Don’t sell, be helpful

Sep 27, 2020

There are countless ways to develop business without being a business developer, and you are most likely doing some of these things already.

What do you think of when someone says they are in “business development?” The most common response is “sales,” followed by “client lunch,” “golf outings,” and other fun descriptors like, “don’t do real work,” “slick talker,” and “LinkedIn for days.” Most people think about someone trying to sell them something, or that annoying automated sales call during dinner.

When I think about business development, I try to go to the positive side. What motivates me to buy a particular product or service when I have options? Put simply, I want a good product at a fair price. No one wants to overpay, and they want to make wise decisions about quality and service. In other words, they want to buy from someone knowledgeable and trustworthy.

So how can you convincingly convey that message? This is where most technical leaders and other AEC staff tend to cringe. You’ll hear, “I’m not a smooth-talker,” along with, “I don’t want to be a salesperson.” In the professional services industry, we are at a bit of a disadvantage. With products, the consumer sometimes gets a free trial, and nearly always a cheerful refund if they are unhappy with their purchase. We are unable to give our clients the experience of working with us unless they are already a client. Or are we?

I remember being new to an area and needed to find a car mechanic. I was sure I needed a new battery cable installed. It’s a simple project, and I didn’t want to pay too much. At the first place I visited I opened the hood and started walking toward the entrance when the manager came out and shook my hand. I showed him the cable and he said, “Give me just a minute.”

He came back out with a spare terminal clamp and a wrench. Two minutes later, he was done. Then he told me there was no charge, and to just remember him if I ever need a mechanic. That did it; I was a loyal customer.

That mechanic identified the problem efficiently and helped me out. The experience taught me an important lesson: Don’t sell, be helpful. We can all do that, no matter how busy we are. The rest of this article is about simple, easy ways you can be helpful before, during, and after a project.

The prepositioning phase. Prepositioning happens before there is a project go after, or even if you’re just meeting a new person in a social setting. I was at the State Capitol for an industry-specific event when I sat next to someone for lunch. After the obligatory business card exchange and small talk, he said, “I wish I’d met you a month ago because we just started a project.” So I told him that these are complex buildings, so if he got stuck to call me and I’d help him any way I could – no charge.

I had forgotten all about it when the call came weeks later. He went into a few details and our team solved his problem in a few minutes over the phone. All we did was give a bit of help. The next time he needed some help it led to a commission. The lessons here are simple. Here is what you can do:

  • Be helpful. Make an offer.
  • Find the pain. Just ask what causes them headaches, or what causes their bottlenecks.
  • Offer your card. Remember, you are an expert at what you do. If not, you likely work with those who are. You can always make an introduction.
  • Write a follow-up note. Or send an email even if it’s just to say you enjoyed meeting them.
  • Get them on your list. Does your company have a mailing list for a newsletter? Or maybe you can tell your business development and marketing leaders about your contact.

Show-and-tell phase. Just about anyone can tell you that the best marketing is doing great work. What most people don’t tell you is that you still have to tell potential clients about your great work. The show-and-tell phase is all about highlighting the firm’s best work and expertise. Given that the average RFQ response receives only about three minutes of reading time, the show-and-tell phase requires your best photos and project-related stories.

Your marketing team likely has a protocol for procuring photography, but what about the stories? The stories happen throughout the design process, as well as during documentation and construction. The only problem is you must capture these stories. So here is what you can do:

  • Get them while they’re fresh. In other words, don’t wait until the project is complete to try to remember all the great stories. Make note of them when they happen, before they are forgotten.
  • Note them all. How was a problem solved? What went well? Did someone come up with a clever idea or design? Did the team go above and beyond for the client? Something that might seem run of the mill to you could be fascinating to a potential client. Or if it seems a bit technical, make note – remember ideas are used for project descriptions, posts, articles, and blogs across a wide variety of media.
  • Tell someone. You don’t have to be a great writer, or even have the time to write. Tell your marketing staff about it and they can write it up, or even produce some illustrative graphics.

Presentations and interviews. It’s true that more people fear public speaking than dying. But there are other ways to be involved during the preparation stage which taps into your experience. Also, it might be that your ideas about what happens during client visits and interviews is all wrong. If you are a technical person you should be there for your expertise – the things you know like the back of your hand. If you are asked to memorize some lines, they are doing it wrong. You should be speaking about your projects, your stories. Here are some things you can do for presentations and interviews:

  • Go to the walk-through. Having a technical person at a walk-through pays off when it comes to understanding the project. Take notes, give your opinion to the team.
  • Contribute to the interview planning. Have you worked on a similar project? Have some stories that address their hot button issues? Share your thoughts, use your expertise.
  • Attend the interview. If it’s done right, you’ll enjoy it. Speak about what you know, just have a conversation. They’re your stories, right?
  • Remember to write a thank you note to everyone you met.

Keeping your clients. Yes, keeping your existing clients is part of business development too. Beyond doing great work, there are plenty of ways to stay in touch with your clients and continue to be helpful. No one does that better than Southwest Airlines. They send occasional updates and even send me something I can use: Drink tickets! I have to admit, even though I don’t come close to using them all, I look forward to getting them and giving them away.

Think about that. They stay in touch, let me know what they are up to, and give me something I can use. Sure, those of us in the AEC industry don’t have drink tickets, but we can still stay in touch and give our clients something they can use. What do we have that they can use? Our knowledge and expertise. Here is what you can do:

  • Make sure they are on your mailing list. If you’re doing it right, your newsletter or other updates will have some useful content.
  • Connect on social media and follow them. This is the very least you can do.
  • Be helpful. Remember, you are the trusted advisor. Don’t wait to be asked.
  • Do you read professional journals? Send a link to an article or your blog. Keep bringing the expertise.
  • Offer a post-occupancy walk-through after the building has been open a year.
  • Invite them to the charity dinner or golf outing.

There are countless ways to develop business without being a business developer, and you are most likely doing some of these things already. So, write that note, offer your card, get them on your mailing list. But most importantly, don’t sell, be helpful.

David Miller is the national discovery market leader at BSA LifeStructures. He can be reached at

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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.