A new twist on business relationships

Nov 05, 2023

Business developers play a crucial role in maintaining client relationships, resolving issues, and ensuring long-term success – even after contracts are signed.

The phrase “it’s all about relationships” is one of the core tenets of business development, and while it’s tried-and-true for a reason, it’s often applied most thoroughly to dealings with your external clients, leaving less attention for strengthening the internal bonds at your firm that ensure delivering on promises.

Of special importance is the relationships between your clients, your “seller/doers” (the technical leads who secure contracts as well as spearhead projects), and your business development professionals (those who seek out, identify, and build connections with prospective clients). But once the work is confirmed and the project is in someone else’s hands, some think the latter’s job is finished. Not so fast – a business development professional can, and should, remain a critical part of the relationship. But why?

Three isn’t always a crowd. Many clients look to the business developer as an internal guardian of their interests, relying on them as a trusted advisor as the relationship between them and the design firm matures. If a problem occurs during the project – and it’s very possible it will – or the relationship otherwise becomes strained, clients appreciate the ability of the business developer to step in and help resolve the situation.

This occurs naturally and more easily if the business developer maintains a consistent relationship with the client, rather than suddenly reappearing after a long absence. They can be the relief valve that enables the client to blow off any steam that is heating up the relationship, and then help seek a course to getting everyone back to a comfortable place. Don’t be afraid to keep them around, ask for advice, or allow them to take some of the pressure off so the technical lead can focus on resolving issues.

The close is just the beginning. Some firms regard the moment in which a potential client becomes an actual client as the passing of the baton, that magic moment that closes the relationship, culminating with a champagne cork pop and a signed contract. The business developer returns to developing business. However, it’s far more complex than that.

The business developer and the new client have likely invested considerable time over months or even longer, sharing thoughts, ideas, emotions, humor, stories, meals, and all the other tangible and intangible elements wrapped up in the package of a “business relationship.” Those experiences are not easily transferred, especially if the relationship suddenly shifts to focusing almost exclusively on the economic prize to be achieved or the project to be won. Then the situation may deteriorate or completely implode before anyone realizes what is happening, and more than just a sale is lost: all the invested time and effort is lost as well. The opportunity cost can be enormous.

To avoid this, the business developer should stay involved in the relationship even after a contract is signed. It’s important to note that there is no rule of thumb as to how long or what kind of presence they should have – in some instances, the handoff to the seller/doer occurs quickly, but in others, it’s much longer. It’s best to approach it situation by situation and transaction by transaction.

The tip of the spear. Business developers are a pipeline to intelligence, analysis, and client dollars, and are the source of incalculable value to the internal workings of approach and penetration, serving as the quarterback who calls the plays and marches down the field to success. Leverage their experience and knowledge by having your business developer contribute to proposals and review the project approach, scope of services, and professional service fees that will be quoted. Consider having them chair business development meetings and offer seller/doers their best advice. Use them as the tip of the spear to lead the effort. A solid business developer will want these responsibilities.

Business developers know who is spending the money and why; they can guide you as to what the market is saying and what it will bear; and they bring you market-driven messages – but remember, don’t shoot the messenger! “It’s all about relationships,” remember? Use your internal relationships to jointly guide the way to success.

By working together in this way, the business developer and the seller/doer can learn from each other, take advice from each other, and lead each other to success in winning new clients. 

Steve Hammel is chief business development officer at Larson Design Group. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.