a meaningful conversation, or too busy vomiting irrelevant information and an endless parade of past accomplishments? Are they effectively answering the questions asked of them, or chasing rabbits down holes the Prospect has no interest visiting?

The Prospect is looking for knowledge that matches their needs.

The Prospect is looking for meaningful dialogue.

The Prospect is looking for chemistry between themselves and the SME – someone that they could conceivably be working with for months or even years. 

Based upon this initial meeting, the Prospect will decide whether or not to meet with the AEC firm again.

Often, one of two things happen next. 

First, the meeting goes well. The SME gets all the credit and glory.

Second, the meeting does not go well. The Business Developer may realize it, but the SME may not. The door is closed. The Business Developer is blamed for their ineffectiveness.

Or maybe the meeting goes well, and the Prospect asks for more information, or – gasp – even a proposal. (Rare, but it does happen.) Maybe the SME offers to share some information.

Regardless, there’s now an immediate action-item: follow-up with the article that was mentioned, the information about forthcoming code changes or new construction techniques, the draft scope of work or proposal, or something else.

To the Business Developer, this follow-up is now at the highest priority level. But to the SME, it may not be as high a priority. Oh, sure, maybe they were juiced after the meeting, but once they returned to the office, project needs became their priority. Phone calls that must be returned. Emails that need to be addressed. Coworker questions that should be answered. Project meetings that must be attended. 

Now begins the next battle, as the Business Developer must stay on the SME to provide the information they promised the Prospect. Days pass. Sometimes weeks pass. The Prospect’s positive first impression begins to dissipate as they wait for information, even reaching out to the Business Developer and SME to ask, “So, do you have that information you promised last week?” Or, “Are you still interested in the project? If so, when can I expect the proposal?” 

Sound familiar? Has this played out at your office this month? This week?

I know this happens far too often. Or at least elements of this story play out. I’ve witnessed it, I’ve experienced it, and I’ve heard countless similar stories from Business Developers across the country.

Obviously there’s a lot of generalizing taking place here. Often the SME is truly the hero – they wow the Prospect with their knowledge, energy, and interest. 

And sometimes the Business Developer is ineffective – they rely too much on the SME, don’t do their homework, or take the SME to a meeting that never should have been scheduled because it is not with a quality Prospect.

Take any job and you’ll have your peak performers and underachievers.

This is a challenge of Business Development. It takes a long time to set up an appointment, so that first meeting damn well better be a homerun. However, if a Prospect agrees to a first meeting, you can be sure that they have some sort of need. The Business Developer must do their research to uncover that need prior to the meeting, and then ensure that someone who can address that need – our SME in this example – actively participates in that meeting.

Years ago, it was perfectly acceptable for the Business Developer to have a preliminary meeting with the Prospect, determine their needs, and come back a month later with an SME. But research from SMPS and other organizations has found that approach to be far less common than it used to be; Prospects simply don’t have the time anymore. 

Yet in our firms we culturally, or even structurally, forfeit when it comes to BD, and push our Business Developers to fly solo, without a competent team behind them.

Too often companies don’t provide the necessary support to Business Developers. Corporate leadership prioritizes projects over Business Development. They push the Business Developers to fly solo – “Do your job,” they say, even though the Business Developer may not be able to answer the technical questions coming their way. They allow SMEs passes when it comes to not participating or bailing on a commitment. Or give them a “Get Out of Jail Free” card after a meeting goes south, because “They have a lot on their plate right now…” 

As if the Business Developer doesn’t…

BD is a team sport, but if your baseball team doesn’t have a pitcher, or your football team doesn’t have a quarterback, how can you possibly expect to compete, much less win? You can’t. You have to forfeit. 

Yet in our firms we culturally, or even structurally, forfeit when it comes to BD, and push our Business Developers to fly solo, without a competent team behind them.

And then blame them for their “failures,” or hold them to unrealistic metrics because they aren’t in full control of the end result.

See, this sh*t really is hard.

And this first meeting is only the very early stages of a marathon. There’s all the follow-up that needs to take place. The cultivation. The value creation. The regular contact. The introduction of new personalities and SMEs – every stage wrought with its own potential areas of derailment or downright disaster. 

Come to think of it, why would anyone actually want to be a Business Developer? It’s a job of constant rejection. Of personal sacrifice. Of continual frustration with teammates who don’t play their parts. Of unrealistic expectations. 

But research tells us that the top responsibility of the majority of CEOs early in their career was Business Development. 

And there are plenty of examples of AEC firms that do get it and, in fact, prioritize BD as a means to climbing the corporate ladder. You want to run a team? Great. Go kill, and feed your team. (Or if you prefer the less violent metaphor, Go grow, and feed your team.)

Business Development is a team sport, and while it sometimes can be a contact sport, that contact should not be internal battles just trying to get support and participation from coworkers.

I don’t recall which firm originally espoused this mantra, but I absolutely love it:

The most important project is your next project. 

Don’t discount that critical role of Business Development just because you don’t understand it. An 1895 poem by Mary L. Lathrap gave us the famous quote, “Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” You’ve undoubtedly heard this countless times before, stated in many ways, and probably paraphrased it yourself.

So put on the shoes of a Business Developer for a while, and go for a long walk. 

Because until you do that, it will be impossible for you to judge those involved with Business Development, much less discount the effort that truly goes into successful BD. 

Business Development is a team sport, and while it sometimes can be a contact sport, that contact should not be internal battles just trying to get support and participation from coworkers.

(And in fairness, every Business Developer at your firm owes you the same courtesy, regardless of your role.) 

So the next time your Business Developer or Seller-Doer asks for support, by all means drop what you are doing and give them that support. Your future livelihood may very well depend upon it.

What challenges do the Business Developers regularly face at your firm? Do you have an effective Business Development team and strategy in place? If not, reach out to Scott D. Butcher, FSMPS, CPSM at 717.891.1393 or to discuss taking your firm’s BD to the next level.

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