Solving the Business Development Problem

Feb 04, 2008

I was in a board meeting recently with a quality, old-line engineering/architecture/consulting firm where one of the primary topics was business development. We spent several hours talking about it and how they are changing their approach to BD. Let’s be honest with ourselves. It’s a rare firm in our business that doesn’t have top management who feel there’s some sort of business development problem or deficiency that they need to work on. Every firm can do better! I thought I’d share some of my observations, reflections, and conclusions from this interesting meeting, along with my experience managing the marketing and business development function in several companies: Forget about chasing projects and think about clients. Why spend the time and money for a low probability of success and chase a project in a client organization you have no connection with and/or is unlikely to be a repeater? It makes no sense. Go after a client that’s worth having, and serve that client any way he or she needs serving. Know that it will cost far more to get a new client than it will to get work from an old one. But set some goals to get some new clients. Every firm needs new clients to grow. There’s no substitute for professional business development (i.e., sales) management, especially if you can find someone from inside our industry (they are rare). These people have been around, can anticipate problems, and know how to keep people motivated. They also understand how critical it is that certain quantities of activities are undertaken if you want to get commensurate results and, therefore, they concentrate on activities vs. results. Identify the top 5 or 10 prospect organizations. This mandate can apply to the firm overall, or be a requirement for each division, office, or other organizational unit. The point is that the highest potential, most desirable clients have to be identified and at the forefront of everyone’s mind if the firm is going to be successful winning work from them. Find all the people in those organizations who could hire or influence the decision to hire your firm. This is frequently a weakness— firms will have one or two people identified in a high potential client, and they aren’t even the “right” people who can hire the firm! Assign different people in the client organization to different people in your firm. Focus your BD activities on the top 5 or 10 prospects. I used to be skeptical of this practice, but I am finally changing my mind. The quantity and quality of activities should match the potential of the client organization. It just makes sense that you cannot waste all of your time and money chasing after clients who won’t be able to afford you and who won’t be able to hire you back. You have to be nice to the people you want to conduct your business development activities with. Some BD managers get negative and sarcastic about the professionals whose time they sell. They won’t tolerate being beat on for too long. Forget about punishments for those who don’t do their activities. But don’t let them stay in a BD role forever. Get passionate people doing your BD. If someone clearly is not possessed with the passion that enables them to think about the business 24 hours a day, these may not be the people you want representing your firm in a BD role. Passion overcomes a lot of weaknesses. But a lack of it cannot be made up for with technique. Pursue and succeed at winning over a client that fired you. These are the hardest clients to win but will be loyal if you can succeed. One way to do this is to bleed for them. I heard a respected BD pro refer to this as “the religious model.” What she was talking about is that when clients feel they have been hurt by you, they want you to hurt back. Once you’ve hurt enough, then they may be willing to give you another shot at working with them. Be willing to immediately tell a client when he or she is doing something wrong and what the client could do differently. It’s one strategy that can differentiate you from the masses of other consultants who tell clients what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear. Know what you want to say before you get into a client meeting so you can be sure to calmly deliver that message. Look at every touchpoint. What is it like to call the firm? How long does it take to get a reply when an e-mail inquiry is made through the web site? How responsive are the professionals when a project is actually underway? I often wonder if the owners of some firms ever experience what it’s like to do business with their own companies. If they did, they might change some things. Ask every current client what is the best thing you do. Also ask them, “What’s the worst thing about doing business with your firm?” You might learn something interesting and useful. Go back 3, 6, 9, and 12 months after the clients are using the new facility and find out what’s working and what isn’t. This is a great time to sell more work. Why not take these ideas and see how you can add to them to make BD better in your firm? It could be fun— and valuable to do so! Originally published 2/04/2008

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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.