While it�s always been a top-of-mind issue with my clients, based on recent workshops I�ve conducted, it�s clear that understanding evolving business development (BD) models and cultures has taken on even greater importance. During the last few tumultuous years, most firms have asked, if not required, that staff become actively involved in the firm�s BD efforts. CEOs need to better understand current BD models and which ones may be most appropriate for their firm.

Let’s take a look at two of the more common ones, the Rainmaker and Seller-Doer (or Doer-Seller) models, as well as what’s best described as a firm-wide BD culture, in which all staff are expected to contribute to BD efforts. In many firms, elements of more than one model may be combined, particularly the Rainmaker coupled with the Seller-Doer.

The Rainmaker

Firms using the Rainmaker model rely on a few “gifted” sellers to bring in most of the firm’s work. It often involves the rainmaker landing a large “carcass” upon which the firm feeds for months to come.  In some cases, the rainmaker is a full-time salesperson who’s not job-chargeable. Or it may be a technical professional with a low utilization target who has demonstrated strong BD acumen and is uninhibited in reaching out to prospective clients. 

Many smaller firms have flourished by embracing this model, often with the founding principal as the rainmaker. Firms can thrive for several years employing it. However, the long-term limitations soon become apparent, and even in a robust economy, growth can hit a wall. Those limitations include:

  • A BD culture that relies on a few folks to bring in the lion’s share of the firm’s work “enables” the rest of the organization. Others begin to think that BD is not their job; it’s the rainmaker’s job.
  • Rainmakers may breed resentment because their role and how they’re measured are not well understood, not well defined and often poorly messaged throughout the organization. 
  • Firm growth is limited by the amount of work that one person (the rainmaker) can bring in the door.
  • The firm is at risk if rainmakers leave because relationships and institutional knowledge often depart with them.

The Seller-Doer

In the last few years, I’ve observed an increasing level of debate and doubt surrounding the Seller-Doer model. Often, firm leaders become frustrated with the reality that many seller-doers prefer the “doing” to the selling and want little to do with proactive BD initiatives. In addition, it can be difficult to develop and track meaningful goals and metrics for seller-doers, and even more difficult to hold these folks accountable, given their dual roles as doers and sellers.

Most industry firms adhere to some level of this model, with varying degrees of success. In this model, project managers, client leaders and other mid- and senior-level professionals are responsible for selling and doing or managing project work (most often with past or current clients). Utilization targets for most seller-doers range from 25% to 75%, depending on their degree of involvement in the selling process and the extent to which they manage versus do project work. Seller-doers are the lifeblood of A/E/C firms, and the best ones:

  • Know everything about their clients and clients’ universes;
  • Are masters at listening to the client, understanding client goals and how they measure success, and satisfying the client through stellar service;
  • Are viewed as a “trusted adviser” by their clients.

The Seller-Doer model has its limitations, too. The primary drawback is that seller-doers often focus their efforts on past and current clients. That means the depth and diversity of a firm’s client base is often insufficient to sustain growth, particularly when competition is strong.

The efficacy of this model is most closely linked to the extent to which a seller-doer culture is driven and modeled from the top down, and whether customized BD skill-building training is provided to seller-doers. A “one-size-fits-all” approach to training often fails to acknowledge that different approaches are necessary, depending on an individual’s comfort and skill level.

Firm-Wide BD Culture

Within the past five years, there has been a significant movement industry-wide to inculcate a firm-wide BD culture—one that acknowledges that it is everyone’s responsibility to contribute to the firm’s BD effort. This is due, in part, to firms recognizing the limitations of the Rainmaker and Seller-Doer models. Further, many Gen Yers and others in the firm increasingly want to enhance their career growth by taking on new challenges and roles so as to avoid being pigeonholed. 

When I say everyone’s responsibility, this includes administrative, finance and accounting and HR staff, project personnel and others. In creating such a culture, every manager should work with their direct reports to define individual, customized BD contributions commensurate with each employee’s:

  • Position and career juncture;
  • BD acumen;
  • Personality;
  • Interests. 

A significant challenge to initiating a firm-wide BD culture is identifying these customized contributions and getting everyone on board. Debra Lupton, president of 270-person consulting engineering firm, TLC Engineering-Architecture, Orlando, Fla., says her firm is striving to achieve this. “Everyone in our organization can contribute to our BD efforts,” she says. “The challenge is knowing the full breadth of services and asking the appropriate follow-up questions.”

What’s working (or not working) in your firm? You need to find the right combination of BD that meets your needs in these tough times.