Making the most of full-time business developers in A/E/C firms is a topic I’ve struggled with and debated for years, as have many of my clients. Like most marketing and business development (BD) topics, the answers aren’t black and white and one size does not fit all. This issue of The Friedman File is the first of a two-part series on sales professionals. It tackles some of the most important questions your firm should ask and attempt to answer — with helpful insights from a sampling of CEOs and BD professionals.

Why is this topic so sensitive and polarizing?

Let’s face it: sales people, regardless of their skills and the results they achieve, are often misunderstood by fellow staff and even the firm leaders who hire them. The reasons are sometimes complex:

  • Extroverted, glad-handing personalities working side-by-side with introverts
  • The occasional (or not) long lunches and day-long golf outings observed by staff
  • A perceived lack of measurable goals and accountability for sales staff (compared to billable targets)
  • A feeling by some that “these guys go out and oversell what we do and underprice the project”
  • For some, there’s an inherent rub with overhead staff (“billable hours are king; we need to minimize overhead no matter what”)
  • Lack of understanding about the circuitous, time-consuming nature of new BD

There are some awesome sales people in our industry. To be fair, however, there are also some who fit the stereotypes, who trumpet relationships that are a mile wide and an inch deep, and have the employment shelf life of milk. But we’re an industry of bright people — it’s time for us to take ownership and establish the appropriate roles, organizational structure and metrics that will maximize the efficacy of our sales professionals.

Are sales professionals necessary?

Do A/E/C firms really need sales professionals? Why not just rely on the CEO and other externally focused firm leaders, as well as seller-doers? Isn’t it the seller-doers’ job to keep clients happy so they come back for more and watch for unmet needs and other ways to grow the relationship? Good questions, but here are the realities:

  • Not all clients return for a variety of reasons — including dissatisfaction, becoming enamored with your competition, and all sorts of business factors that may or may not be related to your firm’s performance.
  • Many of your seller-doers are too busy working on projects or use that as an excuse to make BD the last priority.
  • Your seller-doers may be well-suited to do great work and please your existing clients, but may not have the skills to be successful at building new business. If your firm desires to grow, landing new clients is vital to replacing those that don’t come back and to growing your base.

“I think there’s an optimal mix of dedicated sales staff who are more effective at opening doors than seller-doers, who can spend more time on billable hours or closing,” says Gary Bowman, CEO of 400-person Bowman Consulting, which has five full-time sales professionals. “We have a company target utilization of 73%, and we throw our dedicated BD reps into that pool to keep the right balance. At one time, we put them in the corporate pool and there was no accountability regarding sales force creep.”

Lord Aeck & Sargent, a 120-person architecture, planning, and interiors firm, used to have a BD person dedicated to each client sector. But because of the significant overhead costs involved and the economic downturn, the firm moved to a seller-doer culture in which principals and other staff dedicate more time to BD. “I like this model better because I believe in architects selling their own craft,” says Director of Business Development Cindy Radecki.

There’s a concern among many (including myself) that full-time BD professionals can enable a culture that says, “My job is to keep the client happy; BD is so-and-so’s job — that’s why we’re paying him or her.” “Sales folks can give people an out,” says Scott McFadden, Chief Development Officer at 325-person engineering and consulting firm Birdsall Services Group. “It’s not uncommon to hear staff say, ‘I talked to so-and-so and gave the contact to one of our sales folks.'”

In contrast, 180-person geotechnical, environmental, and CMT firm Geo-Technology Associates (GTA) relies on its 16 vice presidents to shoulder the burden of BD. “We’ve built a unique, successful BD culture that’s deeply embedded within the organization. It’s reinforced through our hiring and recruiting, and through a clearly delineated career path that spells out what firm Associates need to do (including BD requirements) before they can become a VP,” says President Pat Klima.

What makes an effective sales person?

Full-time BD/sales professionals typically focus their efforts on a particular client sector, geography, or both. Some client sectors are more receptive to outreach than others, and anecdotally, I believe the same holds true for regions of the country. That said, effectiveness usually boils down to the business developer’s personality and approach.

“There’s a wide spectrum of performance and results when it comes to sales people — some are very targeted and focused, while others adhere to more of a ‘carpet bombing’ approach,” says Larry Smith, CEO of Haley & Aldrich, a 500-person geotechnical, environmental, and sustainability consulting firm. “The role of marketing is to position the firm in the market among many. Sales, however, should be focused and ‘1-to-1.’ In my experience, the most successful sales people team up with technical folks and deeply understand our services. It’s usually a joint pursuit.”

“One of our most effective sales people will walk through a wall to make something happen,” says Bowman. “He’s very results-oriented and tenacious, and has tremendous initiative. He has a real gift for integrating himself with the leadership of our company, knowing our strategic direction, and then taking initiative. We can provide him a germ of an idea, and he’ll walk away with a game plan.”

Jon Pettit, Managing Principal of 550-person A/E firm DLR Group adds, “They have to have initiative — the ‘internal engine,’ the ability to work past barriers they encounter, and they have to love the job.”

“I look for interpersonal skills — the ability to sit down and have a genuine, meaningful conversation,” says Lord Aeck & Sargent’s Radecki. “I also look for someone who’s very organized — there’s a lot of information to keep track of — and a depth of relationships versus sheer number of contacts. Anyone can collect business cards.” What kinds of questions does Radecki ask to ascertain the depth of relationships? “I ask what kinds of activities they’ve done with their contacts to get a good idea of how well they know someone. Lunch every now and then isn’t a good indicator of a deep relationship, and I look for personal contact versus e-mail or phone,” she says.

How do you ensure that seller-doers and sales people are working collaboratively?

Simply operating from the same client-sector-focused BD plan does not guarantee that your seller-doers and sales professionals will be working together efficiently and effectively. Egos, differing communication styles, and being spread too thin can be a combustible mix. So what are some strategies to address this challenge?

DLR Group has regional Client Sector Leaders (seller-doers), or CSLs. Co-located with each regional CSL is a Client Liaison (a full-time sales person). “It’s important to co-locate these individuals so they can collaborate and pursue a common vision and goals,” says Pettit. You have to have a clear definition of the responsibilities of each. Without that, you run the risk of playing the game of fly ball — ‘it’s yours,’ or they try to do the same thing and end up overlapping.” Pettit adds that some seller-doers are great at accessing a sales person’s resources, while others aren’t. So creating that clarity of definition is important so they don’t clash or equally bad, drop the ball.

Radecki, herself a full-time business developer, agrees: “The BD folks should work in tandem with principals or client leaders because they’re ultimately responsible for delivering services. If they don’t, each may believe the other is taking care of it, and that’s a dangerous situation for any firm to get into. Further, they need to know when to let the principal or PM speak on behalf of the firm to avoid over-selling the firm’s services, which impacts scope and client expectations.”

In a fragmented industry of diverse firm disciplines, sizes, geography, target clients, and cultures, one thing is certain — what works for one firm may not work for another, so a formulaic approach is doomed. What are your thought on and experiences with this topic? Call or e-mail me at 508-276-1101 or Watch for part two of this series: “Hiring the right business developer for your firm.