The new age of selling

Sep 09, 2016

Creating a hybrid seller-doer team comprised of business development people and technical experts is a good way to win new work.

As few as 25 years ago, our industry relied almost exclusively on relationships as the means to obtain work. It was actually taboo to use the word “sell” as it implied that we as architects and engineers were no different than a street vendor, hawking his wares to anyone who happened to walk past. Just like that vendor, we only sold to those who happened to pass by. Our only difference was that we were not as vocal.

Fortunately, times have changed and our industry has grown to appreciate the value and absolute necessity of marketing and business development. But as we have grown to embrace selling, are we as effective as we can be in positioning our firms to obtain work? After all, we are just one of many options from which the consumer can choose.

In the recently released 2016 Fellows Survey by the SMPS Foundation, several trends highlight evolving methods of selling that will impact both technical and non-technical professionals in the AEC world. Although seller-doer remains the prevalent overarching business development/procurement model, enhancements to the process must be implemented to assure maximizing firm success.

Market research will drive success. Research must be a cornerstone to maintain existing markets and clients, and in the expansion into new markets and acquisition of new clients. Strong business developers must perform due diligence that dives deep into their firm’s market sectors and analyzes those trends that impact our industry, such as the economic environment, population growth, and more global issues based on local, state, or federal policy changes or funding opportunities. The most important role of the business developer is to acquire knowledge that informs you about what you should or shouldn’t be doing in targeting prospects. All firms tend to tout the technical knowledge of their professional staff, but market knowledge is the real differentiator of successful firms.

Focus on where the work is and will be. Random business development, based on meeting people at conferences and networking events, may help to build relationships but will not accelerate growth. Your business development professionals will need to not just focus on where the work is, but also on where the work will be. The effort must be much more strategic as the primary function of selling is to secure the future of the firm, not simply the present. You must be able to address these questions: What markets will be relevant a year from now or five years from now? How can you position your firm to be a leader and not a follower in the market?

Technology is a liberator. The good news about research is that it doesn’t take an army to dig up information in this digital age. What was once reserved for only the largest and most affluent firms is now easily accomplished by any firm willing to devote time to the process. Research is now just a click away.

Just as important as external research is cataloging, maintaining, and updating internal knowledge. Otherwise, you are perpetually recreating your firm history and record of what makes your firm unique and most qualified. Utilizing a robust CRM platform which is geared toward the AEC industry is a wise decision and will pay long-term dividends on that investment of time and capital.

Business development training for all staff. State statutes require most of us to participate in continuing education as a condition for maintaining our licensure. We understand that absent this continuous learning experience, the technical training we received in college will become dated and hinder our ability to provide quality service to our clients. However, what was missing from most of our collegiate experiences was training in how to market and sell.

Given that selling is the lifeblood of our firms, we cannot afford not to invest in training our staffs in how to best accomplish this all-important task. And who best to train your technical people in selling than your business development and marketing staff? Not only will your technical staff be better prepared, but your non-technical staff will gain a better understanding of the technical services offered by your firm.

The future: a hybrid selling model. The most successful business development is accomplished by someone who has the technical expertise to address the specific needs of your clients, combined with the market knowledge to position the firm, and the social skills to engage the client. People with these skills are few and far between, especially when you consider the old joke that an extroverted engineer is one who looks at your shoes instead of his during a conversation.

To overcome this shortage, use seller-doer teams consisting of non-technical marketing and business development staff (the seller), to do the research, maintain the knowledge base, and make the cold calls combined with technical staff (the doer), who can convey the specific expertise to win over the clients. This also relieves the preparation burden from the technical professional so they can maintain utilization on billable work. This synergy of expertise is a win-win approach for everyone.

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at

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.