I’ve seen a surge in interest for business development (BD) training in the past year or two since the economic rebound. I believe this surge results from two primary factors:

  • The financial reality that while most firms are still watching their overhead dollars like a hawk, there is more discretionary money available to fund training initiatives that were put on hold during the recession.
  • A reluctance by some firms to (re)hire full-time business developers. Many were let go during the downturn, and some firms have never filled this role. In their place, many firms have doubled down on building a firm-wide BD culture and bolstering their existing seller-doer culture.

In this issue of The Friedman File, I address the long-standing debate about the efficacy of BD training and provide advice on how firms can maximize their return-on-investment (ROI) from training initiatives.

Any discussion of BD training is incomplete without addressing the elephants in the room:

  • Does it “work”? In other words, “If I inject my project managers with a ‘shot of BD,’ will they be transformed into better business developers?”
  • How do you develop the necessary systems and metrics to foster accountability and measure success?

Why are many folks so “black and white” regarding BD training?

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that we need to be more inspiring and exacting in our expectations when it comes to BD training. Allow me a moment to dabble in psychology and human behavior. While it may be true that you can’t change people, that doesn’t mean that people don’t change. It’s just that they themselves have to want to change!

As firm leaders, we need to create a compelling vision for firm, career, and personal growth — one that encourages more folks to want to build their BD skills and become more involved — in ways that are unique to them, their aspirations, and limitations.

I wouldn’t be writing this newsletter if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “You’re either born to be a business developer or you’re not,” or “BD training doesn’t work — the cream will rise to the top.” Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water! Yes, it’s true that some folks more easily “get” how BD works, while it can be an uphill battle for others. And it’s true that the potential ROI for training is higher for some than others (so choose wisely who should participate in training workshops!). But everyone can improve their BD skills and efficacy in ways commensurate with their:

  • Functional role
  • Career juncture
  • BD acumen/interest

How to get it right:

Over my two-plus decades of marketing and BD consulting to the A/E/C and environmental consulting industries, I’ve observed from afar and been directly involved with many BD training and coaching initiatives. Here are some tips based on that experience:

  • Don’t embark on BD training unless you’ve developed market-specific business plans containing actual top target clients and prospects, target professional associations and venues, and other critical information to focus your time and efforts and provide mechanisms for accountability. Any BD training you do must be part of a broader undertaking to establish a firm-wide BD culture. It should be accompanied by role delineation (potentially including modification of utilization targets in exchange for greater BD involvement), articulated expectations, and well-defined metrics. If not, you run the risk of folks saying, “Oh, that was a good workshop,” but coming back to their inboxes and getting sucked up in the daily morass. For many A/E/C industry firms, this entails a significant cultural shift.
  • Establish realistic expectations. Acknowledge and treat “maintenance” BD with past and existing clients differently from new BD targeting prospective clients.
    • Maintenance BD entails:
      • Doing great work and wowing the client
      • Strengthening existing relationships within a client organization and building new ones
      • Curiosity and probing a client’s challenges, pet peeves, needs, and measures of success (for starters) by asking thoughtful questions and listening to the answers
      • Staying in contact with past clients

      This is what we can and should expect from PMs and project personnel, although time, practice, modeling by others, and training are necessary to maximize each person’s potential.

    • New BD
      Realistically, only a small percentage of practitioners feel comfortable and are effective at new BD. But not only do these people exist, but they can be developed through meaningful, well-conceived training and development.
  • Establish mechanisms for accountability. For example, following a BD training workshop, have each participant create 3-5 individualized SMART (i.e., Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound) BD goals to accomplish in the coming year. Then, incorporate these goals into each individual’s overall performance management goals — and hold them accountable!For some, a goal may be to contact five past clients each quarter and check in — employing probing open-ended questions and carefully listening to the client’s responses (talk less and listen more!). For others, an appropriate goal may be to submit abstracts to speak at three different professional association venues, or to join one or more association working committees.

With sufficient forethought, along with realistic expectations, BD training can be a very effective tool in both sending a strong message to your staff and providing them with customized skills to strengthen existing relationships and build robust new ones.

Hope this information helps! Please contact me with your thoughts, experience, and questions (rich@friedmanpartners.com; 508-276-1101).